There is a famous scene in Shrek the Third when the evil Prince attempts to exploit Pinocchio’s inability to lie (undetected) in order to learn Shrek’s whereabouts. But when questioned, Pinocchio engages in some verbal gymnastics to avoid both lying and telling the truth, generating widespread confusion in the process. Watch:
Pinocchio’s embrace of language that avoids all substance has a cultural affiliation with the Mexican leguleyo, which roughly refers to a person obsessed with legalisms devoid of any meaning or context. In Mexico, the prevalence of this approach to the law is partly due to the civil law tradition, and partly due to the weak rule of law generally (with the former reinforcing the latter). In other words, a legal tradition that often prioritizes form over substances enables the law to be manipulated by those in power to whatever ends they see fit.
The leguleyo tradition was on full display last Friday, when the Secretary of Public Administration (SFP) released a report on its investigation into potential conflicts of interest between the President, First Lady, and Finance Minister, and Grupo Higa. Higa’s principals had provided houses or financing for houses to all three when EPN was still governor of the State of Mexico. At the same time, it grew to become a major recipient of government contracts, first at the state and then the federal level. The scandal arose out of investigative reporting by Aristegui and the Wall Street Journal in late 2014.
As most observers expected, the SFP found no evidence of a conflict of interest on the part of the President or Finance Minister in relation to the real estate received from or with support of Higa. But crucial to SFP’s analysis was the following: EPN and Luis Videgaray were not ‘public officials’ (i.e., at federal level) when they received the benefits from Higa. Rather, EPN was governor of the State of Mexico and Videgaray was the campaign manager of the victorious PRI campaign when the benefits were received.
SFP did not look at potential conflicts of interest at the state level, because it falls outside SFP’s mandate (there is a local auditor that can do that). SFP did not consider whether receiving a multi-million dollar property a few years before one becomes a ‘public official’ could create a conflict of interest with said public official (it’s not defined that way in the law).
Given the level of concern generated by the relationship between EPN and Higa, you would expect that SFP would instead look at ‘conflict of interest’ more broadly – you know, how the average person understands it. But leguleyo tradition prevailed, and that man steering the investigation was a longtime person friend of Videgaray and member of EPN’s transition team (talk about conflict of interest!).
As for the process of announcing the report (which opposition congressmen and reporters had been demanding for weeks), it was a hastily-organized Friday press conference (reporters were called at their home around midnight). Moreover, although the materials were released to the public, the supporting documents were posted in 456 separate PDF files (versus, say, a single ZIP archive). If we adopt the SFP’s approach of elevating form over substance, we can conclude that its method of releasing the information was intended to limit its dissemination. This is hardly what you would expect from a full-throated acquittal of EPN and Videgaray.
The Noble Lie
The SFP, which had built a sterling reputation over the past few years, sacrificed its credibility on the altar of a noble lie that seems to captivate the President. EPN’s noble lie is something along the lines of the imperial presidency (as Pres. Nixon put it: “Well, when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.”). Not only does EPN need to be afforded special leeway in his realm of action, it is also important that he be perceived as a competent manager of the nation. This Mexican noble lie persisted through the PRI’s 71-year reign, but was shattered by its defeat at the hands of the PAN in the 2000 presidential elections. EPN hoped to resurrect the idea, and his ambitious reform package was meant to be a jump-start.
Unfortunately, nobody in Mexico believes this noble lie anymore, and I’m not sure it was ever really resurrected anywhere outside of the international press when it comes to EPN. After Ayotzinapa and similar unexplained massacres, the shooting down of a military helicopter by New Generation Jalisco cartel, and the escape of El Chapo, the Mexican President and his government appears utterly inept. In other words, there is no noble lie to defend.
It is unfortunate that the SFP forever tarnished its reputation defending an idea that is laughable to most of the population. Corruption and weak rule of law are two of the biggest problems facing Mexico, particularly because they exacerbate the other problems like narcotrafficking. Like the Petrobras investigation in Brazil, the SFP ‘casa blanca’ investigation could have marked a turning point in Mexico’s development of a political culture rooted in the rule of law. Instead, it exploited legalistic concepts to defend an imperial presidency that exists only in EPN’s imagination.