FoI in Mexico

The political cost of enacting a transparency law has been high for Mexico's President, Vicente Fox and his government. But for Mexican citizens, the law has opened the door to a once-secret world and allowed them to see the inner workings of their government:

"Under the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, virtually everything was hidden from the public. Fox, who defeated the PRI candidate in the 2000 presidential election, promised to open his government to scrutiny. Even the most probing questions are now on the table.

In a nation where past governments routinely withheld information to control the masses, Mexico's transparency law has shifted the power balance.

"Decision-makers did not have any obligation to explain themselves or to tell the truth. They treated information as if it was theirs," said Juan Pablo Guerrero, one of five commissioners who rules on open-records requests at the Federal Institute of Access to Public Information, or IFAI. "This represents a handing over of power to society because it permits any person to ask the government about its actions, ... about the decisions it takes that affect society."

Among all these countries, including the United States, Mexico stands out as a leader, said Alasdair Roberts, a public administration professor at Syracuse University whose book, "Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age," is to be released next month.

The IFAI has created a unique system for filing freedom-of-information requests. Requests can be filed anonymously through the IFAI's Web site,, eliminating fears among a still wary public that there will be reprisals for challenging the government.

In the 2½ years since the IFAI debuted, more than 100,000 requests have been filed and almost 90,000 have been granted. But some complain that after the IFAI orders documents released, government agencies stall for months by asking for extensions or filing appeals.

There are questions about whether Mexico's open-records law will survive the next administration, which is scheduled to take office Dec. 1, 2006. The early front-runner in the presidential race, former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had a dismal record of releasing information during his administration. Mexico City and 22 states have transparency laws. López Obrador's government ranked 21st in terms of openness, according to the IFAI.

"I cannot imagine a political scenario where the new president would openly say, 'IFAI is going to disappear.' That would be extremely costly in political terms," said Marván, the IFAI commission president."

What is more likely is a new administration that will undercut the IFAI by reducing its budget, refuse to comply with its decisions, and select new commissioners who do not support transparency but who will protect and support the interests of the president. These are the dangers that lie ahead which could weaken the IFAI and, ultimately, the new right of access to information for the citizens of Mexico.

For Mexico, open records unlock doors: New transparency law shifts balance of power (Union Tribune -, 20 November 2005)