The Sneaky Way Mexico's Drug Cartels Are Trying to Gain Political Control

We may take our Freedom of Information Act for granted sometimes, but a similar law south of the border is facing changes that could shift power structures.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (Photo: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

Apr 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

An interesting argument was once overheard among representatives of Mexico’s three main political parties. The three were sitting outside the headquarters of the Federal Electoral Institute in 2009, on the southern edge of Mexico City, within earshot of Jason Johnson, a political scientist at Hiram College in Ohio and a Mexico observer.

The disagreement was “not about who was taking the most money from cartels, but how they used the cartel money they were all getting. One said, ‘We use it for voter education.…’ One accused the other of using the money to get cars. But no one was denying that they were taking cartel money," Johnson recalled recently. "I thought to myself, Are they literally saying this?”

It’s exactly the kind of shadowy deal making—even when it comes to the political dealings of Mexico's bloody drug cartels—that often gets recorded in the minutiae of financial disclosures. But advocates of transparency and government accountability in Mexico are facing a potentially major setback if the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto goes forward with a plan to change the structure, purview, and legal status of the country’s main transparency institute, the Federal Institute for Access to Information.

Similar in scope and reach to America’s Freedom of Information Act, Mexico’s institute has been, since its creation in 2002, an independent and powerful force for getting to the truth in a country famous for its ability to obscure it or, worse, corrupt it altogether. I first heard about it when I was based in Mexico for Newsweek that year.

Nearly 50,000 Mexicans began pressing for answers via the computerized system almost immediately after its implementation, but even then opposition to the law and its potential for blowing the lid off various kinds of endemic corruption in the system was building. Much of the blowback was driven by members of Mexico’s biggest and most powerful political party, the PRI, which ruled unchallenged for 71 years until it was unseated by Vicente Fox in 2000.

PRI stalwarts were advocating for a “national security” bill that would make it harder for the public to gain access to sensitive material, and they also wanted to more than double the embargo on some documents from 12 to 30 years.

In the end they failed, and for 12 years the institute helped unveil a slew of discoveries that helped bolster Mexicans' faith in their democracy.

Now, all that may be coming to an end as they push for another "reform" to gut the institute of any power—which many fear is a signal of a return to the kind of opacity that marked the worst years of their reign.

“The PRI is moving to abolish the five-member [institute], which, internal squabbles and some junkets aside, was a tiger in the quest of transparency,” says George Grayson, a professor emeritus of government at the College of William and Mary and an expert on Mexican politics. The proposal to replace the institute with a seven-member group would render it "a toothless tabby cat,” Grayson said.

That matters because the transparency the institute often deals with pertains to the drug wars.

“A lot of this has to do with cartel wars,” says Johnson. “The PRI never cared if the cartels sold drugs as long as they were selling to America. Now, the PRI is going back to previous methods, by accepting corruption, graft, by turning a blind eye, but hiding that information.”

Among the changes PRI advocates want to see is a move to make the IFAI an “autonomous” entity, and while that sounds good on paper, Grayson said it would undermine the independence and authority of the organization by making it vulnerable to political control by the Mexican Senate.

Johnson says that if, as Grayson predicts, Mexico's institute is incapacitated by these reforms, it could also hamper American efforts to find and follow the financial trails that have been woven between Mexico’s narcotics world and the political underbelly.

“The drug trade is so baked into the cake and integrated into Mexico’s economy, there’s no way to take it out at this point,” says Johnson. “It's more about keeping America from following the money, and this does affect America's ability."

Which means America will have to turn to other means to get what it needs.

"To get some of the information that we want about how cartels are affecting Mexico’s government and how we have to negotiate trade and immigration, it forces us to have to spy on Mexico,” Johnson says.