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Shine a light in Mexico

April 22, 2008|Zachary Bookman | Zachary Bookman is a lawyer and a Fulbright Fellow studying transparency in Mexico City.

This is not your parents' Mexico. Dogs are fatter, cars are bigger and the typical Mexican knows a little more about the workings of her government.

This is nothing to scoff at. For most of the 20th century, Mexico was ruled by a single, secretive political party. Human rights abuses went undocumented, and journalism was practically a state-sponsored profession. Now, after a generation of electoral reform and economic liberalization, Mexicans have finally gotten a taste of sunshine courtesy of the landmark 2002 Federal Transparency and Access to Public Government Information Law. But just as the country starts to enjoy a culture of transparency, vested interests are looking to defang the right to know.

That would be a shame. Mexico has grown into the world's 12th-largest economy and is on the cusp of consolidating its democratic gains. Crowning the achievements are its recent strides toward openness and transparency. Citizens can use a sophisticated website to probe government files and ask pointed questions, such as how much politicians are paid. If an information request is denied, they may appeal to an administrative court within the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information -- the operationally independent executive body charged with administering the law.

The process has produced noteworthy successes. In one case, a Mexican think tank used hundreds of information requests to expose the misuse of 200 million pesos ($19 million) originally intended to fight HIV/AIDS. It turned out that the money was being distributed to hospitals that had budget crises, including some with virtually no experience treating HIV patients. Another investigation, conducted jointly by six non-governmental organizations, discovered that 30 million pesos ($3 million) of the same AIDS funding went to an anti-abortion group. A private audit of the files then found that about 90% of the $3 million was misspent on luxuries such as parties, Cartier pens and lingerie.

Evidence is mounting too that the law is taking hold. Requests to federal agencies have grown every year, and polls show that awareness of the new legal apparatus is spreading nationally. Just last year, Mexico's Congress passed an important constitutional amendment requiring the country's 31 states to follow in the federal government's footsteps by opening their records and disseminating some of the vast body of state-level government information.

But 2008 is shaping up to be a very different year. Most notably, the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information has reversed course. With little public explanation, the institute's chief -- a reported ally of President Felipe Calderon -- proposed relaxing how the government complies with information requests. In practice, that means it will be easier for agencies to deny the existence of information or to challenge the necessity, costliness or viability of producing it.

At the same time, a number of Mexico's states are mutinying. Queretaro, for example, unilaterally decided to merge the agency responsible for access to information with the one that monitors human rights. Not only does this contravene the 2007 constitutional amendment, but it looks like a blatant attempt to undermine the state right-to-know effort by combining the transparency office with a do-nothing agency. A handful of other states are champing at the bit, waiting to find out if they can get away with the same thing.

Part of the problem is that Mexico's erstwhile human rights reforms offer bad precedent. Touted in the 1990s as a beacon of hope for activists and victims, the cause eventually languished in a morass of bureaucratic inefficiency. Instead of dispensing policy-changing reports and heavy sanctions, today the National Human Rights Commission stands as little more than an apologist for government wrongs, offering weak recommendations that accomplish little and cost a lot.

So the question stands: Can the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information save itself? Or will it, through the force of a thousand political cuts, go the way of its weaker human rights counterpart?

A one-two punch is needed. As leader of the country's transparency movement, the institute must make a spirited stand for the preservation of the federal law's pro-access bent, while affirmatively denouncing the state-level regression. Some encouragement in the form of a vocal citizen outcry might help as well.

The stakes are high. Mexico needs to stop backsliding in order to cement its recent democratic gains. If it does, it could become a model for Latin American development. The alternative is to let its political volition wither, and with it the prospect of a truly open society.

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