The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, October 2, 2004

Mexico's done keeping secrets from citizens

Nation making more information available to public than ever

By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY A decade ago, Sergio Aguayo asked a simple question. How much does the Mexican president make? The answer he got was equally simple: none of your business.

So Mr. Aguayo, a writer and democracy activist, pressured President Ernesto Zedillo through the courts and the media. Eventually, the president's office released the number about $200,000 in base salary per year.

Still, nothing had really changed. The president's salary remained technically classified, as was a legal "secret fund" that had contained hundreds of millions of dollars under earlier presidents, Mr. Aguayo said. Where that money went, no one knows.

What a difference a decade makes.

A dynamic mix of greater democracy, Internet access and a new federal freedom of information law is causing a huge shift in how Mexicans police a government that until recently coveted even trivial information with the jealousy of a Soviet-style dictatorship, analysts and officials said.

"For the general public, it's impressive what you can get now," Mr. Aguayo said. "We are very advanced in relation to the past."

Today, the salaries of President Vicente Fox and his support staff are posted at www.presidencia .gob.mx. Each purchase made by the federal government can be found on distinct Web sites. Nearly 220 federal agencies are required to post detailed information about their operations. And the president's "secret fund" has been empty since the end of the Zedillo government.

Moreover, reporters and civic groups are quickly learning how to dig into bureaucracies and square off with the president's office. Results include a funding scandal involving a charitable group and details on the pricey wardrobes of Mr. Fox and his wife.

Journalists, who often had to rely on an occasional leak to get their hands on revealing documents, now ask for them directly.

"It's now possible to know things that have been off limits to us," said Daniel Lizárraga, a reporter for the weekly magazine La Revista , who nonetheless complained that government agencies continue to fight the information opening.

The Federal Institute for Information Access, or IFAI for its initials in Spanish, has been operating for about a year, and it's been less than four years since Mr. Fox ended 71 years of uninterrupted presidential rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

More than 45,000 information requests have been made, and 40,000 have been answered, according to IFAI. Of the 5,000 remaining requests, some are being processed, others are being appealed, and still others have been dropped.

Ninety percent of the requests were made through the IFAI Internet portal, which has become critical to the flow of government information. Without it, officials said, requests have to be made personally at government offices located mostly in Mexico City.

While Mexican households lag significantly in Internet access, Mexico is awash in Internet cafes that serve even the smallest of communities.

"One of the successes of the law in Mexico is that you don't have to prove your identity or legal interest" when seeking information, said María Marván, commissioner and president of IFAI. "Once you have the exact information, you are in better condition to defend yourself."

Through IFAI information requests, people have sought medical records from government hospitals to pursue malpractice cases, questioned their government pensions and plunged into the National Archives to find loved ones "disappeared" by the government during the 1960s and 1970s.

Curbing corruption
Business people analyze government public works projects in an attempt to get a piece of the action and prevent fraud.

If a government agency refuses to provide the information requested, the denials can be appealed to a five-person IFAI commission. In the majority of cases, the commission has sided with citizens.

Still, only the federal government is covered by the new law, and freedom of information advocates say that states have a long way to go to match the feds with their own laws.

Likewise, there are critics of IFAI who say it is too cozy with the Fox administration, which nominates commissioners who then must be ratified by the legislature.

But even the current administration and Mr. Fox, whom Mr. Aguayo considers an honest man, have had their knuckles rapped.

When a group of reporters requested copies of receipts from clothes purchased by Mr. Fox and his stylish wife, Marta Sahagún de Fox, for official functions, the president's office balked. It argued that general information on purchases was open to the public but not the receipts, because they contained personal facts such as clothing sizes.

After months of wrangling, technical arguments and appeals, the IFAI commission ruled against the president, and the receipts were released.

In a recent article in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, those receipts showed that Mr. Fox had bought $1,000 suits and $100 ties for state functions. Likewise, his wife spent up to $1,000 on dresses. Some critics said it was an extravagant use of public money in a nation with a 50 percent poverty rate.

'Pro-Vidagate'
When nongovernmental organizations requested receipts from an anti-abortion group that had been given $3 million in government funds to help pregnant women last year, they found purchases of men's suits and Cartier pens and a slew of poorly documented receipts. Much of the money went to upstart companies that had the same address and phone number as the conservative group, Pro-Vida.

As a result, the nongovernmental groups have asked that the money be returned, and the media has dubbed the scandal "Pro-Vidagate." The government has cut off Pro-Vida's funding for this year.

"We never thought that we could have access to all of these expenditures and that they would show the poor spending of public resources," said Lucía Peréz Fragoso, coordinator of the group Equality and Gender, one of the nongovernmental groups.

Pro-Vida has said that some receipts were included by accident and will be replaced with others. "There could be accounting errors, as in any company, but not acts of corruption," the group said in a written statement.

Fighting for citizens
Jacqueline Castillo Posada, 36, is a modern-day gatekeeper for the federal government. But rather than thwarting every citizen request for information with mountains of paperwork, Ms. Castillo is on the side of the citizen.

Ms. Castillo works at IFAI's walk-in center in a southern Mexico City neighborhood where the uninitiated can learn the tricks of the trade.

She has helped a university researcher locate and view a telegram sent to the Mexican president in 1962. She continues to help an elderly man trying to determine why his government pension has been reduced. Ms. Castillo has worked with disabled citizens pursuing malpractice cases against government hospitals.

"Sometimes we are also their psychologists," Ms. Castillo said.

Simply having access to the system, being able to ask questions and receive answers, even if they do not ultimately satisfy their original goals, often alleviates the anger of those who feel wronged by government institutions, she said.

"People calm down over time while using the system."