Mexico's first freedom of information initiative, signed into law by President Vicente Fox on June 10, represents a growing popular challenge to governments throughout Latin America to end corruption and guarantee openness and accountability. It also contrasts with attempts by the Bush Administration to hinder public access to government information.
In addition to the new law, Fox recently opened up a lode of secret police, military and intelligence documents from the early 1950s through the mid-1980s. They promise to shed light on the long and dirty war the government fought against its left-wing opponents, of whom more than 500 are thought to have been disappeared, tortured and killed by the state. Mexico's new openness is especially significant because it arose from public pressure rather than being imposed from on high. The catalyst behind the freedom of information bill was a campaign by a collective of reporters, editors, academics and nongovernmental organizations dubbed the Grupo Oaxaca, for the Mexican city where eighteen months ago they kicked off their drive. Once members of Congress indicated they were prepared to introduce a bill last fall, the group drafted and submitted one, getting it to legislators more than two months before Fox's government came up with its own proposal.
That kind of citizen lobbying is rare in Latin America, but it appears to be catching on. In Peru a consortium of media owners, the Peruvian Press Council, has rallied to the cause, taking the unprecedented step of holding discussions with the armed forces in an effort to preclude military opposition while hammering out national security exemptions that will permit the greatest openness possible on such sensitive issues as human rights. In Paraguay news organizations and NGOs are preparing to present an initiative before their Congress, and Guatemalans have been pressing for several years for the right to request personal files from a government notorious for intelligence operations targeting citizens.
Now that the bill has been passed, Mexico faces its real battle: convincing the public to use it. In a country where a powerful executive branch has historically overshadowed a weak Congress, a dysfunctional judicial system and a malleable press, citizens are not used to demanding and receiving their rights. Supporters of the Fox government's new openness say it will give them the leverage they need to expose painful episodes of the recent past, like the state's role in the dirty war of the 1970s and '80s, when the military abducted and disappeared hundreds of guerrillas and suspected subversives. An even more pressing mystery is the October 2, 1968, killing by Mexican security forces of hundreds of students protesting for democratic reform in Mexico City's Tlatelolco.
The Tlatelolco massacre offers the most acute example of the Mexican government's obsession with secrecy. Hours after the confrontation between demonstrators and soldiers, then-President Diaz Ordaz had the plaza scrubbed and cleaned to efface all signs of the indiscriminate firing. Soldiers descended on the city's newsrooms and confiscated undeveloped rolls of film, so that no image of the violence would survive. Many questions remain as to who ordered the massacre, and who began the shooting.
But the real test for Mexico's new law will be much more mundane. This is a country where citizens have no access to the most fundamental government information affecting their daily life. Local school budgets, crime statistics, antipollution controls, the salaries of public officials, the number of police patrols, the contracts awarded by the state and much more are out of reach for ordinary citizens. The same civil society groups that organized and fought for their right to basic information must now mobilize to educate people on how to use the law in their favor.
Ironically, Mexico's incipient efforts toward greater transparency come as the Bush Administration moves resolutely in the opposite direction. The freedom of information law in Mexico–indeed, the effort to challenge government secrecy and corruption throughout Latin America–is perceived by citizens as an indispensable tool for exercising their rights in the hemisphere's new democracies. Perhaps the oldest democracy in the region could learn a thing or two from its neighbor.