A protester in Mexico during 2012 elections

Mexico's authorities refused a freedom of information request for details on the country's drug cartels, further evidence that the Enrique Peña Nieto administration is trying to limit the public's understanding of what is happening around the country with regards to organized crime.

Proceso magazine reported that Reforma newspaper filed a request that the government share information about the number of criminal cartels currently active in Mexico, their leaders, and their areas of influence. In response, the Attorney General's Office (PGR) stated that the information would be sealed for 12 years because the release of such information would put the government's anti-crime strategies at risk. Sharing information about the identities of top criminal leaders and their likely location would give rival criminal organizations a strategic advantage, the PGR said.

Reforma noted that under previous President Felipe Calderon, profiles of the major criminal groups active in Mexico, and their leadership, were usually released in the annual reports of government agencies, including the PGR, the Federal Police, the military, and the now-extinct Secretariat of Public Security (SSP).

The fracturing of major drug trafficking organizations such as the Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Gulf Cartel is believed to have contributed to rising violence in the country, as a growing pool of small splinter groups fight for power. Mexico's attorney general has said that between 60 and 80 new criminal organizations have emerged since Calderon initiated the offensive against organized crime in 2006.

InSight Crime Analysis

The PGR's response to Reforma seems to be part of a broader strategy of the Peña Nieto administration to deny access to information to non-governmental and governmental entities alike. Since taking power December 1, the new government has sought to centralize the control and flow of information (the one exception being the debacle over the numerous reports about the "disappeared"). This includes keeping information away from government allies as well, many of whom are muttering privately about their own lack of access to information in this government.  

The specific denial in this case seems is a perfect example of what we can expect going forward. The information requested about Mexico's criminal groups is fairly basic. This denial is particularly odd given that, just a few months ago, the attorney general released a public estimate of how many criminal organizations are currently active in the country. 

Mexican media outlets have recently used freedom of information requests to break organized crime stories that embarrassed the government. El Universal, for example, relied on a freedom of information request in order to reveal that the government hyped up its supposed near-capture of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in 2012.

Mexico's government has a responsibility to restrict the release of sensitive information to the press if it endangers national security, but this can be interpreted broadly or strictly. It is not always an easy decision. Any government faces the challenge of balancing the public's right to know with the need to censor sensitive information, especially when it could put civilians or members of the security forces at risk. The US government confronts the same problem and often comes to the same conclusion as the Mexicans: last year, the US government rejected over one-third of the freedom of information requests filed.

However, the PGR's arguments that the information requested by Reforma would endanger the government's anti-crime strategy are not convincing. They feed into the larger impression that rather than striving for transparency, the government remains evasive and even misleading on matters related to organized crime as it undermines the administration's narrative that this is "Mexico's moment."

Simply put, the PGR's response to Reforma looks like a federal agency failing to follow even the most minimal standards of disclosure. This is especially troubling since Mexico's freedom of information law, passed in 2002, was once described by Human Rights Watch as "the most unambiguous achievement in the area of human rights during the [Vicente] Fox presidency." And a constitutional reform approved in 2007 further strengthened Mexico's transparency laws, mandating that federal, state, and municipal agencies follow the principle of maximum disclosure. 

The struggle to obtain information goes beyond government censorship. Many journalists have been pushed into self-censorship due to threats and conflicts of interest. It is little wonder that social media outlets have become an increasingly important, if flawed, way for the public to access information about crime. But even these informal watchdogs are sometimes intimidated into silence.