On the take -- and on camera in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Making money as a corrupt parking cop in this city has always been a delightfully simple proposition.

First you look for double-parked cars -- and those are as ubiquitous in this overcrowded capital as sand in the desert. You take your tow truck, back up to the offending vehicle, and wait.

Within minutes, the owner of the car shows up and forks out some cash. Everyone knows the routine. Your act of "generosity" earns you $25 or so (about half the fine the driver would have paid to the city).

At least that's how it used to be.

In one of many programs across Mexico aimed at using digital technology to cut down on corruption, Mexico City's police command installed cameras and global positioning system receivers on 170 tow trucks a few months ago. Twenty-five officers caught taking bribes were soon out of work.

Across Mexico, activists and a small number of reform-minded officials are working to use relatively simple record-keeping and monitoring methods to improve government efficiency and make the country's notoriously byzantine bureaucracy more accountable.

New technologies are changing the way property taxes are collected in Acapulco, immigration officers check passports and visas, and even how presidential campaigns are run.

In Mexico City, the technology in question is a camera about the size of a fist.

Soon after the cameras were installed this summer, the city impound lot began to fill with cars, officials said. Tow-truck drivers set new daily records and cash started filling city coffers. The number of cars towed away by city-operated trucks installed with the system increased by 350%.

"I asked myself, what did we have to do to eliminate the bad behavior we knew was out there?" said Antonio Pineda, who initiated the program for Mexico City's Secretariat for Public Security. "We had to become like Agent 007. Which we did."

Corruption in Mexico remains endemic. This is a country, after all, where one in 20 students has paid a bribe to get a diploma, one in 10 drivers has received a license through a payoff, and one in four residents has bribed city workers to pick up the garbage, according to a survey by the watchdog group Mexican Transparency.

"Technology by itself won't do away with corruption," said Irma Sandoval, director of the Transparency and Corruption Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Corruption is something that is very deeply rooted. It's like a sponge: It soaks up everything around it."

The parking problem

The Mexican Transparency study found that the most corrupt government practice in Mexico was parking enforcement: More than 60% of drivers who encountered an officer with a tow truck paid a bribe to keep their car out of the impound lot.

Pineda gave a wicked smile as he described how he declared war on this practice. The cameras transmit live to police headquarters and also record to a DVD installed in the truck. He takes delight in showing "home movies" on his laptop that capture corrupt officers red-handed.

"They thought the cameras didn't work," Pineda said of the officers on the videos.

In one especially pathetic sequence, a woman who double-parked returns to her car after shopping and ends up giving her bags of groceries (along with a few pesos) to the police officer as a bribe.

"Corruption is like getting pregnant," Pineda said. "It takes two people to do it: the person accepting the bribe and the person paying it."

Throughout Mexico, those who hope to avoid fines, taxes and other government payments have long been aided by antiquated record-keeping systems.

To cut down on corruption in government contracts, a new online bidding system called CompraNet has been introduced. The system grants the public access, via the Internet, to details of all successful bids. In the 2006 presidential race, the campaign of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador used CompraNet to reveal the lucrative contracts granted to the brother-in-law of winning candidate Felipe Calderon.

But much of Mexico's bureaucracy has been late in adopting modern systems, analysts say, because the old ones served corrupt officials well. And new administrators are often scared off by the big initial investment that digital record-keeping requires.

When Carlos Zeferino Torreblanca won election as Acapulco's leftist mayor in 1999, ousting the party that had controlled the city for decades, his first order of business was to increase tax revenue. He hired Alejandro Catalan, an architect who had never worked in government, to modernize the property tax office.

When Catalan showed up for work, the outgoing officials handed him a computer copy of their taxpayer list -- on two 3.5-inch floppy disks, relics from the pioneer days of personal computers.

"And one of the disks didn't even work," Catalan said.

The paperwork at the property tax office was in disarray. Tax records were easily lost -- sometimes they were "misplaced" for a small "fee," he said.

"The easiest tax in the world to calculate is a property tax," Catalan said. "You can find ways to hide your income, but you can't hide a building. But it's still one of the worst-collected taxes in Latin America."

Catalan and his team hired a plane to conduct an aerial survey of the city.

He used his knowledge of architectural drawing software to develop a three-dimensional portrait of the city's property base, and linked the graphic representation to newly digitized copies of the property deeds with the aid of the Long Beach document-management company Laserfiche.

Within four years, he said, Acapulco's annual property tax revenue increased 175%.

Hidden discos

The new administration sent out tax collectors armed with the aerial photographs who discovered hidden discos and other properties. They found that a major hotel built on prime beachfront property was paying just $2,000 a year in taxes.

"It was relatively easy to bribe an official before to make a tax record disappear, because the record was just a paper file," Catalan said. "Now it would be significantly harder."

The issuing of birth certificates, marriage records and other civil documents has long been a font of corruption: According to Mexican Transparency, 7% of people requesting such records paid a bribe to get the document or to speed the process of issuing one.

But the number has declined slightly, as more Mexican cities and states adopt digital document technology.

"People show up to request a birth certificate and they expect to have to come a week later to pick it up," said Gonzalo Bonifaz of Laserfiche, which has sold its software to several Mexican states and cities. "They ask, 'When should I come back?' and they're surprised when the answer is, 'We're going to give it to you right now.' "

At Mexico's National Immigration Institute, officials recently worked with Laserfiche to complete a massive project to digitize seven decades of immigration records.

Alfonso Torres left his job with the Mexican branch of a U.S. company to join the immigration office five years ago and launch the program.

When he arrived, he found an information system in its infancy. Agents operated computers, but their PCs weren't linked to the central office in Mexico.

"Little by little, you cut down on the opportunities for corruption," Torres said.

At most airports, new technology allows supervisors in Mexico City to monitor online suspicious patterns among immigration agents. The agents, in turn, operate passport scanners that can detect false documents.

But if an immigration official receives a shady-looking passport with a large bill slipped inside, he can still find a way to beat the system, Torres said.

"The agent can put the passport sideways on the scanner and say, 'Oh, the scanner couldn't read it. So I had to enter the information manually,' " he said.

The problem was especially acute when flights arrived from Guatemala and other countries that feed Mexico's own illegal immigration problem.

"We got many complaints from our Central American brothers about abuses from the agents," Torres said.

Torres, who was promoted recently to operations manager of the immigration agency, came up with an old-fashioned solution to the problem: new agents to supervise the other agents during peak hours at the Mexico City airport.

"You just can't change the technology," he said. "It's the people too."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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