— Corruption is so woven into daily life in Mexico
that it has been enshrined in a common saying: “El que no transa, no avanza” — he who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead.
Payoffs and bribes are the price of doing business, an invisible line in the budget that usually goes unchecked.
But a package of anticorruption measures being weighed by the national legislature could become a turning point in the country’s relationship with corruption.
At the center is an ambitious initiative to impose public disclosure rules for all public servants, at all levels of government. Called “3 de 3” — or “3 out of 3” — the initiative would require government officials to reveal their assets and potential conflicts of interest, as well as prove that they are paying taxes.
If passed, the initiative, which would also compel close relatives of public officials to reveal their assets, would be among the farthest-reaching public disclosure measures in the world, its authors say.
“Mexico has to aim for the best,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, one of the principal authors and the executive director of Transparencia Mexicana, a watchdog group.
That package, however, hangs in the balance.
The legislature ended its regular session at the end of April without taking up the measures for a vote. Lawmakers, with June 5 governor elections in mind, declined to call a special session to debate the matter before a legislated deadline of May 28. Instead, they put off the session until mid-June.
But a public outcry in recent days compelled legislators to reschedule the debate for Monday.
The “3 out of 3” initiative is the result of a remarkable grass-roots effort. In 2014, a change in Mexican law allowed citizens to propose legislation with the support of at least 120,000 validated signatures. Before that, only the president and members of Congress could generate legislation.
The measure, pushed by a group of community organizations, amassed more than 630,000 signatures.
It has also received the support of influential business associations, leaving some analysts to speculate that spiraling bribes may have cut too deeply into profits.
“This is clearly a historic event in terms of civil society mobilization,” said Viridiana Ríos, a research fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a columnist for Excélsior, a newspaper in Mexico.
The increasing focus on corruption in Mexico reflects, in part, a shift in the way social scientists and government officials are thinking about the best way to address the country’s troubles, particularly violence. For years, the government’s main strategy for combating violence was to attack drug trafficking groups.
But in recent years, corruption, and the impunity that allows it, have increasingly been regarded as the fundamental causes of violence and the nation’s other ills.
“The worst problems and challenges faced by Mexico are directly caused or aggravated by corruption,” said Juan E. Pardinas, the managing director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a research group that has helped to lead the citizen push for the initiative.
“How can you solve the problem of violence and organized crime if you don’t solve the problem of corruption?” he added. “Corruption is weakening the capacity of the state to address the challenges of the country.”
According to the research by the institute, nearly all corruption crimes go unpunished, and those found guilty are not high-level officials. Of 444 cases forwarded to the nation’s attorney general’s office by federal auditors between 1998 and 2012, charges were filed in only seven.
“You cannot sustain a political system where people have enough information to know the extent of corruption but the state institutions are totally incapable of prosecuting it,” Mr. Pardinas said.
In May 2015, amid an investigation into conflict-of-interest allegations involving President Enrique Peña Nieto’s wife and his finance minister, Mr. Peña Nieto signed into law legislation establishing a national anticorruption system.
It included the creation of an independent corruption prosecutor, a special court to oversee corruption issues and a framework for coordinating scores of government offices that are currently charged with fighting corruption.
The 2015 legislation set a deadline of this May 28 for the passage of secondary laws that would enable the anticorruption system. The main political parties have been negotiating the terms of these secondary laws, including “3 out of 3.”
One of the most contentious subjects of discussion has been defining whether the asset disclosures should be made public. Many lawmakers are concerned that revealing their personal wealth could make them and their relatives targets for criminals, so they are pushing for a bill that would require them to disclose their assets only to the government.
Still, the public clamor for legislators to pass a robust set of anticorruption laws has been energetic. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico, in editorials published through its news service, has weighed in forcefully in favor of the measures while criticizing “the paralysis in the first three years” of the Peña Nieto administration.
“Three years lost in the labyrinths of words, discussions and stonewalling,” one editorial lamented.
In the meantime, some politicians have volunteered to divulge their secrets even before a disclosure law is passed.
Already, more than 560 public servants — of potentially tens of thousands — have signed on to the disclosure initiative, revealing their assets and potential conflicts of interests. They include about 13 percent of Mexico’s Senate and 21 percent of its Chamber of Deputies, as well as 12 governors and one member of Mr. Peña Nieto’s cabinet.
Among them is Zoé Robledo Aburto, an opposition senator representing the state of Chiapas and a fervent proponent of the disclosure initiative.
“The politicians have little credibility. There’s little confidence in government institutions,” he said in an interview. “In this moment of crisis, we should be sending an audacious message that can reconfigure and re-establish our relationship with the citizenry.
“We have to demonstrate that we’re in politics for the right reasons, not to enrich ourselves or to get us business,” Mr. Robledo continued. “Presenting the citizens with a bouquet of flowers isn’t going to make things better.”