Ask, and you shall receive… sort of.

Three years and a fraction of the intended spending later, what a State Department official once called an “urgent” aid program with the potential for “an immediate and important impact in the fight against organized crime” (in Mexico’s war on drug cartels) was acknowledged by federal officials to have been hamstrung by bureaucratic inertia. Initiated in 2007 between then-President George W. Bush and newly-elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the “Merida Initiative” called for the U.S. to send $1.1 billion to Mexico between 2008 and 2010, but the persistence of drug-related violence has raised questions about how the plan is working — and public-records laws are answering them in an unflattering light.

Reporters for the Associated Press filed open-records requests with agencies of each government. The Mexican government responded in three weeks, though with only “a general budget breakdown but few details.” The State Department failed to issue an official response to the Freedom of Information Act request — but an anonymous official, frustrated by the nine-month delay, sent spreadsheets showing the information to the AP in mid-May (coincidentally, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Ranking Member Richard Lugar also published the same information days later as a 20-page appendix to the report, “Common Enemy, Common Struggle: Progress in U.S.-Mexican Efforts To Defeat Organized Crime And Drug Trafficking”). In short, a three-year program to spend over a billion dollars had trouble getting a quarter of that money out of its wallet ($26 million in the first two years, and $235 million projected for 2010, reports the AP), but the government is trying to make up for it by expanding the scope of the project, the calendar, and the cost.

We wouldn’t say that’s how FOIA is supposed to work… but it is a valuable reminder of how reporters can use a variety of professional tools to get the story.

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