The Washington Post
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page A15

Official Corruption Scenes Roil Mexico

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service

MEXICO CITY, March 3 -- Mexican television broadcast a video Wednesday showing city legislator Rene Bejarano stuffing thousands of U.S. bills into a black briefcase, the third homemade video aired in recent days that has brought accusations of official corruption.

Bejarano acknowledged in a television interview taking the money, but said it was a legal campaign contribution. That video, along with one aired earlier this week showing the city's finance chief, Gustavo Ponce, gambling in Las Vegas, have become the talk of the nation.

Ponce was fired hours after the broadcast, which raised questions about how he could afford such a lavish trip. Mexican news media have since published documents indicating Ponce had made 17 trips to Las Vegas since 2002, spending hundreds of dollars on tips and more than $2,000 on mini-bars. The city attorney general told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to question Ponce about a $3 million payment Mexico City made for sewer services that were never provided.

It is unclear who filmed the two city officials and gave the tape to television stations. Last week, a hidden camera also captured a senator discussing a $2 million bribe from a property developer. Jorge Emilio Gonzalez Martinez, a member of the Green Party, told reporters that a political enemy within his own party filmed him and that he was actually just pretending to accept a kickback while investigating bribery.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador quickly moved to distance himself from the growing outrage. The mayor had appointed Ponce as his finance chief; Bejarano was the coordinator of the mayor's Democratic Revolutionary Party in the city assembly. Lopez Obrador has been carefully crafting a virtuous image and is the current favorite in opinion polls to win the 2006 presidential race.

Lopez Obrador said in a radio interview Wednesday that official corruption was halting the nation's progress: "The fundamental problem of our country -- corruption -- hasn't been solved. . . . As long as there is corruption, we can't get ahead." He added: "What is important to me is maintaining my convictions, my principles, so I am able to walk down the street with my children and no one can accuse me of being corrupt."

President Vicente Fox also weighed in, saying during a public ceremony on Wednesday that there was one positive side to the scandals: They were a testament to an increasingly free press.

Official corruption is an old story in Mexico, but these public glimpses into its backroom scenes are new. Previous governments had so much control over the mainstream news media that scandals involving officials were often not reported. But Fox said Wednesday that Mexicans now live in a "crystal box" thanks to an "absolutely free press."

But Mexicans interviewed on the street said they did not believe that the current television exposés would end corruption.

What is needed, said Rodrigo Zaldivar, a schoolteacher, is more oversight. "How can it be that they don't have enough money to pay for books for children but they do have enough money to go to Las Vegas?" he asked.

Millions here refuse to pay income and property taxes because of a widespread belief that the money will end up in an official's pocket. That has hindered Mexico's social and economic development. With little tax revenue, government officials have said there are no funds for many dire needs such as job training and education improvements.

The city prosecutor's office told reporters that Ponce could not be located Wednesday. Lauded in the past as an exemplary official and auditor, the finance chief was involved in the government's famous corruption case against Raul Salinas, the brother of former president Carlos Salinas. Raul Salinas was accused of diverting millions of dollars to private Swiss bank accounts and is now in jail on a separate charge.

© 2004