Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico – Mexican politics has long been undermined by a lack of trust and transparency, with the public holding little faith in officials notorious for indulging in acts of corruption. But in one small corner of the country, a remarkable transformation has taken place in the last four years – one that could provide a model for building a more open and democratic society.
In 2009 the municipality of Tlajomulco de Zuniga had one of the least accountable governments in Mexico. Now, governed by the liberal Citizens’ Movement, it boasts the most transparent administration in the country, according to Cimtra, a nonprofit accountability watchdog coalition.
By adopting a number of innovative and progressive policies, Mayor Ismael del Toro and his predecessor Enrique Alfaro have won the confidence of their constituents and succeeded in engaging them in the local political process. A considerable achievement given that the political parties, local and state police forces and city governments are considered the least trustworthy of 22 public institutions, according to a 2012 survey by Parametria, a Mexican pollster and market research firm.
Mexico was a one-party state for much of the last century, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruling from 1939 until 2000. Politicians were largely unaccountable and enjoyed immunity from prosecution while in office up to as recently as March 2013, when Congress passed a law stripping all but the president of this legal protection.
Since Mexico made the transition to democracy its rating in Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index has actually worsened, falling from 37 in 2001 to 34 in 2013 (with 0 being ‘highly corrupt’ and 100 being ‘very clean’).
But Tlajomulco has bucked that trend. The municipal government has facilitated greater public participation in decision making and taken the bold step of introducing referendums that enable voters to revoke its mandate to govern if dissatisfied with its performance.
As a result of such policies, the del Toro administration became the first to receive a perfect score of 100 in Cimtra’s 2013 study of government transparency. This stands in stark contrast to its previous score of 34.2 in 2009 when the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) was in power.
Some citizens, such as retired Tlajomulco resident Cesar remain sceptical of such studies. “I don’t believe it,” he told Al Jazeera. “Politicians are all the same. They’re all corrupt.”
Others like Manuel, a local construction worker, have been left with a better impression. “Of course I think they’re doing a good job,” he told Al Jazeera. “They’re giving out free school equipment and uniforms, that’s really great because there are a lot of poor people here in Tlajomulco. It’s good that the government has got its act together,” he said.
The most important thing is that you win the trust of the public. This brings other benefits, like the payment of taxes, which has risen by 30 percent each year because people are beginning to trust the government.
Cimitria Zepeda, who tends a stall near Tlajomulco’s tranquil central plaza, told Al Jazeera that she has much more confidence in del Toro than past mayors, who “crushed us instead of supporting us.”
“This is a government that fulfils its promises. The mayor and his whole administration are all very humble and accessible,” Zepeda said.
Raising public revenue
Mexico’s federal government is currently pushing fiscal reforms with the aim of increasing tax revenue, but del Toro believes that economic performance can also be improved by enhancing transparency and reducing corruption.
Tlajomulco’s finances have certainly prospered since the Citizens’ Movement took power. Having slashed unnecessary expenditure and encouraged the payment of taxes, the government has doubled its budget from 860 million pesos in 2009 to 1.6 bn in 2014, del Toro told Al Jazeera at his office in the Tlajomulco Administrative Centre, an impressive, modern facility constantly buzzing with activity.
“The most important thing is that you win the trust of the public,” del Toro said. “This brings other benefits, like the payment of taxes, which has risen by 30 percent each year because people are beginning to trust the government.”
This is no easty feat in a country where half of the workers labour in the informal economy and total tax revenue is lower than in any other nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The increase in tax returns was spurred by the adoption of a “participatory budget” in which citizens vote on what their taxes should be spent on at the start of each fiscal year. Adopted four years ago, the policy is unique to Tlajomulco, according to Raul Hernandez, who works for the municipal government in business development.
“When you pay taxes, you have the option to say what the money should be used for. There is a public survey with various options and whichever gets the most votes is then carried out,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera.
“This has enabled citizens to see that their taxes really are used in public works and services, and this has led to the municipality reclaiming more resources,” del Toro told Al Jazeera. “This entitles it to receive more resources from the federal government, which rewards you for strong financial management.”
“The economic problems and the lack of opportunities and education for young people are at the base of the problem. It’s very easy for a young person to turn to crime so we must work to fortify the national economy and generate employment and opportunities in order to combat the root cause of the problem,” del Toro told Al Jazeera.
“We are constantly working to bring greater investment to create jobs in the municipality. We are also working to recover public spaces and we’ve built a network of 17 public sports facilities, where we organize sporting and cultural events,” he added. The aim of such initiatives is to encourage young people to engage with their community and resist the allures of gang life, del Toro explained.
A sprawling industrial district in the western state of Jalisco, Tlajomulco made international headlines in February 2012 when the Mexican army seized what it claimed was a record haul of 15 tons of methamphetamine at a laboratory hidden amidst the sun-baked scrubland.
Although fighting organized crime remains a top priority, del Toro believes that military force is not necessarily the most effective means of doing so.
Clamping down on corruption is an important aspect of the war on drugs. The Mexican government is currently in the process of evaluating the trustworthiness of every police officer in the country. Many officers have been found to be on the payroll of organized crime and it is not uncommon for entire forces to be dismissed, as occurred in the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas in November.
“We are working to strengthen our police force,” del Toro told Al Jazeera. His administration is currently in the process of firing over 100 municipal police officers who failed recent evaluations, although it does not yet have the resources to replace them all.
Del Toro notes with pride that some of his party’s more popular policies are now being replicated outside of his municipality.
“Our programme for free backpacks and equipment for schools has already transcended Tlajomulco,” he told Al Jazeera. Launched four years ago by his predecessor, Alfaro, the programme was extended to every municipality in Jalisco by the state government in August.
However, if the Citizens’ Movement is to export its model of transparency then it may need to win control of the state, as del Toro noted that other administrations across Mexico are simply “not interested” in prioritizing the issue.
“One of our objectives as a party is to govern the state in 2018,” del Toro said, although he refused to be drawn out on whether he plans to run for governor.
The Citizen’s Movement currently governs 90 municipalities across Mexico, including nine in Jalisco, most notably the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta.
The party came within four percentage points of winning the state governorship in 2012.
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