Mexico's anti-corruption enforcement regime, the National Anti-Corruption System (NAS), was adopted by Mexico's Congress on July 6, 2016, and approved by President Peña Nieto on July 18, 2016.1 While approval of the NAS marked an important step forward in Mexico's reform efforts, since that time the NAS has suffered a series of setbacks and delays, as the Peña Nieto government has stalled implementation of many key aspects of the NAS.2 Nevertheless, as the recent resignation of Mexico's attorney general, Raúl Cervantes, demonstrates, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. A longtime member of the ruling PRI party and a close ally of President Peña Nieto, Cervantes cited the ongoing debate in Mexico surrounding the appointment of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor as the reason for stepping down.
Cervantes' resignation signals a potential victory for a broad coalition of anti-corruption activists in their demands for a truly independent prosecutor a central pillar of Mexico's anti-corruption reform efforts. More broadly, Mexican civil society groups, made up of academics and activists alike, are heavily engaged in the implementation of the NAS and are pushing for reforms despite what may seem like the current presidency's attempts to frustrate substantial progress. At the same time, these groups face an uphill battle, working with few resources and against a culture where corruption is viewed as a price of conducting business that will not be easy to overcome. Should these groups succeed and an independent prosecutor ultimately be appointed, companies doing business in Mexico should expect to see an increase in corruption investigations, as well as increased coordination between U.S. and Mexican enforcement authorities, which may also result in a spike in U.S. prosecutions.
Role of Civil Society in Passage of the NAS
The enactment of the NAS resulted from persistent engagement and pressure by Mexican civil society groups more than a top-down political initiative. Peña Nieto presented his own, watered-down anti-corruption reform bill in November 2012, but the proposal was poorly received. Disappointed with Mexico's federal government, civil society groups, academics and activists presented their own, more comprehensive version of the legislation. Civil society groups held closed-door meetings with Mexican authorities to advocate for the creation of the NAS and utilized a legal mechanism called a "citizen initiative" a bill presented by citizens that Congress is legally required to discuss if it is backed by at least 110,000 signatures. In the end, 634,000 citizens signed their support for the bill, forcing Congress to eventually pass the legislation, after trying several times to reduce its scope. Enactment of the NAS thus marked a critical achievement for Mexico's civil society against an otherwise lackluster government-led reform effort.3