Corruption hurting Mexico’s fight against crime, Calderon says

Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Tuesday said his government was making strides against corruption but warned that graft remained a threat to the nation’s efforts against crime.

Calderon, speaking on International Anti-Corruption Day, said 11,500 public servants had been sanctioned for corruption since he took office in December 2006. Fines against them totaled more than $300 million, he said.

The president said his administration had broken up corruption rings in the state-owned oil company and in Mexican customs and public works agencies.

“This government is a government of open doors and without secrets,” he said.

Mexico has long been rife with corruption, which ranges from the small bribes that motorists pay traffic officers to the suitcases of cash that drug traffickers have delivered to law enforcement authorities. Ordinary Mexicans routinely pay bribes to get telephone service, loans and even parking spaces.

A study this year by Transparency Mexico found that Mexicans paid about $2.6 billion in bribes in 2007, or more than $24 each on average.

Police corruption is among the biggest hurdles facing Calderon’s 2-year-old campaign against drug trafficking. Many police officers, especially at the state and municipal levels, are paid by smuggling groups to provide protection and tip them off to pending police actions.

That infiltration has reached into the top ranks of the Calderon government. In recent months, more than a dozen ranking or former officials have been arrested on charges of passing tips to drug gangs.

Noe Ramirez Mandujano, the nation’s former top anti-drug prosecutor, was arrested last month on suspicion of accepting $450,000 in exchange for sharing intelligence with traffickers based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.

Calderon administration officials say the spate of arrests, part of a drive called Operation Cleanup, shows that he is serious about rooting out corruption in law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Congress approved some safeguards against police abuses and voted to allow use of undercover agents and taped conversations against drug cartels.

Calderon said the government faces international crime networks that challenge its authority in regions of Mexico. He said corruption also hurts Mexicans by undermining the country’s competitiveness and eroding confidence in government institutions.

Mexican government agencies operate more openly than in past decades thanks to reforms, such as a 2002 freedom-of-information law that gives residents the right to scrutinize officials’ salaries and other details of government operations.

But Calderon said too few government agencies had citizen oversight. He also called on schools, civic organizations and the media to help youngsters develop greater respect for the rule of law.

Ellingwood is a Times staff writer.