Tale of Two Corruptos: Brazil and Mexico on Different Transparency Paths

Mexico complains, often rightly so, about being overshadowed by Brazil, but Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index is one more reminder of how Latin America's two titans differ today

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Corcovado mountain's Christ the Redeemer statue stands tall over Rio de Janeiro

There is an increasingly heated debate today about Latin America’s two titans: Does Brazil receive too many kudos, and does Mexico receive too much criticism? For all the ugly press Mexico’s murderous drug war gets, Brazil’s homicide rate is actually higher. Global media fawn over Brazil’s economic boom, but the World Bank finds Mexico a much easier place to do business; it earns more in manufacturing exports and is enrolling a higher number of engineering students.

But Transparency International offers another potential reminder of why Brazil has realized more development, and two times more average economic growth, than Mexico has so far in the so-called Century of the Americas. Bottom line: business and bureaucracy might be easier in Mexico, but in Brazil they’re actually cleaner. Transparency, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, issued its annual Corruption Perceptions Index this week — and despite Brazil’s long reputation for sleaze, it places ninth among the 26 Latin American and Caribbean countries on the 176-nation Index (the higher ranking being the less corrupt) compared with Mexico’s 16th-place finish. Among all nations, Brazil is No. 69; Mexico is No. 105.

(MORE: TIME’s Exclusive Interview with the New Mexican President)

That’s significant because one of the Index’s biggest stories in recent years is that Latin America has begun to shed its centuries-old image as the most venal region on earth. More than half of the Latin American nations ended up in the top half of the Index again this year — and Chile and Uruguay, which tied at No. 20, are just one slot behind the U.S. (Canada, home of Dudley Do-Right, is No. 9, the best in the western hemisphere; Denmark, Finland and New Zealand tied for No. 1.) The fact that Brazil has brought itself more in line with that trend than Mexico has — when at the turn of the century Brazil was still known for its Trem da Alegria, or Joy Train, the sardonic name Brazilians gave their hyper-embezzling public bureaucracy — simply gives global media another excuse to fawn.

Not that Brazil deserves any standing ovation. Its mensalão scandal, which involved millions of dollars in bribes to members of Congress and finally resulted this year in the largest corruption trial in Brazil’s history, is ample evidence of how far the South American giant still has to go. But the fact that the 38 defendants were tried at all — and that most of them, including José Dirceu, onetime chief of staff to popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have been convicted and face actual prison time — has helped burnish the anticorruption campaign of Lula’s successor, current President Dilma Rousseff.

Mexico, meanwhile, can still look as if it’s in denial about the entrenched corruption that according to the World Bank costs the country 9% of its trillion-dollar GDP each year. Last month the federal anticorruption agency all but absolved Mexican officials and retail giant Walmart — despite deeply detailed evidence published in April by the New York Times that the company had allegedly paid government administrators some $25 million in bribes to unfairly obtain permits and other favors. Little wonder that business monopolies, which can hold market shares as high as 95%, still suffocate Mexico’s economy, or that a dysfunctional justice system can’t rein in narcoviolence.

Mexico’s new President, Enrique Peña Nieto — who insists his Institutional Revolutionary Party has reformed after ruling the country from 1929 to 2000 as a corrupt, one-party dictatorship — has proposed a federal institute to ensure more public-records transparency as well as an autonomous anticorruption commission to be built into the constitution. Unfortunately, special agencies, institutes and commissions aren’t a substitute for functioning judiciaries, whose all-too-frequent absence is still Latin America’s biggest anticorruption challenge. Either way, Transparency isn’t the only organization that has cited Brazil’s new edge over Mexico in this department: in 2010, the Latin Business Chronicle ranked Brazil fifth best among 18 Latin American countries in terms of bribes that companies had to pay for things like permits, tax breaks and favorable court rulings; it ranked Mexico 10th.

(MORE: Brazil’s Epic Corruption Scandal Nets In Big Politicos)

If anything, Mexico should look at the top-50 Transparency rankings of Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica (No. 48) — which not coincidentally are also considered three of Latin America’s best developed countries — as proof that fewer mordidas (or bites, as Mexicans call their quotidian graft) means more pesos. That said, however, while the Transparency Index reflects how far Latin America has come, it also points out how much work it has left to do: while two-thirds of the world scores below 50 on Transparency’s corruption score (0 is most corrupt, 100 is least corrupt), almost three-fourths of Latin America does. That includes the region’s worst performers, Venezuela and Haiti, tied at No. 165.

Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chávez rode to power 14 years ago denouncing the oil-rich nation’s epic corruption. But his Bolivarian revolution only seems to have embraced it. Today, Venezuela is more often cited for South America’s worst murder rate, one of the world’s highest inflation rates, negligible foreign investment and a judicial system subject to el comandante’s whims. Latin America is full of leaders who promise to crack down on corruption. What it needs is more leaders who crack down on corruption.