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.

Continue reading

In Mexico, Justice Will Remain a Family Matter

Judicial corruption in Mexico is a pervasive problem. And while high-level scandals tend to grab the headlines (see, for example, here, here, and here), much of the corruption is more pedestrian. While the causes of Mexico’s judicial corruption problem are various and complex, one persistent contributing factor is the endemic nepotism throughout the judiciary.

Of the more than 50 types of position in the judicial branch (including both judgeships and various administrative positions), only two—federal circuit and district court judgeships—use a competitive merit-based hiring process. For the rest, judges can choose whom they please, with little oversight. Moreover, once hired, these individuals have an insurmountable advantage in promotion in the judiciary, given that most job postings (and, informally, judgeships) require that the candidate have previous experience in the judicial branch. And even with respect to circuit and district judgeships, which are supposed to be filled through an open and merit-based competitive selection process run by a body called the Federal Judicial Council (CJF), in practice the CJF often creates “special” vacancies with different criteria (in effect, lower standards).

As a result of all this, nepotism in judicial hiring and promotion is pervasive, as judges are able to secure positions for friends and family. At least 51% of Mexico’s judges and magistrates are related to someone else working in the judiciary, with that number as high as 80% in some states. (To take one particularly egregious but not totally anomalous example, in one judge’s chambers, 17 employees were related to the judge.) This nepotism is not only corrupt in itself, but it also contributes to other forms of corruption. For one thing, corrupt judges can appoint those who will participate in, or at least be complicit in, corrupt practices—in some cases appointing individuals recommended by organized crime groups. But even when such deliberate wrongdoing is not the issue, untrained or unprofessional judicial bureaucrats and judges are more susceptible to corruption, and more likely to create the kinds of delays and inefficiencies in the system that both invite and obscure corrupt actions.

There hadn’t been much appetite in the Mexican Government to address the judicial nepotism problem until reform-minded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar took office. Since February 2020, both men have been enthusiastically lobbying for a judicial reform package deemed the most ambitious since 1994. This bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies in recent months, is a behemoth, with a variety of significant structural changes to the judicial branch. Among these many reforms are several measures designed, at least in part, to address the problem of judicial nepotism: Continue reading

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.

Continue Reading

New Podcast, Featuring Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza of the Mexican civil society organization Mexicanos Contra Corrupcion y la Impunidad (MCCI) (“Mexicans Against Impunity and Corruption). They describe how MCCI works to fight corruption in Mexico, and critically evaluate the anticorruption efforts of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), who ran in large part on an anticorruption platform, but whose approach to anticorruption during his first year in office has been met with significant controversy.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Video: CAPI Panel on “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America”

Recent developments in the fight against corruption across Latin America seem to have prompted an increasing number of conferences, workshops, and similar events that focus on this issue. (I was able to participate in one such event at Rice University’s Baker Center a few months back.) Last month, Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) held another, similar event that may be of interest to those who follow these developments (indeed, perhaps of even greater interest to those who haven’t been following them, but would like to get up to speed). The panel, entitled “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America: Perspectives from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico,” was moderated by Daniel Alonso (Managing Director of Exiger), and featured four senior lawyers from the region: Eloy Rizzo Neto (Brazil), Gustavo Morales Oliver (Argentina), Diego Sierra (Mexico), and Daniel Rodriguez (Colombia). The video of the discussion can be found here. And here’s a quick overview of the discussion, with corresponding time markers for the video: Continue reading

Corruption in Mexico under AMLO: Lessons from an Interview With Dr. Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez

In July 2018, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election in a landslide. AMLO campaigned on the promise to transform Mexican society, and his pledge to curb corruption was among the most prominent planks of his platform. Yet although AMLO remains very popular with the Mexican public (his approval rating at his 100-day mark in March 2019 was above 80% in some polls), many Mexican anticorruption experts are less enthusiastic.

I’ve offered my own reasons for skepticism about AMLO’s approach to fighting corruption in prior posts (see here and here), but to try to better understand some of the reasons why Mexican anticorruption specialists are critical of the AMLO administration, I interviewed one of those specialists, Dr. Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez, a Mexican scholar currently based at the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Dr. Rodriguez-Sanchez, whose recent publications include Measuring Mexico’s Corruption and Corruption in Mexico, shared his view of the biggest concerns regarding the AMLO administration’s approach to corruption. What follows is my translation from our conversation (which took place in Spanish), with some paraphrasing and condensation for clarity.

Dr. Rodriguez-Sanchez highlighted five criticisms of the AMLO administration’s anticorruption policies: Continue reading

Mexico’s National Guard: The Wrong Response to Police Corruption

In September 2018, Mexican federal and state authorities disarmed the entire police force of the city of Acapulco because of suspicion that the police had been corrupted by drug cartels. Federal authorities certainly had reason to take action: partly due to the corruption of the police, murders in Acapulco surged to 2,316 in 2017, and police officers themselves were implicated in some of those murders. Yet rather than institute a plan to reform the local police to address this problem, the Mexican government had the military assume local police functions.

It now appears that Mexico’s popular new President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), is poised to adopt a similar solution for all of Mexico, in the form of proposed legislation that would create to create a 60,000-strong National Guard. This proposal, which has already been approved by Mexico’s congress and by a majority of the state legislatures, is not accompanied by any proposal for comprehensive police reform; rather, AMLO wants to simply replace the police by utilizing the National Guard to fight the war on crime. His justification for this approach is that the police force is simply too corrupt to do its job.

This argument is not without some merit, nor is it unprecedented. In fact, many governments around the world have opted to militarize domestic security when organized crime infiltrates the police, because of the military’s greater discipline, more hierarchal structure, and (supposed) lower susceptibility to corruption. (See here for an example from the Philippines.) AMLO has advanced similar arguments in favor of the National Guard. He has also emphasized additional safeguards: the top commander of the National Guard will report to a civilian boss, civil courts rather than military tribunals will have jurisdiction over National Guard members alleged to have violated the law, moving detainees to military installations is prohibited, and National Guard members will receive human rights training.

But despite all this, and despite the evident need to address the police corruption that contributes so much to the outrageous violence in Mexico, a National Guard is not the solution, for several reasons: Continue reading

AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

The trial and conviction of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” has shed new light on the rampant corruption that exists at even the highest levels of the Mexican government. To take just a couple of the most startling examples: During the trial, a witness testified that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, while another cartel member testified that he paid at least $3 million dollars to the Public Security Secretary of former president Felipe Calderon and at least $6 million dollars to President Calderon’s head of police. In other countries these accusations would have shaken citizens to their very core. But in Mexico, long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, citizens have sadly grown accustomed to allegations of this nature, and the revelations from the El Chapo trial were met with little more than a shrug.

That doesn’t mean that Mexicans don’t care about corruption. Quite the opposite. Indeed, frustration at this flagrant culture of corruption was one of the key factors that helped Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to capture his constituents’ faith and votes. AMLO has promised to eradicate corruption through a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the previous three were Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reforms of the 1850s, and the 1910-1917 revolution). Yet despite these sweeping promises, AMLO has decided not to investigate the allegations against his predecessors that have emerged in the El Chapo trial. In fact, AMLO’s stance has been not to prosecute any officials for corruption that took place in the past, before he took office. (AMLO has wavered on this position—though only slightly—after receiving backlash during his campaign; he has since stated he would prosecute past corruption offenses only if the administration has no choice due to “internal pressure” from citizens.) AMLO has justified his opposition to investigations and prosecutions of past corruption crimes by using the language suggesting the need for a fresh start. He speaks of a need to put a “final period” on Mexico’s history of corruption, and to “start over” by not focusing the past.

But how can one eradicate corruption by granting numerous “Get Out of Jail Free” cards? AMLO’s support of a de facto amnesty for corrupt ex-Mexican officials’ casts doubt on the seriousness of his pledge to eradicate corruption. Rather than simply saying that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, AMLO should demand accountability for grand corruption, and he should start by ordering a full independent investigation into the veracity of the corruption allegations that came to light during the El Chapo trial. Continue reading

Guest Post: After the Tsunami–Mexico’s Anticorruption Outlook Under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Today’s guest post is from Bonnie J. Palifka, Associate Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), and Luis A. Garcia, a partner at Villarreal-VGF specializing in corporate compliance and anticorruption matters:

The results of Mexico’s federal elections last July have been described as a “tsunami” for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his National Regeneration Movement, known by its Spanish acronym “Morena.” AMLO won 53% of the popular vote and Morena swept the House and Senate, as well as a majority of the nine state governorships up for grabs and several local legislatures. This is all the more remarkable considering that Morena was founded as a civil society organization in 2011 (and registered as a political party in 2014), and was fighting for control of Mexico’s political left against AMLO’s former party, the PRD. Many are hopeful that AMLO will lead a transformation of Mexico into a modern, peaceful, fair, and prosperous society like Chile or Uruguay, while others fear that he will take the country down the route of Venezuela. That the same person can engender such different reactions is due in part to the vagueness and inconsistency of AMLO’s rhetoric throughout the campaign: sometimes he would take a highly confrontational and uncompromising attitude toward Mexico’s political and economic elite—what he termed the “mafia of power”—while at other times he would strike a more conciliatory tone. But one consistent theme in AMLO’s rhetoric—and in the analysis of the data on the reasons for Morena’s electoral triumph—was profound indignation at the blatant corruption and impunity of Mexico’s political and business elites.

Mexican voters’ frustration with corruption is understandable. Although in recent decades Mexico has undertaken a number of anticorruption measures—including, under former President Vicente Fox, a new freedom of information law, and, under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, a new National Anticorruption System (SNA), which, among other things, updates national and state laws to criminalize more acts, reduce immunities, and increase punishments—these measures have been insufficient, as reflected in Mexico’s increasingly poor showing on the Corruption Perceptions Index. AMLO identified corruption as Mexico’s most pressing problem and promised to bring about an honest and transparent regime that would be truly responsive to the country’s needs. And, in an encouraging sign, AMLO has brought in a diverse group of highly respected experts and activists, from all sides of the political spectrum, and has appeared flexible and open to dialogue. At the same time, though, he has displayed a puzzling blind spot for potential conflicts of interest, and his optimistic rhetoric has suffered from a lack of specificity, coherence, and concrete proposals. Continue reading