Getting documents on the extent of the U.S. government’s involvement in the capture of one of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpins could cost upwards of $1.4 million.
Victor Hugo Michel, an award-winning investigative journalist with Mexican outlet Milenio, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for such details through a public transparency website and had asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to waive any processing fees for the request because the information would serve the public interest.
Michel sought “any and all reports, communications and documents” about the DEA’s role in tracking down and ultimately arresting Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in February 2014.
But the DEA told Michel his request, which he filed in March 2014, would cost at least $1.46 million to fulfill due to the hours of searching required to dig up the documents he wanted.
“Unfortunately, until a search is conducted and the response material is identified, the actual fee cannot be computed,” wrote Katherine Myrick, head of the DEA’s FOIA office, in her Jan. 26 response letter.
Myrick said Michel would need to pay the full fee before work began on his request. He would then owe the DEA any additional costs incurred in the search of the more than 13,000 investigative files the agency said contain information covered under Michel's request.
The letter said the DEA would refuse to answer any of Michel’s future or presently pending FOIA requests and begin charging him interest if he declined to pay the additional fees.
Myrick said her letter gave Michel the opportunity to narrow the scope of his FOIA request “in such a manner as to reduce the search and reproduction fees.”
Michel, who has won two national transparency awards for journalism using FOIA, told the Washington Examiner he decided to seek information about the Guzman manhunt after covering his arrest in Mazatlan, the coastal Mexican town where the drug lord was arrested last year.
"Everybody spoke of the DEA and how the gringos were involved in his capture," Michel said. "I wanted to have documental evidence on that collaboration. Everybody knows the Americans operate in Mexico, though the government tries to deny it. It's not kosher to admit intervention by our big bad neighbor to the north."
Michel said he views the "unpayable" fine as a threat from the government that if he tries to pursue this story, he will be forced into debt for life.
"I think it's a shame that a government agency such as the DEA has tried to block a legitimate FOIA request with such a maneuver," he said. "They — the Mexican, U.S. governments — will have to keep denying me the information because I'll keep asking for it."
FOIA legislation permits requesters to ask that the fee be waived if they can demonstrate why the information they want is in the public interest and how it would “contribute significantly” to the public’s understanding of government operations.
Under the law, agency officials must provide two hours of searching and 100 pages of copies for free. Myrick said the $1.4 million fee would result from charges of $28 an hour for searching and 10 cents per page for duplication.
J. Patrick Brown, editor of MuckRock.com, an online service that facilitates FOIA requests and publishes the documents thereby obtained, told the Examiner the fee was one of the biggest not just in the history of the site but in the FOIA community as a whole.
The FOIA was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Among the chief sponsors of the bill was then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld, a Michigan Republican.
"In this case, the request is quite broad, and we would expect a fairly hefty fee associated with it," Brown said. "But a $1.4 million fee, which must be paid before any work will begin on the request, is hard not to read as a deterrence, and one that should hopefully spark a discussion on how much the requester should be expected to shoulder for information that is, legally, theirs."
Michel filed a parallel FOIA request with the Narcotics Affairs office in the State Department for the same information.
DEA agents were reportedly involved in the hunt for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but it is unclear to what extent.
Guzman remains in a maximum-security prison in Mexico, where he awaits prosecution. As the wealthy leader of one of the world’s most powerful drug cartels, Guzman was wanted by the governments of both the U.S. and Mexico and by Interpol for his international trafficking network, which funneled vast quantities of cocaine across the Mexican border.
The U.S. has expressed an interest in extraditing Guzman to face a litany of criminal charges awaiting him in several district courts across the country.
Michel has filed hundreds of FOIA requests for records from both the Mexican and U.S. government, although he noted the U.S. system is "rather bad."
His MuckRock profile shows a history of FOIA requests, many of which have been denied or only partially filled, for information about drug-related violence in Mexico and the U.S. government’s involvement in curbing it.
For example, an August 2012 request to the FBI for its file on Guzman yielded only a collection of newspaper clippings when the agency responded to it nearly a year later.