March 10, 2018 / 3:10 PM / 3 months ago

'No one above law' in Mexico graft fight, says presidential hopeful Meade

ACAPULCO (Reuters) - Mexico’s attorney general should be given more autonomy to fight graft so that no one, not even the president, is above the law, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade said.

Ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade speaks during an interview with Reuters on the sidelines of the Mexican Banking Association's annual convention in Acapulco, Mexico March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

“If we want Mexico to be successful in its fight against corruption we have to cut the umbilical cord between the executive branch and the attorney general’s office,” Meade told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

Mexico’s attorney general’s office has been widely criticized by opposition politicians and justice reform advocates for moving slowly on cases that implicate the ruling party.

It released a video late last month of opposition presidential candidate Ricardo Anaya in an appearance at offices related to an investigation into accusations he illicitly profited from a real estate deal.

The decision to release the footage, in which a member of Anaya’s entourage swears, has been pilloried by academics, foreign diplomats and opposition politicians as an abuse of power intended to help the PRI.

An opinion poll taken after the video was released suggested the fight damaged both candidates, who lost support while front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gained ground.

Meade made no mention of the investigation in the interview.

Graft scandals have for decades dogged the political elite in Mexico, which ranked 128th out of 137 nations for ethics and corruption in the World Economic Forum’s 2017-2018 Global Competitiveness Index.

Meade, who holds a doctorate in economics from Yale University, said he wanted to loosen the government’s grip on the public prosecutor so that it was not beholden to changing political tides.

“We need to give the attorney general’s office the autonomy to investigate even me when I’m president,” said Meade, who served as finance minister for President Enrique Pena Nieto.

SCANDALS, INFIGHTING

Pena Nieto’s administration has been hit by conflict-of-interest scandals and the PRI has been battered by corruption allegations against several of its governors.

Mexico is already implementing a new anti-corruption system that will replace the current attorney general’s office with a new institution that is designed to be more independent from political interference. However, political infighting has prevented the new system from taking root.

Meade’s campaign has struggled to gain traction despite his reputation as a clean politician who also served as a cabinet secretary for former President Felipe Calderon of the centre National Action Party.

To differentiate himself from the lavish lifestyles associated with some PRI politicians, his campaign has released photos of him in economy class on commercial flights and driving a modest Toyota Prius car.

However, his association with the ruling party and reluctance to criticise its performance has made it hard to position himself as a candidate of change. Most recent surveys show him in third place.

In 2016, Mexicanos Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad, a civil group, calculated corruption was worth between 2 percent and 10 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, based on data from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others.

Meade, who spoke after giving a speech at an annual bankers convention in the resort city of Acapulco, said Mexico needed to double its spending on ports, roads, airports, railways and energy pipelines to 4 percent of GDP.

He also said the United States and Mexico needed to reach an agreement on anti-drugs cooperation that reflected the reality that laws in many U.S. states no longer match federal policy.

California this year became the sixth U.S. state, and by far the most populous, to allow the sale of recreational marijuana.

“An agreement that reflects consistency between U.S. federal and local policy is very important,” Meade said.

Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Paul Tait

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