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Some things in Mexico seem to never change

The Bite is Alive and Well in Mexico

Di no a la mordida"LA MORDIDA", translation "the bite" is the term used for a bribe in this country. It is the traditional and customary way of getting things done. The bureaucrat who does your bidding takes a bite out of the cost of completing your objective. Mexican reformers are trying to change this condition with little success. It is so institutionalized that it could take decades before the situation changes appreciably. Bribing a cop, a judge or a permit agent is not the exclusive domain of Mexico. News stories about bribery scandals in the United States are not uncommon but in Mexico it is a way of life instead of an aberration in the system.

Payoffs in the U.S. are usually in the form of political favors, exchanged for campaign contributions. In Mexico it is endemic to almost all agencies of government: Treasury, immigration, customs, commerce commissions, police, judges, planning departments and even lawyers who will "throw" your case to your opponent in a law suit. It is a customary way of doing business in Mexico and most Mexicanos treat it with a shrug of the shoulders. They complain about it but accept it stoically as a way of life.

Prior to President Salinas De Gortari, Mexican customs was a joke. Everybody knew that if you wanted to bring contraband across the border it wasn't a question of whether you could get away with it but how much of a bribe would be necessary. I can remember how we applauded the new president (Gortari) for his courage and cunning in attacking the customs department by training 3000 new agents in secret and then replacing all of the "old guard" in one day with his cadre of newly trained recruits; sporting new uniforms to underscore what we thought was the beginning of a new day. Today, it is back to business as usual at the border. It requires a little more discretion, and perhaps a heftier payoff, but the result is the same: if you want to bring something across the border without paying the normal duty it can be accomplished.

It should also be noted that the "great reformer" Gortari, along with his brother Raul, turned out to be the biggest recipients of graft in the history of Mexico. There is overwhelmingly evidence that Raul took huge payoffs from drug cartels (80 million dollars in Swiss Accounts traced to drug moneys). No one believes that Raul did this without the president's knowledge. Here again, Mexicanos treat national injustice with fatalistic acceptance: Carlos Salinas De Gortari lives in self imposed exile and protected by Mexico's historical tradition of allowing former presidents to be left alone no matter how big the rip off.

Privatization of the banks and other government entities was applauded by free enterprise enthusiasts around the world during the Salinas regime. I was also a big supporter of what we then called Salinastroica, comparing it to the downfall of Communism. We now know that privatizing federal assets mostly benefited the president's wealthy friends and associates who were awarded the nation's treasures.

When I first began representing foreign investment clients in Mexico I thought: "man what a convenient tool this mordida". I even included the cost of payoffs in my fees, having prearranged the bite amount with corresponding officials. When a new bureaucrat took over a permit agency I would invite the new player to breakfast and strike a deal as to how much he would receive from each of my transactions.

That is correct folks, I was a bribing machine and acted in a cavalier manner. A friend of mine, who also thought this was a pretty cool way of doing business, called it "Pay as you go public service". The rationale was that government officials were paid so poorly and the tax rate so low that mordida was a sensible and expedient way of equalizing the bureaucrats income. It all seemed very harmless and expeditious in contrast to the U.S. where we often jump through ridiculous hoops, endure long delays and unreasonable costs in order to obtain approval for a transaction.

I believed, when leaving the U.S., that there were too many restrictions in my homeland, too many prohibitions in the name of the public good. The saying I liked in my adopted country is: "In Mexico anything is possible". After fifteen years of doing business in Mexico I no longer look at Mordida as convenience. I now see it for what it really is: part and parcel to a greater evil that robs Mexicanos and foreign investors of their basic human rights to freedom and justice. I must admit to my good friend Michael Bircumshaw, the editor of the formerly mentioned fine newspaper, that I was wrong. Regular readers of Michael's jounal know he has always stood firmly against the paying of Mordida. He has written and published numerous articles condemning it.

What has turned me around are the instances of injustice that have victimized my clients and friends. Here are just a couple of recent examples: Last year a client of mine bought a home in an exclusive Ensenada subdivision whose primary asset is an unobstructed view of the Pacific. The subdivision developer had guarantees by the city of Ensenada and the law that no one homeowner could obstruct the view of another homeowner. This guarantee was in the form of a contract with the city; to defer all rights of construction plans to prior approval by the homeowner's design committee. The law "protected" the homeowners because the subdivision rules and regulations were published in the "Periodico Official", the state's legal publication, which in effect makes it law.

The city of Ensenada broke the law by granting a building permit to my client's neighbor, whose building plans obliterated their view, despite a rejection of those plans by the homeowner's design committee. When I appealed this decision to the city attorney he agreed that the city was breaking the law but that he did not wish to place the law above his working relationship with another city official, in this case, the Planning Department Director of Ensenada. I was appalled when he told me it was in my best interests and that of the litigating attorney to take the case to trial since we would make more money representing the client. He also indicated that our client would obviously win the case because the law was clearly broken. When I pointed out to the city attorney that my client would suffer economically and that it was his obligation, as counsel for Ensenada, to uphold the law he simply gave me a vacant look without responding to me verbally.

Last month, an Ensenada doctor friend, was treating a retired Navy Seal who died alone in his apartment. When last visited by the doctor the deceased had $1,200 in cash and was wearing his Navy Seal ring. The police were called when neighbors were concerned about the man's non response to knocks on his door. When the doctor, on behalf of the deceased's family, went to the police station of Ensenada to recover his personal belongings, the police denied having anything. The doctor protested profusely; declaring he knew the dead man's belongings, including cash, were recovered by the cops. The police also refused to divulge the name of the police officer who found the body. In anger the doctor accused the department of theft and lying to cover it up. The next day my doctor friend was visited, at his medical office, by a policeman who refused to divulge his name and warned the doctor that he should just leave the incident alone.

There are more notable abuses of the law and authority that have made international news: The 1998 assassination of 40 pro Zapatista indigenous in Chiapas, mostly women and children. They were gunned down by a paramilitary unit, supported by the town's mayor and leadership, who used these goons to keep the Indians in line. Also in 1998, the state of Morelos' citizens called for the resignation of the governor whose personally selected police unit, formed to investigate kidnappings, were found to be the leaders of the kidnapping ring. Morelos leads the nation in kidnappings with 360 victims in 1997.

PRI Party logoIn Chiapas, the Chamula Indians obligate their tribesmen to be members of the ruling PRI party. Anyone in the tribe who prefers membership in a different party or even criticizes the PRI is ostracized and driven from their tribal lands. The PRI maintains this loyalty by providing the Chamulas with the Coca Cola franchise for the region. Big time mordida.

I no longer pay mordida to Mexican officialdom. I love this country and its people too much to contribute, even in the smallest way, to a system of impunity for the law. Impunity that has led to a social and political milieu that contributes to abuse, suffering and loss. Loss of rights, freedom and, as in the recent Chiapas incident, the loss of life. If your traveling in Mexico and a cop stops you for an alleged traffic violation offer to accompany him to the police station to pay the ticket. Most often he will not want to spend the time and let you go. If you do pay the fine it will most likely be considerably less than the bribe. You will be honoring the law and honoring the freedom of Mexicanos.


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