Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador shows his ballot during a referendum in November on 10 governmental infrastructure projects. (Jose Mendez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A new Mexican president takes office Saturday riding a wave of anti-corruption furor, part of a backlash against graft that is shattering traditional political systems across Latin America and opening the door to anti-establishment leaders. 

Corruption scandals and judicial investigations are bringing about the most profound reform of Latin American politics since the shift to democracy in the last quarter of the 20th century. At least 10 former presidents have been forced from office, jailed or placed under investigation on allegations of graft in the past few years.

Corruption has long been a drag on the economies of the region — it shaves an estimated two percentage points off Mexico’s gross domestic product per year — in addition to fueling violence. But it was an intrinsic part of many political systems.

Now, citizens are rejecting the practice, taking to the streets in mass demonstrations and voting for mavericks such as leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former military officer who will be sworn in as Brazil’s president Jan. 1. 

“I think that the tipping point on corruption is close to being reached, where people finally understand they don’t have to tolerate it anymore,” said James D. Nealon, a longtime U.S. diplomat in Latin America who served as ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017.

But as corrupt practices are increasingly exposed, the effect on the region’s young democracies is uncertain. In the best case, the anti-corruption drive will translate into a sustained movement for better government, as happened in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Steven Levitzky, a Harvard political scientist and expert on Latin America.

In the worst case, he said, “disgust for the system leads people to vote for populist outsiders or to welcome with open arms authoritarian projects and leaders” — such as Bolsonaro, who has praised Brazil’s former dictatorship. 

In many ways, the anti-
corruption crusade reflects the success of democratic reforms in a region where only decades ago millions lived under dictatorships. Today, judiciaries are more independent, and prosecutors in countries such as Brazil and Argentina are taking advantage of recently approved techniques like plea bargains to pursue corrupt officials.

Nowhere has the new generation of prosecutors had more impact than in Brazil, where investigators have uncovered a massive bribery scheme involving the state oil company and Latin America’s biggest construction conglomerate, Odebrecht. The scandal has implicated President Michel Temer and one of his predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — both say they are innocent — as well as a vast swath of Brazil’s congressional representatives and governors. Politicians and officials in more than a dozen Latin American countries also have come under investigation.

The Odebrecht case “has done more for democracy in Latin America than 30 years of reforms,” said Luis Rubio, president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Affairs. 


A worker puts a fresh coat of paint on the steps leading to Congress in Mexico City on Wednesday. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Mexico is one of the few countries in the region where no one has been charged in the scandal. Still, a dozen former governors are either in prison or under investigation for corruption in cases unrelated to Odebrecht. 

The judiciary is just one institution shining a light on corruption in Latin America. Opposition political parties and a growing number of civic groups have pressed for investigations and new laws. Meanwhile, news outlets have pursued corruption with growing zeal. María Amparo Casar, the president of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, a nonprofit group, offered a stark example of the trend: In 1996, she said, there were 502 stories about corruption in Mexican newspapers or broadcast media. Nearly two decades later, that number had soared to 38,917.

“I can’t tell you if today there’s more corruption or simply that corruption is more visible,” said Casar. 

Social media has drastically increased the exposure of government wrongdoing. For example, in 2015, a Facebook user posted photos that he said showed the director of Mexico’s National Water Commission and his family boarding an official helicopter to go on vacation. 

Mexicans had long suspected that senior officials used government aircraft for private trips. But the photos changed everything. As the scandal blew up, the official, David Korenfeld, apologized and promised to pay for the flight, which he said was actually to a medical facility. 

The anti-corruption fight has gotten a significant boost from international assistance in some countries. In Guatemala, for example, a U.N. commission has been assisting national authorities in investigating crime and corruption. Its work helped oust then-President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015 and develop an investigation involving the current president, Jimmy Morales, and alleged illegal campaign financing. Morales, who says he is innocent, announced in August he would kick out the commission

In Mexico, corruption was a fundamental part of the one-
party authoritarian system that governed for most of the 20th century, with officials using illicit payments to build loyalty. But the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has lost its ability to muzzle the press. 

The outgoing PRI government of President Enrique Peña Nieto was pummeled by corruption scandals involving his wife’s purchase of a mansion and the disappearance of 43 students, apparently at the hands of corrupt security officials. 

The scandals have been too much for citizens such as Claudia Ortiz, a 28-year-old administrative worker. Corruption “has become very obvious,” she said one recent balmy evening, sitting outside with a friend in Mexico City’s colonial center. “Society is just fed up.”

She voted in July for López Obrador, who won in a landslide. “He’s a very sincere, very human man,” she said.

Indeed, López Obrador has played up his reputation for honesty as he has hammered away at the problem of corruption.

“We are absolutely convinced that this evil is the main cause of social and economic inequality, and also that corruption is to blame for the violence in our country,” López Obrador told supporters after winning the presidency.

He vowed that his government would go after anyone involved in corruption — even “brothers in arms.”

But to the dismay of anti-
corruption campaigners, López Obrador has welcomed into his party some officials linked to corruption in the past. And last week, he told reporters he wouldn’t seek to prosecute acts of corruption that occurred under past governments.

“I don’t think it’s good for the country to get bogged down in going after people who are allegedly corrupt,” he said. He added, however, that the new government would pursue future acts of corruption and not halt investigations already underway.

“My focus isn’t vengeance. I want justice,” he said in a separate interview with journalist Carmen Aristegui, explaining that he did not want to appear to be going after political enemies.

Anti-corruption experts say López Obrador’s plan to root out graft doesn’t include sufficient institutional change and relies on the idea that his personal rectitude will influence the government.

“He has a conception that it’s a matter of will, of deciding you are going to fight corruption,” said Casar, of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. 

The new president insists that his anti-corruption campaign — including a 50-point plan to fight corruption and reduce privileges for officials — will be transformative. Proposed measures include consolidating government contracts into a single office under his purview and allowing the president to be charged with corruption. 

“The people voted for a real change, and I am not going to cover up anyone’s misdeeds,” López Obrador said.