Understanding Corruption in a State Supreme Court in Central Mexico: An Ethnographic Approach

Article excerpt

This paper addresses corruption within the judicial system of a state of Central Mexico. Given the complexity of this phenomenon, judicial corruption is understood in multiple, and even seemingly, contradictory ways in this particular setting. Corruption exists in the everyday affairs of this institution through common practices such as tips and mordidas (bribes), but these have multiple definitions and meanings depending on different variables. Through ethnographic work, corruption is localized, defined, conceptualized, and explained in the voice of the main actors of the judiciary. Phenomena such as low wages (a major factor contributing to corruption), historical patterns of Mexican patronage, authoritarian rule, and cultural factors, all have intertwined to produce and reproduce this extended and complex phenomenon in the Mexican society.

Key words: corruption, Mexico, judicial system, applied anthropology

"El que no transa no avanza"

- Mexican popular saying

Introduction

The saying quoted above is commonly known among Mexican people. It means, "He who does not cheat, cannot get ahead." The word transa signifies any illegal deal or activity in which a person obtains a benefit, typically to the detriment of someone else. Una transa can take place in both public and private spheres, and it does not refer exclusively to corruption. This saying reflects a widespread notion in Mexican society that a person can succeed only through ruses and wrongdoing.

This paper is about corruption in the Mexican legal system through the lens of a state supreme court - the highest level of a state's judicial affair - in the state of Valle Redondo. (Throughout this article I use fictitious names to guarantee confidentiality.) This anthropological perspective highlights the importance of taking into account the local discourse and native mores to situate corruption in more local terms while avoiding ethnocentric views, such as those presented by some international organizations (such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and which reduce corruption to a single, negative universal definition. Corruption is more than just pathology of the public sector (Haller and Shore 2005); it extends to private spheres and is rooted in the people and cultures of which it takes places.

This research is based on fieldwork conducted during the summer of 2005 in Paraíso City, Central Mexico, and five other cities in the state of Valle Redondo. Interviewees included magistrados (magistrates or justices), jueces (judges), and empleados (staff members) currently working in the state judiciary. A few respondents were former magistrados.

Nature and Definition of Corruption

The idea of corruption has acquired at least four general meanings. The first refers to a moral principle, something that can be morally deteriorated such as a corrupt soul or a loss of innocence. Second, it can denote a physical decomposition, rottenness, or decay. Third, it can imply an alteration or deviation from normality such as a corrupted file, word, text, institution, or custom. Finally, it can refer to dishonest behavior such as being involved in bribery or embezzlement (Heidenheimer, Johnson, and Le Vine 1 989).

Traditionally, corruption has been linked strongly to politics, law, and, ultimately, to economics. Most of the literature (Barley 1966; Buscaglia 2001; Escalante Gonzalbo 1992; Heidenheimer, Johnson, and Le Vine 1989; Johnston 1 986; Kurer 2005; Lui 1 985; Morris 1 99 1 , 1 999; Niblo 1 999; Noonan 1984; Pimentel 2003) on this subject comes from political corruption analyses, economic considerations (Nye 1967; Steidlmeier 1999), and sometimes from legal studies (Cárdenas and Mijangos 2005; Malem Seña 2002). In fact, corruption as a political concept is the most widespread meaning of this phenomenon. This political conceptualization of corruption refers to government officials taking advantage of their positions for their financial benefit and has been summarized in one definition: "the abuse of public office for private gain" (Haller and Shore 2005:2). …