MEXICO CITY — Barely a quarter-century ago, Mexico’s all-powerful presidents could run any of the nation’s 31 governors out of office at will. Then the pendulum began to swing. In the last decade, the power of governors grew to such levels that they became known by the moniker “little viceroys.”
Now the pendulum is swinging again, with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and his political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, pressing several initiatives designed to cut the power of governors.
One, adopted in November, forces state and municipal governments to reveal more details of how they spend their money.
A second initiative, under discussion this week, would affect state elections, which historically have been manipulated by governors who control the voting apparatus in each state. Under the proposal, state elections would be run by the federal electoral institute, not the states.
“The president has the governors on the run,” said Joy Langston Hawkes, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics, a Mexico City think tank.
Currently, state governors enjoy little oversight and torrents of money from Mexico City. They control state health and educational services, run state elections, operate state police, play a huge role in the federal Congress through their hand-picked candidates, finance state judiciaries and wield power over the state media through the purchase of advertising. Many grow inexplicably rich in office.
That’s a big switch from not very long ago. Then the PRI had held the presidency for 71 straight years, and it used that monopoly to control nearly every aspect of Mexico’s governance. As virtual emperors, presidents, and party bosses, tapped underlings to run and serve as governors, subject to the president’s will.
Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was president from 1988 until 1994, removed governors left and right, dismissing 17 of them during his six years in office.
When the PRI was ousted from the presidency in 2000, the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, took its place with two successive presidents who wielded the federal rudder with a weak hand and decentralized many functions to the states. That “left a power vacuum in the center that was rapidly filled in the states by governors,” said Otto Granados Roldan, a former governor of Aguascalientes who now heads the Institute of Public Administration at the Monterrey Institute of Technology,
It was a politically convenient scheme for the PRI, which still held 20 governorships. And since roughly 80 percent of state budgets are funded by the central government, ramping up resources to the states helped PRI governors finance programs to please their constituents.
“All states are now receiving more money, have more authority and responsibility, (and) more decision-making roles, and all that means they have more power,” Granados said.
Ironically, Pena Nieto is a former governor, who ruled the State of Mexico during the height of the buildup in governors’ power.
Pena Nieto has lots of reasons to want to rein in state governors’ autonomy – or at least not let them thwart his sweeping changes in Mexican law that will define whether the PRI is a different party now from when it last controlled the presidency. Pena Nieto's already ushered through changes in education law that ended the teachers union’s hold on hiring and is pushing a reorganization of telecom regulation intended to break monopolistic control of the sector. He's proposed a revamp of tax and banking regulation and is expected to seek approval later this year for a plan to open up the energy sector to foreign investment.
All those changes require passage in both houses of Congress and approval by a majority of state legislatures – where governors have strong influence – to become enshrined in the constitution.
“You’ve got a PRI president who has a lot of fish to fry and doesn’t want scandals in the states,” said John J. Bailey, a Georgetown University political scientist who has been following Mexico for more than 40 years.
Governors in Mexico have a mixed reputation. While a few are known as effective rulers, scandals are common, with many having run up state debt while apparently absconding with tens of millions of dollars.
“Governors, at least the majority of them, have become a national calamity,” Felix Fuentes, a columnist for the El Universal newspaper, wrote Tuesday.
In nearly a dozen states, the PRI has held the governorship for more than eight decades, and social scientists say democratic values are weak. The governors control state media, keep a tight grip on unions, gut anti-corruption institutions, and influence who runs for seats in state legislatures. Auditing of their spending is poor.
“There is no strong, active civil society movement to demand and drive changes,” Granados said.
Scandals have enveloped two former PRI governors.
Humberto Moreira, a former grade school teacher who became the governor of Coahuila state, ran his state’s debt up from around $130 million to more than $3 billion. Moreira now lives in a chalet in an exclusive area of Barcelona, Spain.
The current governor of Tabasco state blames the former governor, Andres Granier Melo, for leaving nearly $1.6 billion in unpaid bills and missing funds in state coffers when he left office Dec. 31. Granier resurfaced this week to respond to a secret recording in which he boasted that some of his 300 suits and 400 pairs of shoes were bought on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, saying he was tipsy at the time of the recording in October and telling untruths.
Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s most economically powerful state and home to Monterrey, a manufacturing hub, is again in PRI hands after a period in which a PAN governor ran the state. Its governor, Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz, 40, was recently in the capital.
He chuckled when he was asked about the era of “little viceroys.”
“I haven’t lived through it, but I’ve read about it,” Medina said.
Medina has a better reputation than many governors. Months after he came to office in 2009, Nuevo Leon descended into chaos as two powerful drug gangs brought their brutal rivalry into Monterrey’s streets. Homicides soared. After two bloody years, Medina touts a sharply improved security picture in his state.
“He got dealt a pretty sharp stick,” said Bailey of Georgetown University. “He’s looked at as pretty transparent and pretty serious.”
Medina said his administration fired 4,200 police officers in Nuevo Leon because of evidence they’d been compromised by organized crime. Some 3,200 new officers – better vetted, with better training and pay – are now on duty, he said.
Medina said Nuevo Leon has seen armed carjackings fall sharply, and homicides in the month of April drop 30 percent from a year earlier.
“The president has been very clear: We have to reduce violence,” Medina said, noting that his administration is doing what it can.
That compliance is precisely what Los Pinos, the presidential residence in Mexico City, wants to hear.
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