VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico -- One day this year, citizen activist Jose Manuel Arias Rodriguez was told by the state of Tabasco that his request under the state’s sunshine-in-government law had been granted.
Sprawled before him were 14 boxes of receipts and other paperwork for the running of the stately governor’s mansion known as Quinta Grijalva.
Arias began to dig, and before long he discovered some of the figurative nails that have helped construct the coffin for the political career of former Gov. Andres Granier Melo, subject of one of Mexico’s biggest political graft investigations in years. Granier, a 65-year-old chemist, returned this week from Miami to face temporary arrest on allegations that his administration ran up massive state debt and looted hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers before leaving office at the end of December.
The scandal swirling around Granier has elements of a political potboiler: A seized airplane with 23 bundles of cash, drunken boasts of shopping trips to Beverly Hills, a wine cellar with exquisite French vintages, yacht trips and the discovery a few weeks ago of a huge stash of Mexican pesos.
What Arias discovered was far more mundane: He found receipts for onions and tomatoes. But what he noticed about those bills – and numerous other bills – were that Quinta Grijalva paid suppliers far above market value for goods.
The governor’s mansion paid 100 pesos (about $8) for a kilo of white onions, nearly seven times the price in the market. Medicine to kill ticks on the governor’s dog cost 1,700 pesos, rather than the 100 pesos in a pet store. The overbilling went on and on, box after box.
Arias found payroll information that showed Granier employed 160 people at the mansion, including some 16 drivers, and an equal number of cooks. Yet even with such a large staff, accounts showed that the governor repeatedly contracted private waiters and cooks to staff his banquets.
Arias made his findings public in a press conference in January called by the Santo Tomas Ecological Association, the activist group he co-heads, and since then the scandal surrounding Granier has only grown.
The information that Arias dug up through freedom-of-information requests played only a small role in the growing public ire over Granier. But across Mexico, the door guarding the inner workings of state and federal government has been pried slightly ajar by a series of laws giving citizens the right to information.
It hasn’t been easy. And transparency experts note that greater access to information is far from a panacea to the rampant corruption that afflicts Mexico.
“Citizens still require a powerful and independent anti-corruption agency that actually prosecutes these cases,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Transparencia Mexicana, a branch of Transparency International, a group that publicizes political corruption around the world.
Bohorquez said that airing corruption without bringing prosecutions might paralyze a citizenry that wants change but feels impotent to bring it about.
“What you have is a lot of exposure . . . but a lot of impunity. Impunity is probably more complicated to face than corruption itself,” Bohorquez said.
Mexico has both a federal access-to-information law approved more than a decade ago and a series of more recent state laws that are usually weaker.