MEXICO CITY · Making money as a corrupt parking cop in this city always has been a simple proposition. First you look for double-parked cars — and those are as common in this overcrowded capital as sand in the desert. You take your tow truck, back up to the vehicle, and you wait. Sometimes within minutes, the owner of the car shows up and hands over some cash. Everyone knows the routine. Your act of “generosity” earns you $25 or so, about half the fine the driver would have paid to the city.
At least that’s how it used to be.
In one of many programs using digital technology across Mexico to cut down on corruption, Mexico City’s police command installed cameras and global positioning system receivers on 170 tow trucks a few months ago. Twenty-five officers caught taking bribes were soon out of work.
Across Mexico, activists and a small number of reform-minded officials are working to use relatively simple record-keeping and monitoring methods to improve government efficiency and make the country’s notoriously byzantine bureaucracy more accountable.
New technologies are changing the way property taxes are collected in Acapulco, how immigration officers check passports and visas, and how presidential campaigns are run.
Soon after the cameras were installed this summer, the Mexico City impound lot began to fill with cars, officials said. Tow-truck drivers set daily records, and cash started filling city coffers. The number of cars towed away by city-operated trucks installed with the system increased by 350 percent.
“I asked myself , ‘What do we have to do to eliminate the bad behavior we knew was out there?'” said Antonio Pineda, who initiated the program for Mexico City’s Secretariat for Public Security. “We had to become like agent 007, which we did.”
Corruption in Mexico remains widespread. This is a country, after all, where one in 20 students has paid a bribe to get a diploma, one in 10 drivers has received a license through a payoff, and one in four residents has bribed city workers to pick up garbage, according to a survey by the watchdog group Mexican Transparency.
The Mexican Transparency study found the most corrupt government practice in Mexico was parking enforcement: More than 60 percent of drivers who encountered an officer with a tow truck paid a bribe to keep their vehicles out of the impound lot.
In the effort to stop that corruption, cameras transmit live to police headquarters and also record to a DVD installed in the truck. Pineda takes delight in showing “home movies” that capture corrupt officers red-handed.
In one especially pathetic sequence, a woman who double-parked returns to her car after shopping and ends up giving her bags of groceries, along with a few pesos, to the police officer as a bribe.
The issuing of birth certificates, marriage records and other civil documents has long been another font of corruption: According to Mexican Transparency, 7 percent of people requesting such records paid a bribe to get the document or to speed the process.
But the number has declined slightly, as more Mexican cities and states adopt digital document management technology.
At Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, officials recently worked with Laserfiche, which has sold its software to several Mexican state and cities. A massive project to digitize seven decades of immigration records has been completed. Alfonso Torres left his job with the Mexican branch of a U.S. company to join the immigration office five years ago and start the program.
When he arrived, he found an information system in its infancy. Agents operated computers, but their PCs weren’t linked to the central office.
“Little by little, you cut down on the opportunities for corruption,” Torres said.