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By Antonio Garza

The governor of Puebla stepped down in July, stuffing some $900 000 in his pockets on the way out. It’s not a particularly unusual occurrence in Mexico, and you’ve likely heard about similar cases taking place across the country. But if you missed this particular story, don’t worry too much — it was published well before you were born.

The story surfaced in the New York Times in 1892, but its familiarity today highlights Mexico’s century-long struggle with corruption. Yet if we stop at this catchy anecdote, we will miss the even more interesting story that is currently unfolding. It is clear that the challenge of corruption has persisted, but the public’s reaction is changing. As never before, Mexican society today is taking the fight against corruption into its own hands.

To be more accurate, or literal, perhaps we should say that it is holding the fight in its hands. Smartphones have become the most effective, widespread, and revolutionary anti-corruption tool. A Mexican witnessing bad behaviour can film the episode and upload it onto social media in a matter of seconds. Throw on a few clever hashtags and the videos spread like wildfire across the Internet. Mexico City officials and comedy groups have cashed in on the trend, targeting residents who are engaging in minor infractions (such as parking illegally or driving in the city’s bike lanes) and garnering hundreds of thousands of views online. Private citizens have never held such a capacity to name and shame.

Then there are the Mexicans who document corruption for a living. The country is home to extraordinary reporters who are covering and uncovering the biggest scandals. The investigative journalist Carmen Aristegui may be the most widely known, especially after her news team revealed President Peña Nieto’s Casa Blanca scandal. But there are thousands of other journalists who are flagging suspicious activities and painstakingly sifting through reams of public documents to hold their leaders accountable. In 1996, the Mexican press published 502 pieces with the word ‘corruption’, but by 2014 this number had ballooned to more than 29 505 mentions, ratcheting up the pressure on the government to act.

Finally, there are the civil society groups that corral isolated incidents of corruption into larger social movements. These groups have cajoled and pushed their way into government meetings, even playing a leading role in the recent National Anticorruption System legislation. When they are not sitting with legislators, they are pressuring the agenda. The proposed Ley de bill, which defines rules of conduct for public servants and increases the punishments for corruption, was written and proposed by civil society groups. It is well on its way to receive the 120 000 signatures necessary to force it onto legislators’ plates. The initiative even comes with its own catchy hashtag: #challengeadioscorruptos.

There is always the question of why these efforts even matter. Couldn’t corruption simply grease the wheels in top-heavy bureaucracies? The answer, it seems, is more akin to adding sand to the gears. Of course measuring anything illegal is as much an art as a science, but analysts report that 44% of companies in Mexico have paid bribes and that corruption is the largest factor inhibiting their business returns. Corruption slows down investment and misallocates government funds, with Mexico’s Central Bank estimating that it amounts to a staggering 9% of GDP. These pernicious effects go even further, dragging down the morale and innovative spirit of the next generation of entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Fighting corruption takes time — centuries — and no one technological or political development is guaranteed to have much effect. Yet these grassroots efforts are a new and exciting twist on an old tale. With each video, article, and legislative bill, Mexico’s citizens shine beams of light in their country’s darkest corners. Even these efforts may not be enough to clean up the system, but they are beginning to illuminate a path forward.

• Antonio Garza is a former US Ambassador to Mexico and counsel in the Mexico City office of White & Case. Reach him at @aogarza

• This article first appeared on the Dallas Morning News website