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.

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The Significance of Mexico’s Upcoming Referendum on Lifting Former Presidents’ Immunity from Prosecution

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) has repeatedly assailed Mexico’s former presidents as corrupt. However, despite his attacks, AMLO has said that he does not want to pursue criminal actions against his predecessors. Therefore, AMLO raised eyebrows this past September when he called for a referendum that asks citizens to vote on the question whether “the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the applicable laws and procedures, investigate and if appropriate punish, the presumed crimes committed by former presidents,” specifically naming former presidents Enrique Peña Nieto, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, and Felipe Calderón. Opponents challenged the referendum as unconstitutional, on the grounds that Mexico’s Constitution prohibits popular consultations on matters involving guarantees like the presumption of innocence and due process. However, Mexico’s Supreme Court narrowly held, by a 6-5 vote, that the referendum would be constitutional, but voted 8-3 to modify it. The Court altered the language by deleting the reference to the ex-presidents and the phrase “presumed crimes” so that the referendum now reads: “Do you agree or not that the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the constitution and legal framework, undertake a process of clearing up political decisions taken in previous years by politicians, with an aim to guaranteeing justice and the rights of possible victims?” Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved the revised referendum and set the date of the vote for August 2021. AMLO, however, wants the referendum to be held in June 2021, during Mexico’s midterm elections.

Seizing on the vagueness of the referendum and AMLO’s hostility towards his predecessors, AMLO’s opponents have attacked him for attempting to undermine the judicial system and seek political revenge by having a public vote on whether to prosecute and convict former presidents. Other critics have argued the referendum, which is both vaguely worded and non-binding, will not have any real impact, and amounts to little more than political virtue signaling intended to boost AMLO’s party in the upcoming midterm elections.

To a certain extent, I agree with the latter criticism. AMLO’s primary motivation in promoting this referendum is likely political: He wants to (re)create a positive association between his party and the fight against corruption. It’s probably not a coincidence that the push for the referendum comes at a time when one of Mexico’s biggest corruption scandals is unfolding, with former President Peña Nieto accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. It’s probably also not a coincidence that AMLO wants to hold the referendum vote on the same day as the 2021 midterm elections. Despite having won power in a landslide in 2018, AMLO and his party are currently in political trouble. Mexico continues to face economic stagnation and high crime, and AMLO’s administration has failed to control the coronavirus. As for AMLO’s promise to rid his country of corruption—a major component of his presidential campaign—he hasn’t made much progress here either. AMLO’s anticorruption credentials have been further tarnished by a leaked video showing AMLO’s brother receiving packages of money from a government functionary that were used to strengthen AMLO’s political party ahead of the 2018 election. It seems that AMLO is attempting to divert attention from his political and policy failures by introducing a referendum that will focus attention on the corruption of prior administrations.

But just because there is a political motivation behind the referendum does not mean that the referendum won’t have a meaningful impact. It likely will, whichever way it comes out.

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