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Crisis at Mexico’s National Archive

April 12, 2015

Arbitrary Censorship and Poor Leadership at the AGN

Update, July 2015: A month or so after I posted this article, the AGN reversed its restriction of access to the secret service records in Gallery 1. Its decision followed a wave of criticism in the press and social media, including a petition to the Interior Ministry (Gobernación). (This article was itself widely circulated, accumulating more than 1,200 hits, half in Mexico and half abroad.)  It now appears that open access is being maintained. At a June 9th forum hosted by the National Freedom of Information Institute (INAI, formerly the IFAI), it was confirmed that the AGN itself, not the CISEN, had applied the restrictive reading of the 2012 Archives Law that produced the clampdown, though whether this move came at Gobernación’s request remains unclear. Either way, the episode reflects both the vulnerability of Mexican archives to arbitrary pressures and the worth of public protest when such censorship occurs.

March 2015 may be remembered as the month that Mexico’s long and late voyage to apertura, or democratic opening, hit an iceberg. Under apparent government duress, the country’s highest-profile team of investigative journalists lost their jobs. Soon after, confirmation emerged of a 70-year embargo upon secret service records at the National General Archive (AGN), including files dealing with the Dirty War of the 1960s and 70s, in which up to 2,000 leftists were forcibly disappeared.

To many journalists and historians, the actions resemble twin peaks of a single submerged berg: the authoritarian nature of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Having lorded over Mexico for 71 years until 2000, largely via a “soft authoritarianism,”[1] the PRI regained power in 2012. Under Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI now paints itself as averse to the divisive rhetoric of the left and the oligarch-coddling of the right (both traits evident in its own past) and uncowed by the bloody drug cartels. This sanitized image enjoyed a naïvely-penned boost last year in Time, prompting a local tsunami of derision and a smart deconstruction in Vice.

But the party’s return has generated growing concern that old habits returned with it.[2] Once in office, Peña Nieto declared January 4th to be Day of the Journalist, a PR turn that for some recalled the PRI’s long history of belying public support for freedom of speech with subterfuge towards critics.[3] Recent events substantiate the parallel. On March 12th, news radio station MVS fired its top investigative reporters, an event that soon lead to the ouster of Carmen Aristegui, Mexico’s most respected radio journalist. Ostensibly the spat concerned the unauthorized use by Aristegui and her team of the MVS brand to cosponsor a new whistle-blowing website, Méxicoleaks.[4]

Afterwards, Aristegui affirmed what many suspected: MVS had caved to a ruling party embarrassed by her exposés of its malpractice. These include the alleged prostitution of secretaries by the PRI’s Mexico City chief and the First Lady’s on-credit purchase of a mansion from a developer favored with state contracts. At the time of the firings, her team was investigating a similarly cronyish manoeuver involving Finance Minister Luis Videgaray. MVS denied the allegation, claiming the firings owed to abuses of authority and to Aristegui’s on-air ultimatum that her team be reinstated.[5] Yet while the Aristegui newscast enjoyed ample private advertising, replacement programming evinces more ad spend from state ministries, as though the government were returning a favor.

Clampdown at the AGN: Dirty War and Dirty Secrets

On March 17th, two days after Aristegui’s ouster, leading daily El Universal ran a feature that confirmed what researchers had witnessed since January: at the AGN, authorities had all-but-sealed off Gallery 1, home to the records of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS).[6] The gallery is one of seven at the national archive, a Belle Epoque panopticon designed as Mexico City’s main prison and popularly known as the Lecumberri Palace, its wings housing the country’s greatest collection of documents within hundreds of former jail cells.

The DFS, modelled on the FBI, was the principal agency monitoring communist and other leftist activity in the 1960s and 70s. Up to 2,000 activists were silently eradicated by the state, in what historians (in allusion to a bloodier and better-documented campaign in Argentina) would label as Mexico’s Dirty War.[7] It also kept records on thousands of other citizens and residents, ranging from novelist Gabriel García Márquez, a vocal friend of Fidel Castro’s, to captains of industry, some of them backers of conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN).

In 2000 the PAN took power, and President Vicente Fox soon had the records of both the DFS and a sister agency, the Political and Social Investigation Directorate (DIPS), opened to public access.[8] A small swarm of researchers descended, producing such high-profile books as Sergio Aguayo’s La charola, on the DFS itself, and Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía’s La otra guerra secreta, on how the state spied upon the press via the DIPS and thereby more effectively censored it.[9] Overseas academics have used these series to produce several important monographs and collections.[10] The archives have also proved useful to investigators and family members seeking to trace the disappeared of the Dirty War.[11]

Helping these researchers, from 2002, was an unprecedented Transparency Law – equivalent to the freedom of information acts in the USA and UK – which established a Federal Institute of Access to Information (IFAI) to oversee access to confidential records.[12] To date, through the IFAI’s electronic request system Infomex, researchers have gained access to lightly redacted “Public Versions” of DFS records on more than 1,000 human subjects; typically, only addresses, family details, and personal assets are blotted out.

From the start, however, there were two snags. First, there was no catalogue to the DFS collection, or none that the current secret service, the CISEN, would submit. Second, the collection was controlled not by the archive itself but by CISEN agents, some of whom acted in an arbitrary manner towards researchers, as though the collection was their personal fiefdom. Says a former AGN official: “The CISEN were supposed to be there for six months, sorting the collection. But they never got out!”

Effectively substituting for a catalogue was veteran CISEN archivist Vicente Capello, who came equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of the series’ hundreds of cabinets and drawers. When Capello was busy, researchers had to deal with his officious underlings, but access improved under AGN general director Dr. Aurora Gómez (2009-13), who fought to facilitate public access to the DFS collection. Gómez managed to minimize the need for IFAI petitions and to install her own staff along the CISEN agents, gradually displacing most of them.

The 2012 Federal Archives Law: Embargoes Abused

In 2012, the PAN devised an Archives Law, designed to standardize archival practices and safeguard public access to sensitive documents.[13] The head of the AGN, long a political appointee, would now have to be approved by a counsel of academics. The law’s Article 27 established a 30-year embargo on records deemed “confidential”, which could be extended to 70 years in the case of documents also deemed “sensitive”, that is, containing “personal data that affect the private life of the subject or whose abuse might give rise to discrimination or imply grave risk.”

Language that seems reasonable at first glance of course gives leeway to any authority wishing to keep certain records under wraps. For example, what might constitute “discrimination”? Former AGN general director Aurora Gómez, who along with other archive chiefs met with the IFAI to help draft the law, says the “sensitive” category was designed for records revealing medical data, juvenile delinquency, sexual orientaton, and the like. She adds: “The language is not so ambiguous, as the IFAI has issued rulings on it.”

The law has its critics. María Herrerías of the UNAM, a historian of guerrilla movements, told Vice that documents were previously embargoed for only ten years; she called the law “a total violation of our free access to information.” But Gómez holds that the embargoes were necessary, as the 2002 transparency law did not contemplate any timeframes. She adds that those which the new law emplaced followed international precedent.

What triggered the alarm in March was a decision – by whom, it remains unclear – to apply the 70-year embargo on a blanket basis to Gallery 1. Even its catalogue cards were restricted. The fact that the move went unnanounced, coupled with the cited refusal of AGN General Director Dr. Mercedes de Vega to talk to the press about the matter, led to reports that the DFS collection was now “off limits to the public”.[14]

The DFS clampdown is not in fact total. First, the thousand or so Public Versions are still available for consultation.[15] Second, researchers can seek access with an IFAI request. One AGN insider reports that the blanket embargo was emplaced by a CISEN agent new to the archive, María Elizabeth Tecuatl Quechol; hence, the rules may loosen once Tecuatl finds her feet. One the other hand, several historians opine that the Peña Nieto administration, resentful that revelations from the DFS collection have damaged the PRI, and more recently stung by the scandals unearthed by Aristegui and the Wall Street Journal, feels that freedom of information has gone too far.

Barry Carr of the Australian National University, a leading historian of the Mexican left, notes in an email: “While Fox’s decision to open access to the DFS was very welcome (and unprecedented – I can’t think of any other nation where such access has been provided), it almost certainly was driven by political considerations, namely knowledge that the dirty secrets that would be exposed would damage the PRI.”

The clampdown similarly fulfills an implicit prediction by Renata Keller of Boston University. In a 2012 H-Net research note on the IFAI and the DFS collection, Keller wrote: “Researchers who wish to use the declassified documents might want to hurry. Enrique Peña Nieto’s election [raises] important questions about the future of transparency in Mexico… What will happen to the declassified intelligence records that have exposed many of the PRI’s dirty secrets – will they remain available…?”

For the time being, uncertainty reigns. Part of the problem is the unpredictability of the IFAI, which is supposed to be autonomous and yet has experienced a number of senior personnel changes since passage of the 2012 archives law (and, coincidence or no, since the return of the PRI). More than three months after the clampdown began to be applied, the Instutute has failed to intervene on behalf of researchers. That said, the IFAI may have stalled while waiting for a new access to information bill, designed in part to increase its autonomy; this bill cleared through the Senate on March 19th.

Then there is the matter of the 2012 law itself, which contains a measure of interpretability that obstructionist officials can abuse. Its Article 30, listing grounds for IFAI approval of a request, allows access to those who are themselves the subject of confidential files and to biographers who have their subject’s approval. Otherwise, researchers must show that their work is “relevant for the country” and/or “the public interest in the access is greater than any resulting invasion of privacy.”

Veteran archive hound Ángeles Magdaleno, who helped research Aguayo’s La charola, says the IFAI lacks trained historians able to knowledgeably and swiftly make those value judgements. Another obstacle is that the IFAI is permitted up to 20 working days to process an Infomex request and may take another 20 days if it sees fit, making for a turnaround that could take two-to-three months. She muses: “What should I study now, the era of the Viceroys?”

Says a veteran Mexican historian: “The IFAI has the authority to rule regarding access, so it must intervene on behalf of the public. For this to happen, we historians need to be submitting petitions for information, so that the IFAI will resolve that these collections are not ‘sensitive’ in character and then make a pronouncement.”

The 2013 Change in AGN Leadership: Everybody Out

The DFS embargo is also troubling for what it reveals about AGN leadership. In charge since August 2013 is Mercedes de Vega. (De Vega did not respond to my written request for an interview.)

For the previous twelve years, De Vega directed the historical archive at the Foreign Relations Ministry, where she was widely held to have done a good job, although some researchers observe that she privileged official comfort over public access by enforcing a 70-year embargo there. Upon her nomination by the Interior Ministry, De Vega enjoyed unanimous backing from AGN’s academic counsel. Once at the archive’s helm, she pressed on with a much-needed annex, so to house all documents in a purpose-built environment, a project started by her highly-regarded predecessor, Aurora Gómez.

Otherwise, AGN veterans say, Dr. Vega’s tenure has been a disaster. Under the archive’s general director are five directors and a dozen or so department heads. On her arrival, De Vega fired all of the former and subsequently removed most of the latter. A traditional weakness of Mexico’s civil service is its vulnerability to the whims of presidential appointees, who sweep in every six years after a general election and replace experienced personnel with “their people”. Former general director Gómez bucked the trend, removing just two of the directors and only then after a couple of years, ensuring a smooth transition.

“Everybody thought that Mercedes was a good candidate. She’s a trained historian and she had all that experience at Foreign Relations. But now she’s behaving like a total bureaucrat,” says a former AGN officer.[16]

The AGN’s efficiency as chief custodian of Mexico’s documentary history has long been hampered by lack of trained personnel and lack of continuity. When the archive, previously dispersed among several sites, was transferred to the Lecumberri Palace in the early 1980s, many of the customer service jobs went to the crew that had schlepped the boxes of documents.[17] None had prior training in archival sciences. Some had worked as janitors. A woman who worked in the publications department – and who profitably moonlighted as a loan shark – was found years later to be illiterate.

By 2000 the gallery workers had received some training, even if all did not evince it. The Reference Room, first point of contact for visitors with new projects, was run by Roberto Beristáin, whom researchers recall as exceptionally friendly, dedicated, and knowledgeable. But in 2005, Beristáin took mandatory retirement, and Mexican law prohibited him from being rehired part-time. Before leaving, Beristáin trained a talented successor, Erika Gutiérrez. Earlier this year, upset at the wave of firings by De Vega and her team, Gutiérrez resigned.

“Erika Gutiérrez had just completed an M.A. in archival science in Colombia, with the support of [government science foundation] Conacyt,” says a former colleague who asked not to be named. “She and some seven other AGN employees who trained with Conacyt support no longer work at the AGN. It’s a great shame.”

The DFS collection has undergone similar disruptions. CISEN agent Capello died in 2011, taking much of his expertise with him. Former general director Gómez had handed direction of the gallery to a capable officer, Jesús Romero, with whom Capello worked to compile a rough catalogue to the collection, but Romero too has been fired by De Vega and the catalogue is no longer accessible to researchers. An AGN staffer was recently quoted as saying that once a DFS research request is made with the IFAI, it is then sent to the CISEN, “so they can give final approval”.[18] This advice is presumably erroneous and indicative of the state of confusion at the archive; but if correct, it shows a resumption of the secret-service meddling that Gómez had battled to minimize.

Former AGN officers now fear that with the CISEN – or the Peña Nieto cabinet – intervening to obstruct access to Dirty War and other records, De Vega is too passive or ambitious a functionary to stand up for public access to information. Says one: “Mercedes is too keen to please the Interior Minister.”

As is the case with any physical archive, the wealth of the AGN’s contents depends greatly upon the knowledge and experience of its personnel. Despite efforts by past administrations to digitize certain series and expand the on-line Guía General database, many collections remain haphazardly catalogued, so the presence of veteran staffers becomes more valuable still. (As though to prove the point, at this writing the on-line database has been deactivated, again for reasons unknown. The DIPS collection of secret-service records in Gallery 2 remains open, but researchers worry that it is vulnerable to another arbitrary embargo.)

Will De Vega’s successor see fit to hire back some of those who have left in the past two years? If not, much of the AGN’s treasure will have been lost, or at least reburied for quite some time.

[1] See, e.g., Jorge I. Domínguez, Democratic Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998), 7, 142-72; Paul Gillingham and Benjamin Smith, eds., Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968 (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2014).

[2] See, e.g., Arturo Rodríguez García, El regreso autoritario del PRI (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2015); Ed Vulliamy, “‘They want to erase journalists in México’ (interview with Lydia Cacho),” The Observer, 12 April 2015; www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/11/mexico-fearless-journalist-lydia-cacho.

[3] Arturo Rodríguez García, “Instituye Peña nuevo día para celebrar la labor de los periodistas,” Proceso, 6 Jan. 2013. In 1951 President Miguel Alemán instituted a Freedom of Speech Day, on which publishers and editors feted the president with a banquet and competed in singing his praises. Yet for decades, any who dared criticize the premier found their state-subsidized supply of newsprint running dry. Rafael Rodríguez Castañeda’s Prensa Vendida (Mexico City: Grijalbo: 1993) structures its history of state-press relations around this annual event.

[4] “Méxicoleaks,” https://mexicoleaks.mx. Modelled less on Wikileaks than on the Spanish website Fíltrala, which investigates the credibility of anonymously-submitted content before publishing it, Méxicoleaks was launched on 10 March 2015.

[5] Jenaro Villamil, “Aristegui: la censura y el despido, por presión de Los Pinos,” Proceso, 22 March 2015: 6-10; “Los periodistas despedidos por MVS investigaban ‘casa Higa de Luis Videgaray: Aristegui,” SinEmbargo, 13 March 2015, www.sinembargo.mx/13-03-2015/1280450;  Juan Montes, “New Ties Emerge Between Mexico Government and Builder” and “Mexico Leader Under New Scrutiny,” Wall Street Journal (wsj.com), 11 Dec. 2014, 20 Jan. 2015; “Radio silenced: A crusading anchorwoman is pushed off the air,” The Economist, 21 March 2015.

[6] Susana Zavala Orozco, “Cierran archivos históricos,” El Universal, 17 March 2015.

[7] Kate Doyle, “The Dawn of Mexico’s Dirty War: Lucio Cabañas and the Party of the Poor,” National Security Archive, 5 Dec. 2003; http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB105/index.htm; Duncan Kennedy, “Mexico’s long forgotten dirty war,” BBC News, 19 July 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7513651.stm.

[8] Tanalís Padilla and Louise E. Walker, “In the Archives: History and Politics,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research 19:1 (2013): 1-10.  On the distinction between the DFS, which operated from 1947 to 1985, and the DIPS (a.k.a. DGIPS), founded under another name in 1918 and operational until 1989, see Aaron Navarro, Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico, 1938-1954 (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2010). In 1989, the two agencies were replaced by the Center for Research and National Security, or CISEN.

[9] Sergio Aguayo, La Charola: Una historia de los servicios de inteligencia en México (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2001); Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía, La otra guerra secreta: Los archivos prohibidos de la prensa y el poder (Mexico City: Random House Mondadori, 2007).

[10] Navarro, Political Intelligence; Tanalís Padilla, Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata: The Jaramillista

Movement and the Myth of the Pax Priista, 1940-1962 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2008); Fernando Herrera Calderón and Adela Cedillo, eds., Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War, 1964-1982 (New York: Routledge, 2012); Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).

[11] Adela Cedillo, “Tracing the Dirty War’s Disappeared: The Documents of Operación Diamante,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research 19:1 (2013): 71-90.

[12] “Ley federal de transparencia y acceso a la información pública gubernamental,” Diario Oficial, 11 June 2002. (A version with ammendments through to 14 July 2014 is available at www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/244_140714.pdf.

[13] “Ley federal de archivos,” Diario Oficial, 23 Jan. 2012 (www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/LFA.pdf).

[14] Gabriela Gorbea and Andrea Noel, “Mexico Quietly Placed Archives Related to Its ‘Dirty War’ Under Lock and Key,” Vice News, 1 April 2015; https://news.vice.com/article/mexico-quietly-placed-archives-related-to-its-dirty-war-under-lock-and-key.

[15] The “Versiones públicas” list, last updated in November 2014, is at www.agn.gob.mx/menuprincipal/transparencia/pdf/VersionesPublicasNoviembre2014.doc.

[16] The source says that under the PAN, civil servants enjoyed unprecedented job security, thanks to a 2003 Professional Career Service Law. She adds: “It made it almost impossible to fire people. Now with the PRI, it seems it’s very easy to do so.”

[17] For a short memoir of one such laborer, who went on to acquire training and serve in the Reference Room, see Erika Ivette Gutiérrez Mosqueda and Marco Antonio Silva Martínez, “Entrevista con José Zavala Rangel, trabajador del año,” in Legajos. Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación 17 (July 2013): 179-92 (free access via www.agn.gob.mx/menuprincipal/difusion/publicaciones/publicaciones.html).

[18] Gorbea and Noel, “Mexico Quietly Placed…”

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3 Comments
  1. To illustrate the value of the DFS archive, the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research has kindly allowed open access (until the end of July) to its above-cited special issue on research conducted there: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rjil20/19/1

  2. For a range of commentary from historians about this episode and the recent history of access to DFS records, see the online forum at the Hispanic American Historical Review (Sept. 2015): http://hahr-online.com/open-forum-on-archives-and-access-the-dfs-controversy/

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  1. Información Relacionada al Acceso a Documentos del CISEN en AGN y Fuentes Relacionadas (actualizado el 8 de mayo de 2015) | Colegio de Etnólogos y Antropólogos Sociales, A.C. (CEAS)

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