This article is adapted from our 1st print issue of 2016. For an overview of our Top 5 Corruption Busters, click here.
Last April, Mexico’s Congress passed a sweeping anticorruption law that would, among other things, increase oversight on public officials and establish a special prosecutor to take on corruption cases. The Sistema Nacional Anticorrupción (National Anticorruption System, or SNA) was a major accomplishment for civil society groups, which for years had been working to get similar measures passed.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose administration has faced its own corruption scandals, supported the bill. But there was a catch: The SNA had to be approved by more than half of the country’s state legislatures in order to be written into the constitution. Some activists worried it would languish outside of the national spotlight.
Viridiana Rios was part of a group of people who helped make sure that didn’t happen. As the then-head of México ¿Cómo Vamos? (How are we doing, Mexico?), a watchdog group started in 2012 by the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO), she helped create the anticorruptómetro — a Web page and social media campaign that tracks state legislative action on the reforms. Through tweets and media outreach, Rios and her colleagues lobbied state legislators to support the bill — which by the end of 2015 had been approved by 30 of the country’s 32 state legislatures, including the Federal District.
Rios, a 33-year-old Harvard-trained political scientist, is part of a generation of activists whose media savvy brings previously inaccessible information to a broader public. While the tools are new, the targets are not: Rios says she wants to use social media and big data to address violence, poverty and inequality in her country, among other things.
Rios grew up in what she described as a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City and attended private schools on scholarships. She was 11 during the Zapatista uprising of 1994, and she said the group’s advance on Mexico City in 2001 was her political awakening. “I was very sensitive to [inequality] because I was the ‘girl with scholarships,’” she recalled.
At Harvard, Rios’ research on how poor coordination between diff erent levels of government was behind Mexico’s inability to fight corruption and improve governance won an American Political Science Award for best dissertation in the field of public administration. She is now expanding on that investigation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., looking at how violence and the absence of rule of law affects Mexico’s economy.
Returning to Mexico in 2013, Rios helped to transform México ¿Cómo Vamos?, which IMCO had started as a Twitter campaign, into a sophisticated and easy-to-use reference on the country’s economy. The site’s main feature, the Semáforo Económico (Economic Traffic Light) now provides “a neutral, high-quality source” of statistics on economic indicators, she said.
The organization’s data and findings have been widely used by the foreign and domestic press, as well as by the government and civil society. “Our ultimate goal is to empower citizens with information and push officials to make the right decisions,” Rios said.
Rios is quick to note that while her organization contributed to the lobbying pressure that led to approval of the SNA, many of her colleagues at other organizations were doing “cutting-edge anticorruption work” long before she entered the scene. Her focus, in any case, is on the future. With the success of the SNA behind her, Rios hopes to return to more rigorous research that can exploit the potential of big data to analyze larger civil society challenges such as competitiveness, inequality, social mobility and education.
“There are many battles to fight,” she said.
Renwick is a New York-based journalist.