Transparency in Mexico: Information doesn't come easily

In Mexico it can be a long, frustrating pursuit for members of civil society or journalists to get even basic information from the government, despite an institution created to make it easier.

By , Correspondent

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    Members of the Federal Electoral Tribunal hold a session in Mexico City, Aug. 31. Mexico's highest electoral authority declared Friday that Enrique Pena Nieto was the legitimate winner of the country's July 1 presidential election, formally opening the transition to a new government despite continuing claims of fraud by the second-place candidate of the left and his supporters.
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A decade after Mexico created its Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), civil society has more access to information on the federal government’s activities than ever before.

President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto – whose campaign was marred by accusations of vote buying and corruption – has proposed extending transparency requirements to state and local governments. He is pushing, too, for an anti-corruption panel and a citizen-led agency to oversee government spending.

On Thursday night, Mexico’s seven-member Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled unanimously to dismiss a complaint that this summer's election was marred by fraud, clearing the way for Mr. Peña Nieto to assume the presidency on Dec. 1.

Recommended: How much do you know about Mexico? Take our quiz.

Yet the reality for members of Mexico’s civil society, journalists, or just concerned citizens? Getting basic information from the government in a timely manner can be a dogged, frustrating pursuit.

Much like in the United States, most government agencies here have a department dedicated to public and media relations; in Mexico it’s called “social communication.” Unlike in the US, however, that department often throws up barriers to retrieving information, rather than facilitating its distribution.

One secretary leads to another. And another.

There are numerous informal ways to slow the access to information, regardless of what the law says. That’s where the IFAI can step in and help – although how far that help goes is a matter of how long one is willing to wait.

In a recent case posted publicly on the IFAI website per the institute’s policy, someone asked the Mexican Navy how many people, of any rank or job type, had been dismissed for colluding with organized crime since 2006. When a Navy communications officer responded with a link to the Navy’s web page, which didn’t contain the requested information, the person asked IFAI to step in. IFAI evaluated the request and resolved that the Navy must perform an “exhaustive investigation” to provide the requested information.

The whole rigmarole took roughly three months – and the information still hadn’t been provided.

The government also makes overt decisions to restrict information.

President Felipe Calderón’s administration decided to stop publishing data on the country’s crime-related homicides earlier this year. In fact, the National Public Security System (SNSP), which is under the administration’s control, last released statistics on the death toll from the fight against organized crime in September 2011.

Jaime Lopez Aranda, who heads up the SNSP, told Mexico’s Reforma newspaper that the statistics were a “failed experiment.” Categorizing murders by organized crime, he said, “deeply undermines criminal procedure.”

It’s true that the statistics weren’t perfect. And it’s arguable that defining what is and isn’t a homicide related to organized crime should be decided by the courts rather than by approximations (in Mexico’s case, whether a high-powered firearm was used, whether the body showed signs of torture, etc.).

Yet it’s also true that it’s convenient for Calderón’s government not to report those numbers, given that the death toll in the administration’s fight against organized crime continues to mount.

“The government does have political reasons for not making its tally of organized-crime-related murders public,” writes InSight Crime analyst Elyssa Pachico. “Doing so could fuel further criticism that the human costs of Calderon's security strategy far outweigh the perceived benefits.”

Expanding the reach of the IFAI will strengthen the public’s right to freedom of information. How the government takes on the responsibility of providing it is another matter.

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