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On the take -- and on camera in Mexico

Nation goes high-tech in cracking down on corruption. `We had to become like Agent 007,' one official says.

January 14, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — 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.

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