Alumna Irma Eréndira Sandoval leads Mexico's anti-corruption efforts

Ph.D. Politics, 2006

Head shot of Irma Eréndira Sandoval

Irma Sandoval will enlist the help of Mexico's citizenry to improve the monitoring of public works contracts and the use of public funds. "We have to generate armies of citizen complainants… giving anonymity and labor guarantees to those who reveal acts of corruption, and perhaps rewards to those who help us to recover the wealth of all," she said. (Photo courtesy of Irma Sandoval)

When Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office as the president of Mexico on Dec. 1, UC Santa Cruz alumna Irma Sandoval became the front line in that country's war on corruption.

Sandoval, who earned her Ph.D. in politics from UC Santa Cruz, has been a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Corruption at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. As comptroller general, she is now a key member of Lopez Obrador's cabinet, leading the ministry that functions as the government watchdog for civil servants. Lopez Obrador ran on an anti-corruption, anti-violence platform and won a landslide victory with 53 percent of the vote—more than twice what his closest rival got.

Lopez Obrador is Mexico's first leftist president in decades. An advocate for students, the elderly, and social programs, he invites comparisons to U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. 

"I am very excited and deeply committed to what the president has called the 'fourth transformation' of Mexico," Sandoval said in an email. "It's a complete renovation of public life in my country."

Saying she is honored to be entrusted with the responsibilities of her new role, Sandoval added that she is "thrilled" that the president and the people of Mexico have high expectations for the new government.

In the months since the July election, Sandoval has worked with a broad team of experts from government, academia, and social organizations to design the administration's action plan. "I have also been working closely with President Lopez Obrador, who has asked me personally to lead the work to design the new norms that will put a new Act for Republican Austerity in place," she wrote.

In an interview with La Jornada, one of Mexico City's leading daily newspapers, Sandoval said she will use technology and enlist the help of the citizenry to improve the monitoring of public works contracts and the use of public funds. She wants to empower Mexicans to denounce acts of bribery, even offering rewards as incentives.

"We have to generate armies of citizen complainants… giving anonymity and labor guarantees to those who reveal acts of corruption, and perhaps rewards to those who help us to recover the wealth of all," she said.

The cost of corruption is estimated to be about 10 percent of Mexico's gross national product, which Sandoval calls a "conservative calculation." As a nation, she notes, Mexico is third behind only China and Russia in illicit financial flows—money laundering, human trafficking, organ trafficking, and other "heartbreaking things."

Lopez Obrador's election is a powerful signal that the people of Mexico remain hopeful and optimistic that the government can crack down on corruption. "The Mexican population is very stoic, and that should not be confused with indignity, cowardice or cynicism," she said.

Sandoval spent more than two years at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where she studied corruption. In her 2013 paper entitled "From 'Institutional' to 'Structural' Corruption: Rethinking Accountability in a World of Public Private Partnerships," she called for a radical rethinking of the concept of accountability.

Corruption, she wrote, "is a matter of political domination, structural impunity (especially for the private sector) and social disempowerment. The fundamental remedy, therefore, lies in significant doses of civic and economic democracy."

Academia is excellent preparation for government service, said Sandoval. "Academia is an exceptional space for reflection," she said. "Working in the anticorruption laboratory that I founded and directed at UNAM allowed me to develop policies to promote transparency and tackle corruption."

Sandoval said she has always been drawn toward social causes, and "today the best social cause in my country is to participate in the government of this 'fourth transformation.' In a way, I have always been in public service, since I have worked for the National University, which is a public university."

Lopez Obrador took office following a period of unprecedented violence in which political candidates, municipal officials, and journalists have been murdered. Just after the election, Sandoval was interviewed by Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! program. Sandoval referred to Lopez Obrador's election as a "historic moment" that synthesized many decades of struggles in Mexico for human rights, economic justice, and fairness and integrity in government and the criminal justice system.

In a discussion of rampant drug-related violence in Mexico and the steady flow of Mexican immigrants into the United States, Sandoval outlined an approach that will rely on significant investment in "economic, social, and cultural development." Mexicans, she noted, want to live their lives in their country, with their families and immersed in their culture.

Sandoval advocates greater government transparency and accountability, as well as individual accountability. She believes the "struggle to combat impunity… is really the other side of the coin of corruption."

Sandoval takes pride in having studied at the University of California, and she is particularly proud to be a Banana Slug. "The richness of the multidisciplinary approaches that we study at UCSC, the social and environmental consciousness that the university fosters, and the cultural diversity that we embrace at Santa Cruz—all are irreplaceable values that have guided my professional career," she said.

Sandoval expressed gratitude to her family members for their love and support; she is married to John Ackerman (Ph.D. '07, sociology), who teaches law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Sandoval encouraged today's students to study hard and "connect with those pursuing the best social causes, such as justice, democracy, and respect for all cultures." Then she added, "And come visit us in Mexico!"