Sunshine or Sunset? The Latest Threat to Freedom of Information in Mexico

In a country beset by extreme and seemingly intractable corruption, Mexico’s National Institute for Access to Information (INAI)—which runs Mexico’s freedom of information system—has stood out as an unusually effective mechanism for promoting transparency, accountability, and integrity. The INAI’s effectiveness stems from its binding legal authority and independence, as provided by constitutional provisions passed in 2013. The Institute can and has compelled other government agencies to improve their information disclosure policies, and, perhaps most significantly, the INAI can override other government agencies’ denial of information access requests. The INAI has substantial leverage to ensure greater government compliance by way of meaningful fines and effective injunctions for noncompliance. The INAI also moves lightning fast; the INAI regularly satisfies its statutory obligations to respond to requests within twenty business days and to deliver documents within thirty. The INAI does not charge search fees, and all uncovered information is available to the wider public. Citizens can challenge decisions to withhold information, and they routinely prevail.

The INAI’s broad freedom of information mandate makes the agency a powerful actor in exposing corruption (see, for example, here, here, and here). Perhaps most notably, the Institute enabled discovery of former President Pena Nieto’s secret mansion (“the White House Scandal”), the diversion of over $400 million allotted to public services, and embezzlement in public-private ventures in Mexico’s vast energy sector. More broadly, despite all the well-known deficiencies of Mexico’s anticorruption institutions, the INAI has been globally lauded for its role in government transparency.

Given this, why is Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to by his initials “AMLO”), who ran and won on an anticorruption platform, so keen on eradicating the agency? In a press conference earlier this year, AMLO proposed decommissioning all of Mexico’s independent agencies, singling out the INAI as an especially egregious example of bloated bureaucracy. His rationale boils down to three main arguments: (1) the INAI hasn’t ended corruption, (2) the INAI costs too much, and (3) the INAI’s functions can be provided by the Secretariat of Public Functions (SFP), a non-independent body that performs federal government audits and reports directly to the president. These arguments are unconvincing, to say the least.

  • First, consider AMLO’s complaint that the INAI is ineffective in addressing corruption. He has claimed that the INAI has “turned a blind eye to corruption” and fostered a false sense of security, allowing corruption to fester. So far as I can tell, the evidence for this assertion boils down to the fact that although the INAI has been operating for close to two decades, corruption still persists. But nobody could reasonably expect that the INAI would be able to eliminate corruption. And if reported corruption has remained steady or increased over the last twenty years, that may well be in part because the INAI is effective in exposing corruption that would otherwise remain hidden. While the INAI’s effectiveness is hard to measure, outside observers—including journalists, human rights groups, and anticorruption organizations—emphasize the INAI’s integral role in exposing corrupt activities.
  • Second, AMLO’s complaints about the INAI’s cost lack context and foresight. He likes to point out that if the INAI were shuttered, its billion peso budget (~USD 50 million) could be diverted to the development of vaccines and educational programs. But the INAI is not that expensive when one considers the valuable services it delivers for Mexican society. The INAI’s budget represents less than half a percent of the federal budget, and these costs are largely if not completely offset by the amount that the INAI saves the government. The INAI enabled discovery of hundreds of millions of pesos misappropriated by government agencies, and the INAI has likely deterred the theft or diversion of even greater sums. Furthermore, the INAI can fine private organizations found to have abused privacy and personal data, to the tune of millions of dollars. All told, in addition to the valuable public services it has provided, the agency has more than recouped its own expenditures in levied fines.
  • Third, AMLO’s claim that he is not trying to dismantle Mexico’s freedom of information system, but instead is going to replace the current system with something better, rings hollow. AMLO has proposed that the INAI could be absorbed into the SFP and other government agencies that report to the President, creating a system that would respond to information requests within just 72 hours. There are a few problems here. For starters, the promise that the new system will respond to all information requests that quickly is patently absurd, unless the government plans to start issuing mass denials. More importantly, absorbing the INAI’s functions into the SFP will result in a critical loss of function and independence. The SFP’s expertise is limited to monitoring the internal affairs of the federal executive branch; without dramatic expansion and restructuring, the agency cannot simply assume the INAI’s broad portfolio of responsibilities. Furthermore, transferring the INAI’s functions to the SFP would dangerously consolidate power within the executive branch, with final decisions over information disclosure resting with an agency that is overseen and controlled by the President. This is especially worrisome in light of the fact that the INAI has been instrumental in exposing corruption within the executive branch, including in at least one instance corruption by a former President and his family. (It is particularly notable that the law establishing the INAI forbids the government from denying access to information found to be in connection with corruption or human rights abuses, a measure that is not replicated in the SFP’s charter.)

The INAI has its flaws, and certain reforms may be appropriate. But destroying the INAI without providing a rational alternative is, mildly put, counterproductive for anticorruption efforts. So why is AMLO pushing this? So much of Mexico’s anticorruption system is in dire need of reform, and so many institutions that are supposed to promote integrity and transparency are not working well. Why take aim at the INAI?

Viewed most charitably, AMLO is simply mistaken in his assessment of the INAI’s performance, and overly optimistic about the capacity of the SFP to perform the INAI’s functions. But there is also a darker, more cynical take: the arguments for abolishing the INAI and transferring its functions to an executive branch ministry under the President’s control suggest that AMLO cares more about undermining any entity that might threaten his personal power than he is about stamping out corruption. Indeed, AMLO’s recent proposal to abolish the INAI is just the culmination of what has been a troubling trend of attacks on the agency: AMLO has steadily decreased the INAI’s budget, refused (and litigated!) an unprecedented number of INAI information requests despite claiming that his government is a model of transparency, and resisted statutory requirements for government prosecution on INAI findings. Taken together, his attacks on the INAI start to seem like a naked power grab, motivated by a desire to eradicate agencies that are outside of his control.

It is not yet clear whether or how AMLO will move forward with his proposal to shutter the INAI. Though he has announced that his legislative proposal is close to completion, any successful change to the INAI must survive the procedural gauntlet for constitutional amendments. The anticorruption community, both in Mexico and internationally, should monitor this situation carefully, and vigorously resist any efforts to weaken Mexico’s freedom of information system. AMLO cannot claim the mantle of anticorruption reformer while simultaneously undermining Mexico’s most effective anticorruption laws and institutions.

13 thoughts on “Sunshine or Sunset? The Latest Threat to Freedom of Information in Mexico

  1. Very much enjoyed this write up. Without knowing much about Mexican politics, I was curious whether “power grab” version of events is consistent with AMLO’s other behaviors while in office, or whether it would be more of a one-off/anomaly (which would lend more credence to the charitable take).

    • As much as I would love to believe in AMLO’s anticorruption efforts, I’d have to say I’m a bit of a skeptic. AMLO’s narrative seems to use “drain the swamp” rhetoric to paper over ineffective to harmful efforts. A few illustrative examples: his top anticorruption deputies have resigned, some family members and friends are involved in embezzlement imbroglios, and his biggest direct move seems to be renaming the Asset Administration and Disposal Service (SAE) to the Institute for the Return of Stolen Goods to the People. It’s flash, no substance, all the while seemingly consolidating power from other branches of government to the executive. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s likely just another chapter in Mexican corruption.

  2. Thanks so much for this fascinating post! I appreciate your recommendation that the international anticorruption community should work against AMLO’s stated intention to eliminate the INAI but I’m curious – what effect, if any, you think this international effort or “peer pressure” might have on the situation? Removing the INAI would undoubtedly reduce Mexico’s standing as working toward transparency though I worry that a consolidation-minded president like AMLO might not care. But, then again, no one likes bad press.

    • Hi Laurel, of course, there’s not too much the international community can directly do to convince AMLO otherwise– however, AMLO does enjoy a bit of spotlight, and right now the pandemic provides some leverage. International outcry, especially during this period where AMLO has been negotiating with the United States for access to vaccines, may be able to exert enough pressure for this legislative proposal to be quietly filed away.

  3. Jaylia, I thought this post offered a really interesting slice of political context for anticorruption efforts in Mexico! Thank you for writing it. I’m wondering about the public perception of INAI – do folks on the ground view it as successful in its objectives? Or are AMLO’s efforts being offered to a fairly receptive audience? How much public awareness is there around this issue?

    • I definitely don’t want to discount AMLO’s popularity– there’s a reason why he was elected with a commanding majority! As such, there’s healthy debate regarding the role of the INAI, and my hypothesis is that it’s largely only due to AMLO’s consistent critique. My understanding is that the INAI didn’t really have much of a public profile or reputation before AMLO, as before becoming politicized, it was just the agency where one could go and request information. Before AMLO, the most press the INAI really received as an entity was vis a vis the Right to Be Forgotten.

      • I too wondered about the public perception of the INAI, because it seems outrageous for AMLO to propose eliminating an agency that enabled the discovery of his predecessor’s extensive corruption. Your explanation certainly helped clear that up!

        But I’m also curious how politicians on both sides of the aisle feel about this proposal. If corruption is insidious across the board, then may AMLO be able to build a sufficiently strong coalition to amend the constitution? It seems like eliminating the INAI would be in the best interest of corrupt politicians regardless of party, particularly politicians at the state level (who may fly under the radar of the SFP). Since only 2/3 of Congress and a majority of states must agree to amend the constitution, it seems feasible that there are enough self-serving politicians and AMLO supporters to pass the amendment, no?

        • Hi Jenny, AMLO has already amended the constitution with several of his initiatives! I would hesitate to place the likelihood of constitutional revision on corrupt politicians per se, just given that 2/3 + majority in states is such a large number of corrupt individuals to comprehend. Instead, I’d point to politicians riding AMLO’s coattails, corrupt or no, as what may push AMLO’s proposals past the finish line.

  4. Thank you so much for writing about INAI, Jaylia! I think I agree that AMLO’s proposal does not seem to be the most efficient one and the true intentions seem to be a bit dark. However, I was wondering whether there is nevertheless room for improvement regarding INAI. I am considering, for example, further empowering INAI to deal with the problems AMLO supposedly identified and that inspired his proposal. Do you have any idea about how popular would this be among society and those with the power to implement it?

    • Certainly! The INAI definitely has room for improvement, though perhaps not along the lines that AMLO has identified. AMLO’s argument center around bureaucratic waste and lack of outcomes, which to me, seem in tension with one another when it comes to the INAI. AMLO himself has been obstructionist with INAI requests, which he then cites to as an example of INAI inefficiency. If the INAI is to be a cheaper to use, more responsive, and accountable, my answer would be to give the agency more resources rather than less.

  5. I’m a bit concerned that AMLO’s justifications for deconstructing INAI is simply reflective of the broader trend among populists globally to attempt to weed out anticorruption forces in an attempt to aggrandize personal power. I think what AMLO shows is that the attempts to attack anticorruption vehicles is not specific to right-wing populism, but rather covers populism across the ideological spectrum.

  6. Thank you for this great read Jaylia! The INAI certainly appears to be somewhat effective in its mission. Out of curiosity, can we conclusively state that the INAI is truly independent? For instance, who funds the INAI and are there any political pressures that might prevent the INAI from pursuing a certain case or action?

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