Humanity has a corruption problem that arises from human nature. It is rooted in selfishness and societies have to create structures and tools to constrain it. Corruption is not unique to Mexico, Central America or the United States, but it exists in all of them.
Corruption causes real harm. It undercuts people’s sense of fairness and their trust in institutions. It hurts societies as it manipulates structures designed to order and protect the public good.
Because corruption is an ever-present phenomenon all governments need tools to fight it. These tools are rooted in transparency implemented through systems of oversight, checks, and balances. Governments should have offices of internal investigation and accountability to ferret out corruption within their own ranks, but fighting corruption requires redundant systems. Civil society: the press, academics, non-governmental organizations and others need access to the information required to identify corruption and hold officials and institutions accountable.
That is where Mexico’s freedom of information act comes into play. It became law in 2002; passed unanimously by Congress. It was hammered out based on competing proposals and is an example of how compromise can create a good law with extensive buy-in. In 2013 the National Institute for Access to Information (INAI by its Spanish acronym), created by the 2002 law, became part of the Constitution.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) wants to get rid of the INAI because it is expensive and has not eradicated corruption. Certainly, it is not a flawless institution. The Chicago Policy Review, among others, has critiqued its performance. Nonetheless, the INAI has been key to uncovering huge corruption scandals and even contributed to the mapping of clandestine graves of the disappeared.
AMLO thinks that his approach to corruption will be more successful. He has a stated intolerance of corruption. He uses direct communication with the people through daily press conferences to be transparent. These can be useful tools to fight corruption.
However, good government can’t be created around individuals that we trust. AMLO’s anti-corruption message doesn’t by itself dismantle corrupt structures. Nor does it mean that everyone in government, working under his leadership has the same commitment. It also doesn’t mean that the next person elected will be trustworthy.
Two things that US citizens were reminded of during the Trump administration are relevant in this context: 1) the importance of having tools to hold corrupt officials accountable; and 2) that it is much easier to destroy institutions than to build them.
The INAI has not eliminated corruption, nor should it be expected to do so. An anti-corruption effort needs tools, redundant tools. There must be structures for inside and outside accountability. The INAI is one of those tools. Instead of dismantling it, we should discuss how to improve its function and make it more impactful. Because, even if we trust, we need the tools to verify.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson