Ten years ago, Mexico passed some of the best freedom of information laws in the world. But while the laws are great on paper, their implementation has been problematic. Brooke travels to Mexico City to learn more about why Mexico's sunshine laws still struggle to illuminate information for the public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As the American political establishment argues about the FBI's lack of transparency when following the e-mail trail that ultimately led to the Petraeus-Broadwell tryst, Mexico still struggles even to have that sort of argument. It's been ten eventful years since Mexico passed some of the world's most liberal sunshine laws, and the light they have since shed alternately dazzles, flickers or fades to black.
KATE DOYLE: There was a famous phrase that one always heard when one had a basic question about the way things worked in Mexico, “No sabría decirle,” I wouldn’t know what to tell you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kate Doyle is a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive
KATE DOYLE: So you would be the parent of a child who had reached school age and you wanted to know what kind of schools are there, what kind of budgets do they have and what kind of programs. Pues, no sabría decirle. You’re in a neighborhood that was allocated funds to build a water treatment plant. Well, that was three years ago, and it hasn’t been built yet. When is it going to come? No sabría decirle.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This summer, On the Media hit the road in Mexico to gauge the influence of new media on the elections there, to report on the murders of journalists covering the drug war and to assess the impact of ten years of Mexican sunshine laws. We explored the first two in an hour that aired in June, and now we finally bring you the story of Mexico’s illuminating experiment in sunshine, launched eleven years ago at a history- making conference of academics, lawyers and activists in Oaxaca. The National Security Archive’s Kate Doyle was there.
KATE DOYLE: This was ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ten years after a new sense of what democratic government meant internationally. Countries all over the world were beginning to pass their own freedom of information legislation. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a crucial moment in Mexican politics. For the first time in seven decades a party other than the invincible PRI was in power. Now the PAN Party held a tenuous grip on the presidency, but not a congressional majority. All felt vulnerable, all felt they could do with a little sunshine. Suddenly political outsiders were in a position to do the unprecedented, craft a law based on the presumption that almost all information generated by the government is public information. The law made it far easier to file a request and far easier to appeal than it is in the US. It’s more comprehensive than America's FOIA law. It's much closer to Sweden’s gold standard. And yet?
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: The World Economic Forum, they analyze public policies of transparency. They rank 142 countries, and Mexico is in the 70th place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seventy out of 142. Ernesto Villanueva, law professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University, helped to write the sunshine law, law so radical that it required amending the Constitution. So why does Mexico's transparency record rank in the world’s middle? There are so many reasons.
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: The problem is in Mexico the Freedom of Information Law is an orphan. We don’t have a family of laws that we need, fiscalization laws, accountability laws, many other laws.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Moreover, the Federal Institute for Access to Information, or IFAI, which administers the laws, is riddled with conflicts of interest. Its commissioners are lured with promises of better jobs or threatened with audits. In fact, he says, all this transparency has only lead to more cynicism about a rotten system. You can use the law, expose a politician’s corruption, but then:
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: Nothing changes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nothing changes. He recounts one reporter’s effort to obtain the invoices of a judge who spent pots of public money on pricey women's underwear and received millions of pesos in bribes. The official was confronted.
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: When they asked what happened with this, “Yes I did, why?” And now what? Nothing. The law says nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a very frustrating situation.
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you’re painting an image for me, I think, of opening a door and on the other side is a brick wall.
DR. ERNESTO VILLANEUVA: Right, I'm afraid so, unfortunately, yes.
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ANABEL HERNANDEZ: I am Anabel Hernandez. I’m a Mexican journalist for 18 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hernandez, an investigative journalist, ran up against that brick wall soon after the PAN Party candidate Vicente Fox won the presidency, displacing the PRI candidate for the first time in living memory. Fox had campaigned against presidential extravagance, but:
INTERPRETER FOR ANABEL HERNANDEZ: What I found was exorbitant, surreal expenses in the household items, one of which was a set of hand towels. Each one of them was $400!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eventually, under pressure from the president, she was fired. But she's still working. And now, with the passage of the sunshine laws, she has a new tool, and she uses it, not for information but to learn what officials are trying to hide.
INTERPRETER FOR ANABEL HERNANDEZ: When I generally ask for those files, they tell me they don’t exist. But I have a copy in my hand. It’s a corroboration tool for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you had legal documents and you used the transparency law to show you what the government was trying to hide.
INTERPRETER FOR ANABEL HERNANDEZ: Yes. The law works when one has to be very crafty. One needs to know how to ask the question to get the information that we need, without stressing a) how important it is for us and b) for them to understand what is our ultimate goal. I’m going to give you an example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hernandez wanted to learn which drug
dealers were doing legitimate business with the Defense Ministry. She found that a nephew of the head of the dreaded Sinaloa cartel was providing the ministry with maintenance and transportation, and she used the FOIA law to prove it, in her own special way.
INTERPRETER FOR ANABEL HERNANDEZ: I applied for every possible contract for maintenance of every plane, and I got them all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You hid it. You hid your request in a pile of non-essential requests.
INTERPRETER FOR ANABEL HERNANDEZ: Of course, yes. [LAUGHS]
I, I catch them. [LAUGHS]
KATE DOYLE: There’s this long period in which people test the law. They send requests, they get stymied; they try to send them again, and they get information or they don’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive was not only present at the creation of Mexico’s sunshine law, but actually helped to write it.
KATE DOYLE: This is a process of working the kinks out of what is really an innovative and quite extraordinary piece of legislation for Mexico. And we’re in the middle of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s already led to some extraordinary revelations about, for instance, subsidies to small farmers.
KATE DOYLE: They found, after years of filing requests to get the raw data on how much money was going to who, that people who were unsurprisingly connected to the government, people who had huge corporate farms received the most subsidies. And that project really transformed the way agricultural subsidies were made. But groups that were inured to the neglect and condescension of the government in the face of their inquiry have yet to be, in many cases, convinced that this is a mechanism that can work for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doyle is clear-eyed about the government's disinclination to comply with the sunshine laws. She’s seen the power of IFAI curtailed and its budgets held hostage by the very people who stand to lose the most if information is unleashed.
KATE DOYLE: But even some members of the government and Congress are pushing back. And right now, as we speak, there are a series of reforms that the new president-elect has backed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is much that Mexicans don't know about the drug war, political corruption, Mexico's own dirty war but Doyle believes, based on years working on human rights in the region, that ultimately Mexicans will embrace the idea that they deserve to know.
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