Three weeks have passed since 19th September and in the aftermath of the earthquakes Mexico’s ‘accountability ecosystem’ appears to be thriving. With the upcoming presidential, and lower and upper chamber, elections in 2018, the political elites are facing a growing tide of fed-up citizens taking action for real change.
My work, and that of many other researchers in IDS, includes documenting and sharing the learnings that organisations and collectives in different countries, working with diverse groups for various purposes, have gathered on how to hold those in power to account so change is sustained over time. Ironically, despite being a Mexican, I have not taken the time to do this for Mexico. Over the last year however I’ve been witnessing, mostly via social media, and on the ground after the recent earthquakes, how accountability in Mexico has transitioned dramatically from one reliant on policy-influencing and legal advocacy to one that is putting movement building and relationships at its core.
This transition has taken more than 15 years to happen, and this timeframe would of course be insignificant were it not for the contextual dynamics generating the conditions for this shift. At this point I do not have enough evidence to precisely identify the conditions which have led to this transition, but I do want to give recognition to some initiatives and actors that in my opinion are truly changing the game.
From initiative #3de3 to Law 3 de 3: Mexicans take the law into their hands
For as long as I can remember, Mexican people tend to either complain bitterly about corruption or play the rules of the game ‘el que no tranza no avanza’ (i.e. if you do not cheat you do not make way). Those of us who complained seldom took action or engaged with activist organisations. This may have been because these actions were happening behind closed doors, used complex legal terminology and were led by experts who could not speak simple Spanish.
Initiative #3de3 started in early 2016 as an online and mass media campaign advocating for all elected politicians to disclose their assets, interests and tax-payments as they enter office. After collecting nearly 700,000 signatures, and significant lobbying in Congress, Law 3 de 3 was approved. This is indeed a great outcome and a stepping stone on the path towards a National Anti-corruption System. For me, what made this initiative powerful was the number and variety of people who were part of a striking public campaign which made Mexican citizens believe and follow a concrete action to actively tackle corruption; and realise we can be makers and shapers of laws and regulations.
Pedro Kumamoto and the @WikipoliticaJal movement: awakening the millenials
In Jalisco, the so-called ‘most Mexican state’ where tequila and mariachi abound, youth-led accountability is for real. This summer I started paying closer attention to the ‘Kumamoto’ phenomenon and the civic network that has grown around his low-key but charismatic leadership. Born in 1990, Pedro Kumamoto is the first independent citizen to win a seat at the State’s local Congress and is aiming to become the first independent senator in 2018, having not even reached 30 years of age. Impressive! Thankfully, he is not the typical ‘charismatic or neo-populist’ leader that most countries in Latin America have been subjected to. He is doing things truly differently: he has renounced 70% of his salary; is disclosing the rationale behind his votes in Congress so voters can understand his reasoning; he goes out to the streets to listen and be held accountable; and recently he has started a national campaign to decrease the public financing of political parties, which follows given he is not part of one and does not want to create one.
What makes Kumamoto a phenomenon is that he has awakened the sense of citizenship amongst ‘millenials’ who are, according to some, notorious for disengagement, indifference and egocentrism. In Jalisco a network of clever and creative young people are fusing online innovation with disruption of the Mexican archaic Electoral Law. Their online activism through @WikipoliticaJal knows it is not all about the techy stuff; as global evidence shows, building relationships, coalitions and learning from others who are disrupting systems for meaningful participation, is what matters most. This summer, @WikipoliticaJal convened La Ocupacion: Festeja lo Posible (Occupation: Celebrate what’s possible) a gathering of young and fearless innovators from various countries in Latin America which have proved the baby-boomers wrong. Whilst dreaming of a brighter future, millennials are also taking concrete steps to create new forms of political engagement and social change.
September earthquakes: awakening community efforts for accountable reconstruction
Earthquakes are always unexpected, and in that sense citizens can only hope to know what to do when they happen and have luck on their side. The first earthquake in September sparked a couple of citizen initiatives to help the worst hit areas of Oaxaca and Chiapas. However, it was the second earthquake, which hit the central states of Puebla and Morelos as well as Mexico City very badly, that showed there can still be a sense of community in cities where millions of people live.
People from all walks of life spontaneously mobilised to help in all sorts of ways, even providing free relaxing massages for those working day and night in rescue efforts. Many pieces in social and conventional media have spoken about the renewed sense of solidarity amongst Mexicans and the beauty of helping without expecting anything in return, sentiments both moving and inspiring. In addition, what I witnessed is that the earthquake literally unearthed Mexicans’ latent feeling of discontent with – and at times abhorrence at – the political class.
Memes, not only in Mexico but elsewhere, are becoming common and powerful vehicles for channelling anger towards those in power, calling for changes in the political game and acts of everyday accountability. Almost immediately after the earthquake these were used as an escape valve for all the frustrations we have with our so-called authorities.
Perhaps most importantly, the earthquakes allowed for the re-recognition of sentiments such as ‘People’s Power’, ’We can do it’ and ’We don’t need you; leave us alone’ amongst many Mexicans. Moreover, actors and organisations have started planning for the mid and long-term reconstruction efforts. Experiences abound of crisis donations being ‘diverted’ in all sorts of situations, highlighting the relevance of accountability in those processes. This is not uncommon in instances of disaster risk management as well as in the reconstruction of accountability systems after major disasters. Yet from what I’ve been witnessing it seems that Mexican citizens are pushing back and not allowing politicians and construction companies to play their dirty games once again. A call for an accountable reconstruction process is already circulating and information on how citizens can participate in this journey is already available online.
Three weeks after the earthquake the positive energy is still high. There seems to be both strong existing relationships and new connections being built amongst key actors who are willing and able to make things happen. It is exciting to be following how things unfold, albeit from afar, and I am hopeful that all this activity translates into a change in how the political class and the private sector elites (whom John Gaventa reminds us not to forget) relate to the ‘ordinary Mexican citizen’ and hence a change of behaviour towards more transparency and accountability at all levels.
 Accountability Ecosystem: academic term which has been used to encompass all the relationships amongst citizens and with those who assert authority over them, collective action initiatives of all sizes and shapes; the rules, laws and regulations which exist in a country to expose those in power for wrongdoing.
Photo Credit: Erika Lopez-Franco, Mexico City, September 2017