Panelists agreed that progress is being made in merging the goals of security and transparency in Mexico. They noted that the landmark 2002 transparency law had delivered some benefits, as citizens learn to make information-access requests and agencies realize that they must provide responses. The implementation of the law has also coincided with stepped-up efforts from the legislative branch and from nongovernmental groups to better monitor government actions and policies.
Nevertheless, challenges remain due to the infiltration of organized crime in government and the institutional inexperience in the handling of sensitive government information.
Bureaucratic, Criminal and Data Challenges to Transparency
Sigrid Arzt, a former National Security Adviser to Mexican Pres. Felipe Calderón, cited the following continuing challenges impeding enhanced transparency in government:
- Lack of institutional memory, administrative discontinuity, and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies: Many Mexican federal agencies are "new" to the task of properly managing and releasing government information and lack adequate technical know-how. A main challenge lies in determining when information should be released and when it should be classified.
- Organized crime infiltration: Fear exists that organized crime could exploit freedom-of-information laws to harm government officials, especially in the security agencies. Tension exists between the imperative to provide accessible information about public officials with the need to protect the identities of undercover officers and the lives of other government workers. Mexico's current campaign against drug trafficking has led security agencies to keep more information secret.
- Inappropriate classification of government information: Government information may be classified for purely political reasons or to protect a particular agency or person.
- Data collection: Data collection is not systematized or standardized. There is a need to generate more reliable and accurate crime data, for example.
The Federal Institute of Access to Information: Progress and Challenges
María Marván Laborde, Commissioner, Federal Institute of Access to Public Information (IFAI), addressed the perceived tension between the order-maintenance function of security policy and the democratic need for transparency, public accountability, and access to government information. She said the two objectives are interdependent and that good levels of transparency and of access to information actually increase the government's capacity to improve security. Yet for individual government agencies the release of information can be fraught with peril since disclosure can spotlight inadequacies.
The IFAI, Marván explained, decides information-access appeals brought by petitioners whose initial requests have been denied by a particular government agency. The Institute determines whether the petitions have merit and whether the requested information should be released. Key questions posed are whether the withholding of information is done to serve the public interest or rather to serve political interests and what harm may accompany the release of such information, she said.
Marván cited the following public information challenges in Mexico:
- Inexistent information: Information sought by a petitioner may be determined to be nonexistent by the solicited agency. Additionally, individual state agencies are not compelled and suffer no consequences for not releasing information to relevant state or federal agencies.
- Inadequate categorization of information: There is no standard categorization of government information as declassified, classified, top secret, etc.
- Lack of personnel training: There is improper security clearance and training of government workers who are exposed to or who are changed with handling classified materials.
- Ex post facto declarations of confidentiality. Material is declared confidential only to prevent its public release, since it may be considered damaging to the agency involved.
Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088