Mordida (Mexico)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Mordida
Location: Mexico
Mexico map.png
Author: Claudia Baez Camargo
Affiliation: Basel Institute on Governance

Original Text: Claudia Baez Camargo, Basel Institute on Governance

In Mexico, mordida is a term widely used to refer to a bribe[1]. The word literally translates as ‘bite’ from Spanish. While the origins of this secondary use of the word are contested, probably the most recurrent explanation given by Mexicans is that it alludes to police officers and other public officials being seen as dogs, on the lookout for an innocent citizen to take a bite out of. It is significant that several studies[2][3] have found that mordida is the one practice consistently identified by Mexicans as an unambiguous expression of corruption, whereas, in spite of an increasing awareness of the impact of corruption, average citizens appear to struggle to come up with a more abstract definition of the concept[4].

Police officers have a literal bite in Mexico City

As well as mordida, the term soborno also translates as ‘bribe’ in English. However, some authors (for example Coronado 2008[5]) have suggested a subtle difference in meaning between the two terms. Thus, while soborno is presumed to be a serious crime (involving large amounts of money), mordida refers to commonly occurring petty corruption transactions, and is associated with what Covarrubias González [6] refers to as the ‘folklore of corruption’ pervading Mexican popular culture. In this latter connotation, mordida may be understood as one of many practices from the toolkit of informal strategies that Mexicans often employ in order to deal with a state that is perceived as undemocratic and abusive. Other examples of such informal strategies used in Mexico include the use of palancas (levers, which refer to the use of personal connections to insiders or influential actors in order to obtain preferential treatment), coyotes (persons who are paid to do others’ administrative transactions, frequently through use of personal contacts inside the organization), and giving regalos (gifts)[7].

There are several reasons why the mordida is a pervasive practice in Mexico. Firstly, the mordida is widely viewed as necessary because of the perception that Mexican laws and regulations are so difficult to comply with that people feel they are left with no choice but to find an arrangement through extra-legal means[8]. Furthermore, excessive red tape is often exploited by unscrupulous bureaucrats, who arbitrarily come up with endless requirements to complete an administrative process. For instance, it is not uncommon for people seeking everyday public services (renewing a driving licence, obtaining a birth certificate, regularising a land title, applying for construction permits etc.) to be asked to present documents never mentioned before or listed anywhere, or to be sent through an endless succession of queues. Alternatively, as Coronado[9] narrates, the public official can also play upon the possibility that the applicant’s documents may ‘get lost’ or the procedure could be ‘delayed’; it is not uncommon to ask for a ‘tip’ after the paperwork has been submitted, ‘ahí lo que quiera dar para la cooperación del juez’ (‘whatever you would like to give for the judge’s cooperation’). The overall effect of these patterns is to create a sense of unpredictability when citizens engage with state officials. Not surprisingly, in some cases, citizens resort to a mordida as a preemptive action just to avoid time-consuming procedures.

A possible traffic incident involving a mordida

Besides being linked to excessive and costly bureaucratic procedures, the mordida can also take the form of an outright coercive act. Perhaps the most common example of this involves law enforcement officers threatening severe consequences from (sometimes even minor) traffic violations or other misdemeanors. The mordida is, then, often offered out of fear of the consequences that would befall the individual should he or she fail to ‘appease’ the officer. In such cases, the act of bribing arises from the perception that law enforcement officers can and do commit abuses of power with impunity. As LaRose and Maddan[10] recount, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 the victors pursued strategies to centralise power, which led to the development of a police force with great autonomy and little oversight. Thus, the commonly held view that the police are a tool of political oppression rather than law enforcement professionals[11][12] is a factor contributing to the willingness of citizens to settle legal issues informally through a mordida rather than having to face the criminal justice process. Therefore, as Del Castillo and Guerrero suggest, the bribe is often rationalised by citizens as a means to buy security[13].

There are specific rituals associated with giving a mordida, which most Mexicans are familiar with, and which determine how the process of bribing is negotiated. For instance, the preamble to negotiating the mordida comes at the point where the public officer has made it clear that the citizen’s ‘situation is serious and it often involves phrases such as ‘¿no habrá otra manera?’ (‘Is there no other way?’) or ‘¿cómo nos podemos arreglar?’ (‘How can we reach an arrangement?’). At which point usually an amount is mentioned.

Not infrequently, some negotiation is involved before agreeing on the price of the bribe. This is an interesting moment because it often opens up an informal space between the citizen and the public officer. Thus, the process of negotiating the amount of the bribe can involve both parties appealing to each other on the basis of the hardships each must face in their personal lives. For example, criminologist and blogger Christina Johns has written about a strategy she and her husband devised to lower the amount of the mordida while travelling around Mexico: she would pretend not to speak Spanish and when her husband “translated for her” what the police officer wanted she would hysterically start screaming ‘No, no, no, no!!’ In her analysis, this strategy consistently worked because police officers would empathise with the husband, who apparently had to contend with a difficult gringa (foreign woman)[14].

In spite of the fact that bribing is known to be widespread, the language used during the actual transaction is often careful and respectful, and one does not make any direct reference to the act of bribing or call it by its name. There is a common understanding that the transaction needs to be discreet. For example, when bribing a traffic officer, the money is often hidden inside the traffic rulebook before it is handed over.

The amounts paid for mordidas seem to be related to either the value of the prospective fine, in the case of traffic violations and other misdemeanors, or to whether the service can be obtained elsewhere, in the case of bureaucratic processes. Further, mordidas to evade sanctions typically involve higher amounts than those meant to simply speed up a process. According to data reported by Transparencia Mexicana the average cost of a mordida in 2010 was 165MXN (about 12 USD). Bailey and Paras (2006) estimated an annual aggregated cost to the economy from mordidas of over 1 billion dollars in 2001.

At the national level, there are several instruments that quantify the prevalence of the mordida in Mexico. One example is the Índice de Corrupción y Buen Gobierno published by Transparencia Mexicana, which ranks 35 public services according to the frequency of households reporting to have used a mordida to obtain a service (Transparencia Mexicana 2011). Another available data source is the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP): it conducts surveys every other year, including questions on the prevalence of mordidas given to police officers and other public officers. The results are published the results in a searchable database.

Notes

  1. Morris, S. D. 2003. ‘Corruption and Mexican Political Culture’, Journal of the Southwest, 45(4): 671–708.
  2. Del Castillo, A., and Guerrero, M. A. 2003. ‘Percepciones de La Corrupción En La Cuidad de México¿ Predisposición Al Acto Corrupto?.’ Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, http://presupuestoygastopublico.org/documentos/transparencia/DT_134.pdf
  3. Bailey, J. and P. Paras. 2006. ‘Perceptions and Attitudes about Corruption and Democracy in Mexico’. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 22 (1): 57–82, doi:10.1525/msem.2006.22.issue-1.
  4. Del Castillo, A., and Guerrero, M. A. 2003. ‘Percepciones de La Corrupción En La Cuidad de México¿ Predisposición Al Acto Corrupto?.’ Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, http://presupuestoygastopublico.org/documentos/transparencia/DT_134.pdf
  5. Coronado, G. 2008. ‘Discourses of Anti-Corruption in Mexico. Culture of Corruption or Corruption of Culture?’, PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 5(1), http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/479
  6. Covarrubias González, I. 2003. ‘El Impacto de La Corrupción En El Proceso de Democratización de México’, Revista Probidad, 24 (9): 1–14.
  7. Coronado, G. 2008. ‘Discourses of Anti-Corruption in Mexico. Culture of Corruption or Corruption of Culture?’, PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 5(1), http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/479
  8. Morris, S. D. 2003. ‘Corruption and Mexican Political Culture’, Journal of the Southwest, 45(4): 671–708.
  9. Coronado, G. 2008. ‘Discourses of Anti-Corruption in Mexico. Culture of Corruption or Corruption of Culture?’, PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 5(1), http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/479
  10. LaRose, A. P., and S. Maddan. 2009. ‘Reforming La Policía: Looking to the Future of Policing in Mexico’, Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 10 (4): 333–48.
  11. LaRose, A. P., and S. Maddan. 2009. ‘Reforming La Policía: Looking to the Future of Policing in Mexico’, Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 10 (4): 333–48.
  12. Alvarado Mendoza, A. and C. S. Forné. 2011. ‘Relaciones de Autoridad Y Abuso Policial En La Ciudad de México’, Revista Mexicana de Sociología, 73 (3): 445–73.
  13. Del Castillo, A., and Guerrero, M. A. 2003. ‘Percepciones de La Corrupción En La Cuidad de México¿ Predisposición Al Acto Corrupto?.’ Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, http://presupuestoygastopublico.org/documentos/transparencia/DT_134.pdf
  14. Johns, C. 2014. ‘The Mordida: Mexico and Corruption’. Law, Power and Justice, http://www.cjjohns.com/lawpowerandjustice/commentaries/mordida.html.