MEXICO CITY—The telephone call came shortly after
Claudio X. González
said in a speech that Mexico’s president belonged in a corruption “hall of infamy” because his indifference to fighting graft had allowed it to thrive.
On the line, an angry top government official let Mr. González know just how “offended” President
Enrique Peña Nieto’s
administration was over his comments.
“His tone was accusatory and threatening,” said Mr. González, 54, a silver-haired lawyer who heads Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, one of a growing number of nonprofit organizations leading the fight against corruption here, rankling the government along the way.
A month after getting that call earlier this year, Mr. González’s workday was interrupted by a volley of calls. Employees from four other nonprofit groups he had previously headed, as well as a person working at his home, all called to say government tax and labor auditors were at their doors. They had come to serve notice that all four organizations and Mr. González himself would be facing a total of nine government inspections; Mexicans Against Corruption came under scrutiny two months later.
“We read it as a very clear message of intimidation,” said
María Amparo Casar,
the organization’s co-president.
Mexico’s tax agency declined to comment on specific audits. A representative for Mexico’s public social-security institute, which undertakes labor audits, didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. Spokesmen for the tax agency and for the presidency said earlier this year the government had begun a campaign to audit nonprofit groups to assure they weren’t being used to launder illicit funds.
A person close to the president said he knew of no telephone calls from any high official to Mr. González expressing presidential displeasure and that Mr. Peña Nieto didn’t have a problem with Mr. González. The person added, however, that he thought Mr. González’s remarks about the president had been rude.
If Mr. González hit a nerve, it likely is because his group has helped expose more than two-dozen alleged instances of high-profile corruption over the past two years. Most involve high-ranking government officials, but some implicate top businessmen and opposition leaders. “We have nothing personal against the government,” Mr. González said.
Earlier this year, after the group published material it said implicated the former governor of Quintana Roo in corruption, the government issued a warrant for his arrest on corruption charges. The governor, who denies any wrongdoing, was detained in Panama and is slated for imminent extradition.
Another of the group’s probes found that several federal agencies contracted with universities for services that were outsourced to nonexistent front companies and never provided—a process that a government auditing agency says left some $210 million unaccounted for. Mexico’s tax agency has opened an inquiry into the matter; a spokesman for the agency declined to comment further. No charges have been filed.
Mexicans Against Corruption has come to symbolize the fight against corruption, which Ms. Casar estimates costs the country’s economy some $47 billion a year, or about 5% of its gross domestic product.
“They have become the voice of Mexican society in a country where governments doesn’t deliver results,” said
a respected political scientist.
Mr. Peña Nieto has repeatedly said the fight against corruption is a priority. He supported a package of anticorruption laws that Congress passed two years ago. But the naming of a new anticorruption prosecutor has long been pending in the Senate, where Mr. Peña Nieto’s PRI is by far the strongest political force.
Public outrage over corruption is already shaking up the campaign for elections in July of next year, with an antigraft message helping to catapult leftist nationalist presidential candidate
Andrés Manuel López Obrador
to the top of polls. The former Mexico City mayor says the country is run by a political mafia that only he can tackle.
Not just ordinary Mexicans are upset. The increasing clout of Mexicans Against Corruption and other such groups, all of them financed by private donors, is a sign that some members of Mexico’s economic elite are taking a bigger public role in fighting corruption. “It’s time we the privileged ones assume our responsibility,” said Mr. González, the son of one of Mexico’s most prominent businessmen.
The continued criticism from nonprofits has exasperated Mr. Peña Nieto, who blasted them at a recent event for what he said was a negative attitude. “Unfortunately, we hear more often voices in civil society, condemning, criticizing, bullying institutions,” he said.
The president’s reference to bullying drew a firestorm of ridicule on social media, and editorial cartoonists had a field day. One cartoon portrayed the president surrounded by concentric rings of beefy, mean-looking bodyguards warning a wide-eyed citizen trying to break into the circle to “stop bullying the boys.”
Mexicans Against Corruption’s potentially most explosive investigation centers on at least $4 million of allegedly illegal campaign contributions Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht says it made in exchange for lucrative government contracts. The group has publicized testimony given before Brazilian courts from former Odebrecht executives, who said the money was paid into accounts linked to a top aide of Mr. Peña Nieto during the 2012 presidential campaign and just before Mr. Peña Nieto took office in December of that year.
A prosecutor at Mexico’s attorney-general’s office was fired days after announcing a probe into the campaign-financing allegations, with the acting attorney-general saying he had improperly disclosed details of a continuing investigation. The attorney-general’s office has said a broader investigation into Odebrecht’s activities in Mexico has been under way for a year, but no charges have been brought.
A presidential spokesman denied there had been any illegal financing of Mr. Peña Nieto’s campaign.
The lack of prosecutions in Mexico linked to the Odebrecht case stands out compared with other Latin American nations like Peru, Colombia, Panama and Brazil, all of which have brought charges against senior officials, including some former and current presidents.
Meanwhile, pressure on Mr. González and his team has mounted in recent months. His mobile phone, along with telephones belonging to two of the group’s journalists, were spied on through a spyware application, according to the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto, a research center that investigates digital espionage against civil-society groups, which said the app’s creator sells it only to authorized governments.
The government, which denies any involvement, says it has opened its own inquiry.
Mr. González says he is undeterred. “We hit and they hit back,” he said.