Mexican Government Under Attack for Electronic Spying

By Fulton Armstrong

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Revelations of Mexico’s use of state-of-the-art software to spy on domestic critics and OAS human rights experts have dealt another devastating blow to the credibility of President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican government.  Targeted in the cyberattacks were dozens of individuals and nongovernmental groups from various backgrounds, including leaders of the opposition PAN party investigating corruption allegations; anti-obesity activists lobbying for a tax on sweet carbonated soft drinks that the government opposed; and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) sent by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala in 2014.

  • The software – known as Pegasus and estimated to cost between $32 million and $80 million – sent the targets personalized text messages with links that, when pressed, led to the total compromise of their smart phones. The messages falsely alerted victims to family emergencies, for example, and said further information was available at a link in the text.  Some purported to be from the U.S. Embassy, providing a link for updates on visa applications.  The link downloaded spyware that allowed the perpetrators full access to all voice and data communications and allowed remote control over the microphone and camera on the affected device.

Confronted with evidence developed by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and corroborated by the New York Times, Peña Nieto admitted in late June that his government purchased Pegasus but denied that it was used to target opponents and investigators.  He said that all of the government’s efforts have been “to maintain the internal security of the nation, fight organized crime, to generate security for all Mexicans.”  The Israeli company NSO Group, producer of Pegasus, claims it sells the software only to governments and only for specific anti-terrorism, anti-crime purposes.  The President threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” – a statement his spokesman retracted several hours later – but he did acknowledge the need for an investigation.  The office of the Attorney General (PGR), which was involved in the Pegasus program, was charged with looking into the matter, drawing cries of foul from critics.

  • Officials at the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights have called on Mexico to allow a full investigation by independent experts. For the same agency that bought Pegasus to investigate its use, they said, was not credible.  An OAS official has stated publicly that the allegations “should be investigated.”

The internal spying scandal is yet another blow to the credibility of the Mexican government on human rights – whether the spying and harassment was approved by Peña Nieto or was the work of rogue agencies.  The President’s credibility has been battered by scandals involving his family and administration, and corruption by state governors from his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has deepened perceptions of impunity at all levels.  Violence is also creeping back to levels experienced during the term of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón.  Among his most corrosive failures, however, has been the lack any progress investigating the brutal killing of the Iguala students.  The government’s claims that it was unable to bring anyone to justice for Iguala – while spending tens of millions of dollars to spy on and harass international experts investigating the incident – has deepened popular cynicism about the President.  Even if he accedes to an independent inquiry, the damage has been done, and he seems likely to limp, at best, toward general elections scheduled for mid-2018.  InSight Crime (a CLALS-sponsored foundation) has also called the scandal “a massive self-inflicted wound in [Mexico’s] fight against organized crime” because it compromised anti-crime operations and undermined the government’s credibility.

July 24, 2017

What do Latin Americans Make of the U.S. Election Campaign?

By Fulton Armstrong

Trump Wall Pope

Photo Credit: Daryl Lawson and Pingnews (modified) / YouTube and Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about Mexico and immigration by Donald Trump – leader in the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination contest – have drawn intense criticism from some Latin American leaders, but their underlying concern may be about the implications of the broad support for his populist rhetoric regardless of who wins the party’s nomination in July.  Media throughout the hemisphere are reporting highlights of the U.S. campaign, focusing mostly on immigration and its connotations for the region.  Some reports touch on the challenges to unity facing both major U.S. political parties, such as Democratic pre-candidate Bernie Sanders’s pressure on the previously unbeatable Hillary Clinton.

Most Latin American attention has gone to Trump and his statements.  His characterization of many Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists; his statement that Mexicans “bring tremendous infectious disease” into the United States; and his pledge to make Mexico pay billions of dollars for a new high wall on the border have drawn sharp rebukes from across Latin America.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto, who initially remained on the sidelines when Trump brought the immigration issue to the table in a cynical fashion, recently compared Trump with Hitler and Mussolini. Former President Calderón called him a “racist” and lamented that he is “sowing anti-American hatred around the world.”  And his predecessor, Vicente Fox, said on U.S. television that Mexico wouldn’t pay for “that f**king wall.”
  • Argentina-born Pope Francis also criticized Trump. “A man who thinks only of walls is not a Christian,” he said.  Former Colombian President and OAS Secretary General Gaviria told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer that Trump “has the typical style of a Latin American caudillo,” scaring people and putting himself up as “the solution to all their problems.”
  • Ecuadoran President Correa said, “Trump’s rhetoric is so clumsy, so vulgar, that it will stir reaction in Latin America” – which would be “very bad for the United States” but positive for Latin American “progressive tendencies.”
  • In Venezuela, President Maduro has condemned Trump’s “threats” against Latin America as “brutal” and termed him a “thief full of hate.” On the street, however, comparisons between Chávez and Trump are part of daily conversation.

Racial slurs and rhetoric about walling out immigrants are, naturally, hair-trigger issues not just for Latin Americans.  If the Trump juggernaut rolls on, however, anxieties about its implications are likely to sweep across the hemisphere – not necessarily because he will win the general election in November, but because the broad support for his rhetoric about walls and deportations suggests a widening gap between the United States and the region.  Moreover, doubts about the credibility of the U.S. political model – already battered by the contested presidential election of 2000 and the decade-long gridlock in Washington between the executive and legislative branches of government – could multiply, especially if campaign violence spreads beyond Trump rallies.  Trump’s pledge to resume “enhanced interrogation” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” of alleged Islamic extremists could further undercut U.S. moral authority.  Dismayed Republican leaders are privately floating the idea of rewriting the rules for their party convention this summer to overturn Trump’s primary victories and block his candidacy in the general election, but that too would be a spectacle that could undermine U.S. image in Latin America.  Moreover, other Republican candidates’ views may compound the problem.  Senator Ted Cruz is proud of having shut down the U.S. Government to make a political point during a skirmish with President Obama, and he and Senator Marco Rubio are fervent supporters of their party’s decision to refuse to meet with the President’s nominee to replace a recently deceased Supreme Court nominee, let alone give him or her a hearing and floor vote.  Ecuadoran President Correa’s remarks about the U.S. campaign empowering “progressive” forces is probably wishful thinking on his part, but Trump’s populism and his party’s questionable options could indeed appear contrary to some Latin American countries’ struggle to rid themselves of populist, authoritarian-style leaders.

March 14, 2016

Mexico: Is Peña Nieto Missing the Point?

By Fulton Armstrong

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

The disappearance and apparent massacre of 43 students from a city in Mexico’s Guerrero state is a rude reminder to President Peña Nieto that economic reform and increased foreign investment aren’t enough to help the country overcome the scourge of narcotics-fueled violence.  Federal and State prosecutors agree that the police in Iguala – who, along with the city’s mayor, have strong ties to the Guerreros Unidos cartel – handed the students over to the narcos after a confrontation during a student protest turned violent, already leaving six students dead.  Residents on a nearby ridge noted an increase in police and truck traffic soon after the showdown, but the dozens of bodies uncovered by searchers at mass graves in the area so far have not been the students’.  The mayor and police chief are in hiding, but Federal authorities say three dozen police and accomplices have been arrested and many have confessed.  None apparently has identified where the bodies were dumped.

As the scope of the crime, which occurred three weeks ago, has become clearer, the President’s rhetoric has been increasingly forceful, committing to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice.  The Federal police have been directed to take control of security in the area and nearby municipalities.  The government announced last Friday, that the “supreme leader” of the Guerreros Unidos has been arrested, while another committed suicide after a standoff with police.  But critics point out the federal authorities’ own problems with corruption, and criticism of Peña Nieto’s efforts to stem the violence has been growing, especially in the wake of his administration’s many self-congratulatory statements about progress in the security area.  A new 5,000-strong national civilian gendarmerie he rolled out in August was ridiculed as too little, too late.  His continuation of his predecessor’s emphasis on arresting drug kingpins – resulting this year in the spectacular arrests of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (of the Sinaloa cartel), Héctor Beltrán-Leyva (of the Beltrán-Leyva Organization), Fernando Sánchez Arellano (of the Arellano Félix cartel), and others – has failed to eliminate the underlying systems of the drug trade.

During the presidential campaign in 2012, Peña Nieto promised to reduce violence, and his decision not to obsess over the problem – as his predecessor, President Calderón, had – may have given him a respite.  But his administration apparently ignored clear signals of trouble – such as indications that in Guerrero state and elsewhere the cartels’ were expanding and consolidating their influence over government – and the problem seems to be roaring back with a vengeance.  The President’s focus on reforming the economy and attracting foreign investment makes strategic sense, but its long timeline doesn’t help him fight the fires of violence that envelop parts of the country.  There’s also merit in creating something like the gendarmerie and other institutional tools, but that approach seems to ignore that the rot of corruption has deep roots at all levels – federal, state, and local – that must be dealt with and that an elite unit tied to a federal capital hundreds of kilometers away can do little in places like Guerrero.  Calderón had shown the challenge wouldn’t be easy, but Peña Nieto has not yet shown that he – and Mexican society – are up to it either.

October 21, 2014

Violence in Mexico: Forging a Civic Compact for Urban Resilience

By Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

The media’s regular chronicling of human resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters and large-scale violent conflicts cover only part of story.  As inspiring as tales of individual heroism, resistance and resilience can be, they provide little guidance for public policy aiming to strengthen social ties within damaged communities, in which safety nets need to be created to work both preventatively and post-victimization.  Supported by a field research grant from the Social Science Research Council’s Drugs, Security and Democracy Program (DSD) and working jointly with a team of researchers based at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, this writer recently spent four months on the U.S.-Mexico border to answer this question.  Members of 320 randomly sampled households in Ciudad Juárez were interviewed about their knowledge of non-violent collective action during the past five years.  Overall, the findings provide hope that Juárez’s social fabric has not suffered as badly as is widely claimed, but both Mexican and international policy-makers need to understand the nature of collective resilience before they can effectively support it.  Juárez no longer tops the world’s ranking of most violent cities per capita, as it did in 2010 and 2011, although organized violence continues to wreak havoc, exemplified by 30-60 murders per month.  Analysts agree that the downward trend is less the result of concerted government action and more a reflection of a reshuffling – likely temporary – of power structures within the transnational drug business.  Strikingly, most survey respondents argued that neighborly help had not decreased during the violent times.  Roughly a quarter even argued that residents’ willingness to help each other had in fact increased, mainly because people felt more united amid the terror.  Many people reported knowledge of collective street monitoring, peaceful marches, protests and public vigils, with between 5 and 8 percent saying they have actively participated in them.  For those residents, violence was not an abstract phenomenon; more than 30 percent reported personally knowing someone who had been murdered, and just under 20 percent had themselves been victims of violent crimes.  Surprisingly, almost two-thirds said they had not lost trust in local politicians and that they would vote for candidates promising to combat violence.

These findings serve as reminders of the political dimension of resilience in the context of chronic violence, implying that there are important local collective dynamics that can be leveraged through responsive and accountable political representation.  They also suggest that policymakers at all levels need to be mindful of the existence and potential of collective agency under extremely adverse conditions.  The violence in border cities created an opportunity for forging a civic compact between entities of the state on the one hand and neighborhood residents on the other, to mend frail ties between the electorate and its representatives.  This kind of deliberate state-building at the local level is precisely what Mexico needs in the aftermath of former President Calderón’s heavy-handed and, as many have claimed, detrimental strategy emphasizing federal-level and military-led programs and operations.  President Peña Nieto and his cabinet appear likely to embrace a local approach to increasing security as it complements his commitment to improving social services especially in secondary cities.  However, the most critical building block for effectively executing such a civic compact is a politically unbiased, data-driven selection of beneficiary communities and their needs.  Akin to approaches to civic reconstruction in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, communities should be in the driver’s seat in both project selection and monitoring.  After all, state-building is as much about procedural inclusion and justice as it is about tangible outcomes.

Dr. Esser teaches international development at American University’s School of International Service.  Click here for more information about this project.

Will tensions over security spoil the Obama-Peña Nieto Summit?

By Tom Long

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The meeting in December between recently re-elected President Barack Obama and President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was marked by cordiality and a desire to talk about anything but the often grisly drug-related violence in Mexico during the previous six years.  Since then, Peña Nieto has continued the changed emphasis, aided by headlines pivoting to positive stories.  Mexico has been recently hailed for its economic growth, particularly in export-oriented manufacturing, and for a series of political compromises that The Washington Post favorably compared with the U.S. Congressional stalemate.  Despite optimistic claims from the government, Mexican media reports indicate that drug-related violence continues at nearly the same pace as last year.  (Click here for a summary and analysis by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Moreover, pressure is growing on questions of human rights violations committed in the name of the war on drugs.  When Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama meet again in early May, holding back a renewed focus on security is likely to be a challenge.

Peña Nieto’s political incentives do not point to the same, high-profile cooperation with the United States that occurred under President Felipe Calderón, who had already begun shifting priorities last year.  Despite the major turnaround signified by the PRI’s signing NAFTA almost 20 years ago, Peña Nieto’s PRI still contains elements more skeptical of U.S. “intervention” than Calderón’s PAN.  Materially, moreover, most of the U.S. aid planned under the Mérida Initiative has been disbursed, and Congress exhibits little appetite for major new appropriations.  (Even at its height, U.S. spending was a fraction of Mexico’s contribution to the drug war.)  That reduction, coupled with growing awareness that the Calderón strategy actually fueled violence, diminishes the enthusiasm in and outside of government for continuing his policies.   Frustration from the left in both countries regarding persisting human rights violations and the slow pace of judicial reform could also grow more serious.

While these problems may be causing tensions between U.S. and Mexican police and military at the operational level, they seem to be manageable so far – and both Presidents are likely to emphasize intelligence-sharing and similar bilateral cooperation that does not require resources.  Upper echelons of the Obama administration seem to understand that Peña Nieto’s push to de-emphasize security and promise to focus on violence reduction over drug interdiction is politically necessary.  But the moral argument has not changed:  Mexicans suffer the violent consequences spawned by U.S. drug use and counterdrug policies.  Weapons sold on the U.S. side of the border continue to flow into Mexico, an issue now atop the U.S. political agenda for entirely domestic reasons.  If the two countries can manage to keep security problems at a lower decibel, they will better cooperate on issues that are just as vital but could pay larger dividends — immigration, transboundary energy, educational exchange, and infrastructure.

Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.

Indigenous Prospects in Mexico

American University professor Todd Eisenstadt has turned the conventional story about indigenous peoples in Mexico upside-down.  In Politics, Identity and Mexico’s Indigenous Rights Movement,* Eisenstadt presents evidence that Mexico’s indigenous peoples are at present not best characterized exclusively by the pursuit of communitarian ethnic goals and the defense of their collective rights and autonomy.  Rather, he shows that indigenous people are often preoccupied with their socio-economic conditions and struggles over land tenure and ownership, more than with ethnicity, and in ways largely comparable to non-indigenous Mexicans.

For at least a decade after the Zapatista revolt exploded onto the world stage in 1994, indigenous concerns and critiques of the state helped shape national Mexican politics and public debate.  The 1996 San Andrés Accords underscored the Zapatistas’ analysis of the limits of liberal citizenship and of the negative consequences of neoliberal state policies.  Now, in late 2012, indigenous political possibilities in Mexico appear very different.  The government has still not ratified the Accords; Mexico’s center-left has failed to capture the presidency; and the neoliberal policies of the Calderón administration promise to continue with the PRI’s return to power.  Indigenous social mobilization has been fragmented since the early 2000s.  Localized conflicts have flared up over government efforts to privatize land for outside investment and development, but these have not led to larger-scale indigenous mobilization.  The Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” has had little impact, and they did not participate in the recent presidential elections.  As regular teacher strikes and the attention generated by the spectacle of the “#YoSoy132” anti-electoral fraud student movement have made clear, the national center of gravity of social protest no longer turns on an indigenous axis.

Eisenstadt’s book sounds a skeptical note about the possibilities for ethnically-based indigenous mobilization in Mexico.  His research underscores that Mexico’s development model does not adequately address the needs of ordinary Mexicans – including of indigenous peoples – at a moment when we should expect more of the same from the Peña Nieto (PRI) administration that takes office on 1 December.  He documents the shift away from primordialist accounts of indigenous identity to friction over control of economic resources – a shift from ethnicity to class – that is seen in some other Latin American countries. While countries such as Bolivia have actively incorporated indigenous nationalisms into state policy and law, Mexico appears headed in the other direction.  This divergence illustrates the elusiveness of the ongoing search for the best balance between collective and individual rights in Latin American countries with large indigenous populations.

* Politics, Identity, and Mexico’s Indigenous Rights Movement
by Todd A. Eisenstadt
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 110700120X
ISBN-13: 978-1107001206

Mexico Elections: Change Ahead in Cooperation with the U.S.?

Photo by: World Economic Forum via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.

News media are generally predicting a relatively comfortable margin of victory for PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto over PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the ruling party PAN’s candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota in Presidential elections next Sunday.  Polls give the PRI candidate (44 percent) a big lead over the PRD (28 percent) and the PAN (25 percent.)

Compared to the weight of Mexico’s problems, the campaign has been light on issues.  Both the PAN and PRI have made vague pledges of continued cooperation with the United States in efforts against the drug cartels.  While current President Calderón’s approach to drug-related violence has resulted in no discernible improvement in security – indeed, some 60,000 people have died since he launched his military-intensive strategy – both Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota have pledged to triple the Federal police (Vázquez) and create a paramilitary gendarmerie of 40,000 (Peña).  López Obrador has focused on jobs, services, and social issues.

Whoever wins the election, Mexico-U.S. relations do not appear likely to return to the mutual suspicion and tension of years past.  Neither of the three main parties seems overly dependent on nationalism – and anti-gringoism – for political support.  But the bloom is certainly off the much-vaunted U.S.-Mexico “co-responsibility” in the struggle against the cartels, and the next Mexican president almost surely is going to press for an end to the bad deal Mexico gets in the relationship  – the U.S. provides guns and intelligence, and tens of thousands of Mexicans die as drugs flow to eager American consumers.  Calderón’s successor probably will press Washington to prosecute the “war on drugs” in the United States, where the cartels’ footprint is huge, their operations are audacious, and they freely buy thousands of weapons smuggled southbound to kill Mexicans.  Whichever candidate is elected to the U.S. Presidency in November, next year will be a watershed during which the U.S. can either demonstrate a consequential commitment to co-responsibility – by pursuing the cartels in the United States and stanching the flow of guns and bulk cash into Mexico – or Calderon’s successor will unilaterally curtail cooperation.