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And you thought the DMV was bad

Arturo Sandria visited government agencies not once, not twice, not three times. (Hint: Try an even dozen.) He stood in mind-numbing lines, filled out forms, took another number, filled out more forms and, he says, paid $250 in bribes.

But after six months, he was still in pursuit of his prize: a permit to paint his house.

“Tedious,” Sandria declared of his paper chase. “They ask for a lot of things that aren’t really necessary.”

On a recent day, Sandria, a 50-year-old electronics technician, waited in (yet another) line at (one more) overcrowded government agency. He clutched a dogeared manila folder stuffed with documents outside a hulking downtown branch of Mexico City’s government, his 13th such visit.

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“There could be three or four more,” said Sandria, a stocky man in a red Miami Heat jacket. “I could get up there and they could say, ‘You’re missing a check mark or a period.’ ”

Sandria’s ordeal in red tape is excruciatingly familiar to many Mexicans, who long ago learned to weather a day-to-day obstacle course of bureaucratic requirements, or tramites (TRAH-mee-tehs), that would probably send most Americans into fits of hair-pulling.

As in the United States, there are tramites for opening a business, registering a car, building a porch. But what puts Mexican red tape in a league of its own are the reams of required paperwork -- identification, proof of residence, birth certificates, deeds and titles -- and a bureaucracy that can be as picky as it is ponderous.

Too often, many Mexicans complain, only bribes seem to get the creaky wheels of government turning.

So it stirred a sense of sweet vengeance when the government of President Felipe Calderon recently offered cash prizes in a contest to identify the country’s “most useless tramite.” An ad campaign depicted a haggard resident, laden with files, standing before a glowering bureaucrat.

Venting years of frustration, 20,000 Mexicans poured forth with nominations by Internet, telephone and even the postal system, which enjoys its own place in the nation’s pantheon of inefficient agencies. The winners, who will take home a total of nearly $50,000, are to be announced this month.

“The idea here is to have an assessment of tramites seen from the point of view of citizens,” said Salvador Vega Casillas, who heads the federal comptroller’s office, the Public Function Secretariat. “It is the first time the government is paying money to be criticized.”

Calderon, of the pro-business National Action Party, or PAN, says streamlining government and improving accountability will make Mexico more competitive, easier to live in and less prone to corruption.

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The often-Kafkaesque requirements encourage residents to offer bribes as a way around the labyrinthine tramites. A study last year by the nonprofit group Transparency Mexico found that Mexico’s 105 million residents annually pay bribes totaling more than $2 billion, often for basic services such as getting a water line installed or garbage collected.

“This is the same amount of money we are spending on the whole federal judiciary system,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, director of Transparency Mexico. “This is a high burden.”

Many Mexicans express weariness born of years of wrangling red tape. Ni modo -- what can you do?

But that is slowly changing as the country evolves from a sheltered regime, ruled for decades by the same party, to an emerging democracy more willing to embrace products and ideas from outside. The shift has brought genuine political competition and stirred residents to demand more from rulers. Or less, in the case of tramites.

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“They say, ‘If I can get better service at the cinema, why can’t I get it from my government?’ ” Bohorquez said.

Despite Calderon’s call to slim down the government, today there are more than 4,200 federal tramites, nearly double the number in place before his conservative party took over from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose 70-year rule ended in electoral defeat in 2000.

Officials say the big jump resulted from bureaucrats run amok as they sought to reshape the Mexican system, and from the PAN’s effort to codify government procedures after the PRI’s long rule, during which benefits were often doled out willy-nilly by local bosses.

Vega said officials hope to cut the number of tramites to 3,000 by the end of Calderon’s term in 2012 and to simplify them by allowing residents to fill out forms or make appointments online.

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“We’re trying to return to a happy medium,” he said. “To streamline government, make it more accessible, cheaper to operate but also much nicer to the public.”

That last part shouldn’t be hard, given the burden that tramites impose on almost all Mexicans.

For example, pensioners have to report to a social security office every three months to prove to bureaucrats that they’re still alive. Villagers may travel five or six hours by bus to sort out a land-ownership issue, only to be told to come back another day. Registering a car or getting a taxi license can take days. Part of the reason Mexico City’s sidewalks are jammed with makeshift taco stands and card tables brimming with clothing, toys and hardware for sale is that many vendors want to skirt the headache of licensing a formal shop.

Mexican bureaucrats can be sticklers; scratching out a mistake on a form can send you back to the starting line.

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“For me, it’s a way to justify the taxes we pay, to justify all the hiring,” Esteban Gasca, a 52-year-old economist, said as he left a federal passport office that is housed in the city government’s complex. He carried a manila folder and, despite the happy din of an office workers’ holiday party in the plaza outside, a less-than-festive expression. He was leaving empty-handed for the second day in a row.

The day before, Gasca had shown up at this branch, or delegacion, to get his passport renewed. But he was told his birth certificate had to be reissued on an updated form first. Another tramite, another line, another agency.

That done, he came back, only to learn that he’d been given the wrong hours for passport renewal. His plans to visit the United States this month were looking shaky. Gasca said he’d try to get the new passport at a different delegacion, or come back one more time.

“You have to resign yourself,” he said.

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Upstairs, in a bustling municipal office, a trio of colorful holiday-season pinatas offered scant cheer for two dozen residents waiting in a cramped corner for their chance to complete tramites at eight numbered desks. The whisper of shuffling papers was punctuated by the periodic shtunk shtunk of a clerk’s stamp: confirmation of a tramite accomplished.

Outside, Arturo Sandria waited with his folder of house-painting documents, including letters of permission from a city planning office and a federal agency that oversees the historic district where his house sits. Other people leaned against the wall, cradling their bundles of paperwork in folders and plastic sleeves. A woman in her 20s balanced a stack of files; she was holding a spot for her boss.

After four more hours of waiting, Sandria would triumph at last. His permit was approved, his tramites ended. He plans to start painting the middle of this month.

He’s settled on beige.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com


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