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A culture of corruption

Monday, January 7, 2002


MEXICO CITY -- President Vicente Fox is using Big Brother tactics, feel-good rap sessions and sting operations to subdue a culture of corruption so ingrained that kids sometimes bribe their teachers for better grades. The goal: to convince Mexicans that corruption will not be overlooked.

"People must see a sufficiently high number of people being punished for their illicit acts so that it begins to send a message," Francisco Barrio, the federal anti-corruption czar, said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News. "The percentage of people punished for acts of corruption or sent to jail has been minuscule."

And so, video cameras attached to light poles now peer down on police officers, while others monitor Customs agents in airports and along Mexico's borders.

Lie detectors screen out high-risk job applicants before they are hired. Motorcycle cops are encouraged to discuss personal problems with peers to improve morale.

Sting operations have nabbed federal employees handing out driver licenses for truckers in exchange for cash. As a result, dozens of corruption cases against government officials are working their way through the courts, although the campaign has yet to convict any big fish.

Meanwhile, opinion polls try to quantify the vice. One poll conducted for the non-government group Transparencia Mexicana, or "Mexican Transparency," put the number of acts of government corruption at 214 million per year, costing average Mexicans $2.5 billion.

Corruption seeps all the way down to Mexico's children. Some Mexico City high school students purchase their grades from cash-strapped teachers. According to a recent report by the national radio network, Radio Red, the current rate for a C is $7, a B goes for $8, an A costs $10 and the ambitious pay $20 for an A+.

Critics say the official crackdown is just window dressing for Fox's year-old government.