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Democracy Is in the Streets | The Nation

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Democracy Is in the Streets

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The pernicious effect of this ends-justify-the-means ethos is most evident in the area of law enforcement, where the practice of torture and the denial of due process have been widespread. The book recounts several prominent criminal convictions that were widely celebrated as victories for justice in Mexico but would be better described as miscarriages. Many Mexicans cheered, for example, when the Salinas administration prosecuted a ruthless and corrupt union boss. But, as Preston and Dillon show, the conviction was based on a coerced confession to trumped-up charges, backed by planted evidence and the testimony of brutally tortured witnesses. "That guy probably committed a lot of crimes," the police investigator in charge of the case told them. "But he didn't commit the ones that Salinas put him in jail for."

About the Author

Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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Ernesto Zedillo gets credit in the book for being the first president to respect legal restraints on the exercise of his powers. His relative passivity had its downside, however. When asked, for instance, about his failure to intervene in human rights cases, Zedillo explained that his responsibility was to strengthen the rule of law, not to dictate how the justice system should do its job. Preston and Dillon present this response as a matter of conviction rather than an artful dodge. However, as they point out, "his argument seemed to be that it was all right for a major figure in the government party to get away with covering up a mass murder as long as the President didn't interfere with the judicial proceedings." (They also point out that Zedillo didn't object when PRI lawmakers shut down investigations into his own campaign finances and allegedly "fishy" payments he had authorized in the past.)

Years of authoritarian rule had not prepared Mexican law-enforcement officials to enforce the rule of law. If anything, it had refined their capacity and taste for crime. Police officers, Preston and Dillon write, "did not strive to prevent or punish crime; they administered it." And as the PRI presidents shed their authoritarian powers, their ability to contain police criminality diminished.

The problem was not limited to law enforcement. Corruption was rampant throughout the government and the PRI-affiliated unions, providing an alternate source of income and power that would survive the end of PRI rule. Preston and Dillon tell a revealing story of a progressive reformer in Mexico City's first PRD administration who set out to eradicate corrupt practices among garbage collectors, which included requiring tips from all the households on their routes and siphoning off gasoline provided for the garbage trucks. The union leaders told him they would happily end these practices if their members were given decent wages--something his budget would not allow. The other alternative would be leaving the city's garbage to fester on the streets. "When you govern," the would-be reformer told Preston and Dillon, "you realize that you don't have enough money to change the old machinery.... You have to keep going with the old systems so that the city can keep going."

For years Mexico was known as Latin America's "perfect dictatorship" because of the PRI's exceptional ability to co-opt as well as coerce, to deliver tangible benefits to large portions of its population even as it lined the pockets of its party leaders and union bosses. The PRI's relative "perfection" helps explain why it took Mexico longer than other countries in the region to make the transition to electoral democracy.

But Mexicans seem to be wasting little time catching up with the rest of Latin America in discovering the limits of what they can achieve through their elections. In countries throughout the region, economies are contracting, poverty growing, income inequality widening, political institutions failing, corruption scandals blossoming and--as a result of these trends--democracy has been losing its luster. It is more painfully clear than ever that full democracy requires more than fair elections. It requires that government officials be accountable for their actions--especially when those actions are criminal. And it requires that they address the basic needs of their populations.

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