MEXICO CITY -- Shortly before taking office, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador decided to create an army of volunteers — 18,000 of them — to carry out an unusual mission for an administration yet to begin.
The team dubbed the “servants of the nation” set out door-to-door to canvass people who receive government benefits, collecting their personal information in part to see if they might be eligible for yet more help from various programs López Obrador had promised during the campaign for the likes of farmers, the disabled, unemployed youth and the elderly.
The force — hired by former campaign workers who made up the transition team — was overwhelmingly shifted onto the government payroll as soon as López Obrador took office on Dec. 1, 2018 — to continue the data collection and personally hand out those benefits in the form of debit cards.
The effort alarmed opposition political parties who saw it as an attempt to illegally use public funds to promote López Obrador and his leftist Morena party — exactly the sort of political shenanigans that the new president has vowed to shun as part of his “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico.
The critics gathered photos and videos showing at least some of the group wearing vests or hats adorned with López Obrador's image as they delivered aid, sometimes directly saying it was from the president.
“Good morning. We come on behalf of the president of the republic, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to deliver some help for your family. ... Would you allow us to enter your home? We are servants of the nation,” said a canvasser shown in one of the videos in a complaint presented by the opposition.
Electoral authorities agreed with the critics, at least to a point. The country's electoral court ruled last month that some of those “servants” and regional coordinators of the effort had violated the law, though they cleared López Obrador and his cabinet members of wrongdoing.
Among those singled out were coordinators from 14 of Mexico's 31 states plus the capital district, some of whom were gubernatorial candidates for Morena. The sanctions remain to be determined and could range from warnings to dismissals.
The ruling, however, hasn't appeased the critics, who argue that the court did not thoroughly investicate. Camerino Márquez of the opposition Democratic Revolution Party said it will challenge the ruling and seek a redo of the probe.
“As far as I am concerned, as soon as they started to collect people’s personal information, it was illegal, because during the transition period, they were not yet in power," said María Amparo Casar, who heads the civil watchdog group Mexicans Against Corruption.
"Once they were in office, they continued to use vests and hats with López Obrador’s name, even though it wasn’t a campaign for him.”
That's been a common practice in Mexico, where for decades politicians have turned the distribution of benefits such as food or construction materials into impromptu campaign events, sometimes even wrapping candidates' images or party symbols around the goods.
But López Obrador promised to be a different sort of president, one who would wipe out corruption and extravagance, in large part by example. He's famously austere, moving about in an economy car, flying coach and shunning costly security teams.
In a document submitted to the electoral court, he denied any wrongdoing.
“I have never drawn upon or participated in electoral frauds. On the contrary, I have suffered from them and I have spent many years combatting them,” he said. “I say to you that out of conviction we will never allow the federal budget to be used by officials for the benefit of any candidate or party as happened in previous governments.”
The man in charge of the servants of the nation program is Gabriel García Hernández, who headed the Morena party's organizational work during the campaign and now answers directly to the president.
Under García Hernández’s command are 32 state delegates who in turn oversee 266 regional delegates, who supervise the workers who go to homes.
The number of workers has oscillated around 18,000, a significant share of whom had worked for Morena or other political parties before joining the program.
The program accounted for nearly 90% of the 150 million pesos (about $7.6 million) allotted by Congress for the presidential transition, with each of the 18,021 people in the program getting a payment of about $390.
After the inauguration, at least 16,252 of those “servants” shifted to the payroll of the Department of Welfare, earning about $490 a month.
The fact that they were hired originally by people fresh from the Morena campaign — and then pulled wholesale onto the federal payroll, bothered Sergio Martínez of the civil group Social Impact.
He said their qualifications for social work were unknown, ”or have not so been made public, nor the criteria on which they were selected."
He said that could lead to faulty data collection or delivery of services, “as well as give rise to favoritism, corruption and misuse of public resources.”
María Enriqueta Cepeda of Social Impact complained that there is “no clear information” about the program, “Nor is there access, so far, to any of the products emerging from the census.”
The AP filed transparency requests with the Department of Welfare for information on the process of information gathering, how personal data is protected and copies of receipts for vests and equipment for the “servants,” but there was no response.
Interview requests with various federal officials were also turned down.