Documents in Action: FOI Success Stories in Mexico

20 March 2009

By Emilene Martinez-Morales

Mexico City, Mexico – Mexico’s civil society have maximized the potential of its Federal Access to Information Law to affect policies in local communities, advocate for citizens’ rights, and expose corruption at the highest levels of state.

Openness advocates have utilized two key institutional features of Mexico’s access-to-information system. The electronic system for sending information requests to federal agencies, Infomex, also allows citizens to review all public requests and responses to these requests. the Federal Access to Information Institute (IFAI), carries out the functions of an information ombudsman’s office, reviewing appeals for information, and maintaining a good track record of ruling in favor of citizens requests.

Over 300,000 requests have been sent since the law was implemented in 2004. This article highlights some of the revelations made possible through the citizen requests sent through Mexico’s Federal Access to Information Law:

Photo: Water treatment plant of Cintalapa’s sewage project
Source: Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste

In 2006, Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste—a nongovernmental environmental organization supporting indigenous people and rural communities in Chiapas—filed access to information requests using the federal transparency law, seeking information about a sewage project in Cintalapa, a community located inside the natural reserve of Montes Azules. The sewage system negatively impacted neighboring Lacanja Tseltal, which was receiving waste from a neighboring town and had no access to clean water. Information released through these requests showed that the water treatment system was not properly designed and needed a filter system that had not been installed. Chlorine had to be poured manually into the water that flowed back to the river. As a result, the Cintalapa sewage project was halted, and authorities publicly acknowledged that changes had to be made to ensure water was properly treated before it reached the people of Lacantun.

Photo: Shipment of goods to tsunami victims
Source: Diario Monitor

In May 2006 journalist Arelí Quintero published an investigative article in Diario Monitor about Mexican aid sent to Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. Through a series of access to information requests, Quintero obtained detailed information from the office of President Fox about the goods that were shipped by the Mexican Navy. The documents included the inventory of aid shipments cleared by customs officials, which showed large discrepancies in what was promised to victims of the tsunami, as opposed to what was actually sent. Coffee makers, vests, tools, and other articles were never shipped and, according to Quintero, remain unaccounted.

Photo: An inmate in one of Mexico’s prisons
Source: Proyecto Comunidades

In 2007, Ciudadanos en Apoyo a Derechos Humanos (CADHAC)—an NGO based in the state of Nuevo León in northeastern Mexico—worked with 200 inmates from a federal prison in Nuevo León and trained them on how to access their own personal records using the Federal Transparency and Access to Information Law. Most of these inmates were in prison for minor offenses but could not afford lawyers that could fight for reduced sentences for good conduct. Close to 100 requests for personal records were filed. At first, these requests were denied, but an appeal to IFAI set a precedent that now guarantees inmates’ access to these records throughout the federal prison system. 35 inmates were released from jail after obtaining their records.

Photo: The National Press Award in the Access to Information Category, Fatima Monterrosa’s award-winning article
Source: Revista Eme-Equis

In 2008 Fátima Monterrosa from Eme-Equis magazine won the National Press Award in the Access to Information Category for her investigative article “Corrupción en el Estado Mayor Presidencial.” Monterrosa used documents from the Office of the President obtained through the Federal Access to Information Law. In her piece, Monterrosa uncovers corrupt practices within the Presidential General Staff including simulated contracts and ghost suppliers.

Right: Copy of teacher’s certification obtained through an access to information request. Left: Certification number belongs to a nurse
Source: Institute of Public Information and Statistics of Morelos (IMIPE)

In June 2008, a citizen of the state of Morelos requested a copy of a public school English teacher’s college degree and the certification number for that degree. All higher education degrees in Mexico need to be registered at the Education Ministry. After the passage of the Federal Access to Information Law, requests to verify the authenticity of degrees have been so numerous that the Education Ministry set up a website to handle this demand. The citizen of Morelos was able to consult the Education Ministry’s website and discovered that the teacher’s degree was false and that his professional certification number belonged to a nurse.

Emilene Martinez-Morales is the Transparency Programs Coordinator at the National Security Archive.

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