Cracking down on corruption in Nuevo León

Ernesto Canales, Anti-Corruption Prosecutor for the state of Nuevo León

Interview with Ernesto Canales, Anti-Corruption Prosecutor for the state of Nuevo León

Is this new State Prosecutor’s Office, the first of its kind in the country, a reaction to anything in particular in the state of Nuevo León?

It’s basically a new body in the state of Nuevo León and its professional function is unique in the Republic. It came about as a response to the Governor-Elect’s election campaign. His message was focused on somehow removing corruption from the government. This is a matter that has been of great public concern, brought about by press reports of scandalous situations and a widespread feeling that anyone can get away with anything because impunity is the rule. So, public outcry led to the creation of the State Prosecutor’s Office.

And how do you feel about taking on the role of heading it up?

Well, it was a long process — not just a phone call. I have worked in the criminal justice system for a long time and have an interest in identifying the root causes of impunity. During Governor Rodríguez Calderón’s election campaign, I managed to speak to him about just this. RENACE, an institution that I founded and presided over, had prepared ten joint commitments to submit to those campaigning to take office, and for whom the topic of “legality” was directly relevant. One of these joint commitments addressed the issue of corruption crimes. And so, once the Governor was elected his transition team approached me to discuss how I could best contribute towards anti-corruption policy making. Initially I became involved from a civil society angle, in a citizens’ council, as a sort of external advisor. I wasn’t interested in actually becoming a civil servant for many reasons: firstly because my career had been more related to companies and secondly because I’m no longer so young!

Let me just underline that the work carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office isn’t a witch-hunt. The work is much more complex and entirely necessary in a country like Mexico where there’s never been state legislation against corruption

Initially I had no intention of making a career leap. However, in light of the conversations I was having with the transition group, it became clear that we had two options: either to create a legal framework, apt for carrying out a policy of this type, or to make do with what we had. Option one seemed complicated because the local government was dominated by the two main parties, both of which would be the main subject of investigation, and so we had to opt for using the laws as they stood. And, in doing so, it became clear that the act of bringing legal action, in other words the state’s capacity to accuse in order to initiate criminal proceedings, was an essential part an anti-corruption campaign and that only the Procuratorate has the authority to do so, by constitution.  If we couldn’t try and change the legal framework, we had little option but to be part of the Procuratorate. If we hadn’t done so, I don’t think my actions would have been helpful and I would just be adding fuel to fire among those who think that nothing changes.

Which other government bodies does the Prosecutor’s Office work with and receive support from?

 First and foremost, the Procuratorate. They have long been renowned for having an excellent team of investigators and top resources. This is really important for building criminal cases. We also work with the State Comptroller, who is in charge of all the audits related to the state’s activities and as such is the first person able to detect wrongdoings. The third main dependent is Treasury and Finances — the body that controls funds and where corruption is most rife.

Our work is a team effort and its success depends entirely upon good relationships with those parties who witness corruption firsthand. It’s a real challenge for the Prosecutor’s Office to keep these close relationships going.

Does the power to prosecute fall entirely under the remit of the Prosecutor’s Office?

For crimes related to corruption, I am the Prosecutor. I act on behalf of the state.

What are the Prosecutor’s Office’s main priorities today? Indeed, how do you prioritise amidst so many reported or potentially reportable cases of corruption?

Let me just underline that the work carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office isn’t a witch-hunt. The work is much more complex and entirely necessary in a country like Mexico where there’s never been state legislation against corruption. I take government audits as my starting point, carried out over the past six years and many six-year terms prior to that. Much of my data comes from Monterrey’s exacting press, which is long-renowned for sniffing out cases of corruption.

Now, having said that, I created a programme, through which the Prosecutor’s Office is trying to dispel the association between corrupt civil servant, corrupt citizen. We will forgive individuals who have been involved in acts of corruption if they are willing to supply evidence to follow the case up. This chance to hold your hands up to the authorities without fear is a first for Mexico, although it’s been successful in other countries. The individual’s privacy and autonomy is always protected, and financial incentives are sometimes offered too.

Corruption is so engrained in the country that it’s not only a political issue but a social one too, wouldn’t you say?

Mexico doesn’t know how to deal with corruption on a national level because it was never in the country’s “action plan”. There is no protocol and this is a real challenge because it’s like rebuilding foundations that support the whole structure. Of course, there have been many political fights against corruption, but nothing until now has been done on an administrative level — nothing official, nothing professional and, crucially, nothing proposed by the institutions themselves.

How would you describe people’s participation in Mexico today? Is it stronger in some areas than others?

Nuevo León and Monterrey have a strong history of citizen engagement. But the question is “what good has it done?” For instance, in terms of stamping out corruption — where have people been hiding all this time? To give you an example very close to my heart, RENACE has a 23-year journey behind it and it has managed to change the criminal process. The current government is a citizens’ revolt turned political party — quite literally.

What’s your take on this new wave of independent politicians and other independent candidates?

It’s a direct response to the fact that the political parties haven’t been able to provide solutions for Mexico’s most widespread problems. One of these is impunity, another is shocking levels of inequality and a third is safety. They are all big, big issues. And so, various failures in the system have pushed citizens towards finding alternative solutions.

 This chance to hold your hands up to the authorities without fear is a first for Mexico, although it’s been successful in other countries

It’s very complicated for independent candidates. Look at my situation — the Local Congress, made up in its majority by the main parties, is in the process of approving a law that rids State executives of the power to prosecute corruption crimes, transferring all such responsibilities to the Congress. Secondly, somehow a prosecutor who depends on Congress (which itself depends on political parties) is less independent in his actions than a prosecutor who depends on the State executive of an independent governor who does not have to answer to parties. It’s this whole independence question, and I’d like to point out the fact that that we can, in fact, all choose to be independent.

Is Nuevo León a good example to follow?

I’d like to think so. There’s a lot left to accomplish but Monterrey has set good examples for the rest of the country in many different areas and I only hope that we will also be able to do so with anti-corruption.

At the federal level, there is a Prosecutor project within the Procuratorate. For acts of corruption, both the state comptrollers and the tax auditors of local congresses have anti-corruption units but they are more geared towards detecting departures from regulatory principles as opposed to uncovering corruption crimes. This is what we are really in need of because in order for a crime to happen there has to be ill intent to commit fraud, not just a bit of rule flouting. That’s where the complication lies.