The 2021 Global Organized Crime Index findings show that large-scale systemic corruption in Mexico has enabled criminal networks to thrive, and more must be done to address this.

The Global Organized Crime Index results place Mexico among the four most vulnerable countries to organized crime in the world, with a criminality score of 7.57 (the global average is 4.88) and a resilience score of 4.46, below the global average. The cocaine and synthetic drug trade are found to be the main illicit markets, according to the Index, while political leadership and governance are the country’s weakest resilience indicators. According to the Index, resilience is a state’s ability to respond to threats to security, development and justice – the pillars of democracy.

Six years after Mexico established its ‘national anti-corruption system’, a government initiative, the country’s institutions are still far too frail. Constitutional reform and new legal provisions, while positive endeavours, have in themselves failed to dismantle corruption networks that work hand in hand with organized crime groups operating in the country and transnationally.

Corruption cartels

The Index results suggest that criminal operations are facilitated by ‘corruption cartels’, a term used by financial legal specialist Luis Pérez de Acha to refer to networks made up of state and non-state actors who use elaborate operations to launder assets and evade taxes. According to Pérez de Acha, organized crime groups collude with these large-scale corruption networks, primarily through low-level public servants involved in criminal schemes.

These corruption networks use front companies to move large sums of public and private funds, which are then disbursed to finance illegal activities, from illicit enrichment to drugs and human trafficking. To this end, perpetrators use public contracts, real-estate front businesses and tax havens.

Although the authorities have investigated a number of former public servants accused of corruption and of having ties to organized crime, only one has been convicted. The lack of arrests may explain why the Index assigns Mexico such a low score (4.00) for its judicial system and detention indicator: civil society organizations and the media have pointed to lack of independence in judicial institutions as one of the weakest links in the country’s response to organized crime.

One step forward, two steps back

Under the Index, Mexico scores highly for the resilience indicator of national policies and laws, one of the highest for the country at 6.00. A national anti-corruption system, created in 2015 after a reform of the constitution, strengthened the country’s legal framework to prevent and investigate corrupt activities and mete out administrative and criminal sanctions.

The most significant achievements of this drive have been involving citizen representatives in anti-corruption policymaking bodies and expanding the monitoring of public resources. It also established sanctions for administrative offences such as using political influence for enrichment, and collusion and bribery. In addition, an anti-corruption strategy was devised by the financial intelligence unit of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration. However, although thousands of bank accounts tied to organized crime have been frozen, no one has been arrested and no corruption network has been dismantled.

The Index results underscore how regulatory norms are not enough to tackle corruption in Mexico and dismantle criminal networks whose operations are concealed or enabled by state actors. More needs to be done. Law-making must be met with independent judges and magistrates; an equally independent system; open and impartial criminal investigations; a meritocratic system that ensures the most competent individuals fill public-service roles; a reporting system that protects informers’ identities; and the introduction of penalties proportional to the harm caused by corruption.

These approaches are needed to strengthen the current anti-corruption framework and end impunity, and to establish an impartial and independent judiciary – something that is currently sorely lacking in Mexico.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.