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

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

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Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Mexico: Deepening Credibility Crisis

By Fulton Armstrong

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Expert Angela Buitrago during the presentation of the initial GIEI report last October. Photo Credit: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last week’s report on the disappearance of 43 Mexican students from the tiny village of Ayotzinapa left many questions unanswered about events on the bloody night of September 26-27, 2014, but it left no doubts about the depth of the corruption at the local and national level swirling around the youths’ tragic deaths.  The Mexican government – recipient of more than $2 billion in U.S. security assistance in the last eight years – not only produced a bogus report last year, based on tortured and otherwise impugnable sources, to divert attention from the tragedy; it also actively impeded the work of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), operating under the aegis of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that produced the new report.  GIEI members documented the witness-tampering, obstructionism, and overall lack of cooperation of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.  As the public presentation of the report wrapped up, the massacre victims’ families and supporters – some holding signs demanding to know ¿Dónde están?” – made clear their fear that the government will again sweep the case under the carpet and chanted to the experts, ¡No se vayan!”

Many details of the kidnapping, torture, and execution of the 43 youths, who were studying to be teachers, probably will never be known because much of the evidence has been tainted or destroyed.  The GIEI, however, pieced together a largely verifiable explanation of events in which local police, Federal Police, and the Army went on a bloody rampage after the students commandeered buses, as they had on other occasions with the tolerance of their owners, to transport classmates to a protest the following day.  The authorities tracked the students’ movements, set up roadblocks, systematically terrorized them, and summarily executed those who escaped and tried to tell of the atrocities.  The cover-up started immediately, culminating four months later in a report by the Office of the Attorney General (PGR) – one of Washington’s closest partners in curbing narcotics-related crime and violence – falsely claiming the students were mixed up in struggles among narcotraffickers.  The GIEI demonstrates that there is no way a serious PGR investigation did not know otherwise.

  • International and domestic reaction to the report has been strong, but Peña Nieto’s reaction has been low-key. (He also made headlines last week in proposing the decriminalization of marijuana.)  In several Tweets, the President thanked the GIEI; promised that the PGR will “analyze the complete report to improve its investigation of the tragic events”; and pledged that the PGR “will continue working so that there is justice.”  The U.S. Department of State issued a statement saying that “we trust the Mexican authorities will carefully consider the report’s recommendations.”

Peña Nieto cannot escape personal responsibility for the scandalous cover-up and obstructionism – he promised a full accounting long ago – but the GIEI report indicts much more than the presidency.  From the rural police and Army officers on the scene to the highest levels of law enforcement and the military command in Mexico City, the violence against the students has been neither admitted, condemned, nor punished, reinforcing Mexico’s longstanding culture of impunity.  The PGR’s report was tainted by deliberate falsehoods as well as the vicious forms of torture employed to exact false testimony from “witnesses.”  (Other torture stories, including an incident in which the Minister of Defense apologized for Army and Police torture of a woman in prison, are increasing in frequency.)  The U.S. Department of State’s human rights report, released two weeks ago, criticizes Mexico for its “impunity for human rights abuses,” but Washington also needs to ask whether the $2.1 billion of “Mérida Initiative” assistance it has provided to “help Mexico train and equip its law enforcement agencies, promote a culture of lawfulness, [and] implement key justice reforms” has been a good investment.  The U.S. Senate has finally confirmed the new U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, one of the architects of State Department’s implementation of the Mérida Initiative, and it stands to reason that she will demand some accountability.

May 2, 2016

Peru Elections 2016: Back to the Future?

By Jo-Marie Burt*

Peru Elections 2016

Photo Credits: Huhsunqu, Alex Albornoz, Alianza para el Progreso, Fuerza 2011, and Peruanos por el Kambio (modified) / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Peruvian electoral authorities’ decision last month to disqualify two candidates in this weekend’s first-round presidential election has conjured up the ghosts of one of the most disputed elections in recent Latin American history: the “re-re-election” of Alberto Fujimori in 2000.  Large demonstrations this week against the candidacy of the strongman’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, were a rejection of the corruption and authoritarianism of the past – as well as the electoral fraud that kept him in power.  The two candidates were disqualified for technical violations of campaign laws.  Newcomer Julio Guzmán, who polls indicated commanded around 20 percent of the vote, was punished because his party failed to follow certain registration norms, and the other, César Acuña, was accused of giving away gifts above newly set limits.  Local observers point out, however, that other leading parties are guilty of similar missteps but have faced no penalties.  Video and testimonials show, for example, Keiko Fujimori attended events where cash “prizes” were handed out.

The disqualifications have put the spotlight on the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), which disqualified candidate Julio Guzmán asked to investigate the decisions.  Postponing the election would be extremely disruptive, particularly because other political groups in Peru, which have benefited from Guzmán’s exclusion, have seized on the immediate political advantage.  The possibility that uneven application of the electoral rules might taint the credibility of the eventual winner is not their immediate concern.

  • The two immediate beneficiaries are Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known by his initials PPK, which also identify his party, Peruanos por el Kambio), and Verónica Mendoza of the left-wing Frente Amplio. At 15-20 percent each, they are jockeying for second and third place behind Fujimori (30-35 percent), but the real race is in the runoff on June 5 that will take place in the likely event that no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote.  In the 2011 elections, Fujimori won the first round, but lost in the runoff vote to Ollanta Humala.  Fujimorismo has a hard-core following of 25-30 percent of the voting public, but a majority of the population also has a negative opinion of her.

Peruvian elections had come a long way since Alberto Fujimori fled office in 2000.  (In 2009, he was sentenced to prison for 25 years for human rights violations, corruption, and abuse of authority.)  Free and fair elections were held in 2001, 2006, and 2011 – marking the first time in Peruvian history that two democratically elected presidents consecutively handed the presidential sash over to successors.  Whether politically motivated or merely the result of incompetence, electoral authorities’ apparently one-sided handling of this year’s campaign has created an appearance of favoritism discrediting the electoral process itself.  The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has already referred to these elections as “semi-democratic.”  Others speak openly of fraud.  The potential damage is compounded by popular concerns that Keiko Fujimori represents a return to the authoritarian and corrupt tactics that characterized her father’s decade in power.  Her detractors say that she is not simply her father’s daughter; she served as his First Lady and benefited from the corruption of his regime (for example, she testified before Congress that she accepted cash from intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos to pay for her college education).  Keiko has acknowledged “errors” (but not “crimes) were committed during her father’s government, and she continues to say her father’s regime was the “best” Peru has ever had.  These were bound to be contentious elections due to the divisive legacy Keiko Fujimori represents, as the massive nationwide demonstrations marking the April 5 “self-coup” on Tuesday made clear.  But the uneven application of the law by electoral authorities raises even more serious questions about Peru’s democratic institutions.

 April 7, 2016

*Jo-Marie Burt is Director of Latin American Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Peru: The Shuffling Continues

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

President Humala Ollanta’s new prime minister – his seventh in less than four years – won a vote of confidence in Congress two weeks ago, but odds are that his government won’t be much more popular than those of his six predecessors.  Pedro Cateriano, who had served for three years as Humala’s Minister of Defense, was sworn in on April 2, after the Congress turned against Prime Minister Ana Jara over a spy scandal involving Chile.  (The Chileans, whose intelligence service allegedly recruited several Peruvian Marines in 2005-2012, ended the crisis last week after providing what the Peruvians said were “satisfactory explanations” and pledges to “cease old practices” that have been negative for bilateral relations.)  Fulfilling constitutional requirements, Cateriano and his cabinet presented their program to the Congress on April 28 for the vote of confidence, in which there were 73 votes in favor, 10 against, and 39 abstentions.  The government team reiterated a commitment to reduce inequality, remove obstacles to investment, and improve education, health care, and other social services.

Like Humala’s first four years in office, his remaining 14 months (he can’t run again) appear likely to feature a mix of successes and stubborn challenges.

  • Peru’s economy is doing better than most others in Latin America – 2.4 percent growth in 2014 and slightly more than 3 percent projected for this year – but a drop in Chinese demand for Peruvian copper has depressed prices 6.4 percent last year and more than 13 percent this. (Metals account for 60 percent of Peru’s export earnings.)  This has been a drag on growth and caused the trade deficit to rise to $2.5 billion in 2014 and even higher in 2015.  Humala has increased spending, and poverty reduction programs have lifted about a million Peruvians out of “extreme poverty” since he took office, while inflation remains low – about 3 percent a year.
  • Under Humala, Peru is also grappling with image problems abroad. His administration has strenuously rejected a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take up the cases of 64 persons tried for terrorism during previous governments – a process that threatens to disrupt delicate political balances in Peru.  Press freedom in Peru was also downgraded in Freedom House’s most recent report.  With a score of 47, the country is still ranked ahead of others in the region (Ecuador has 64; Bolivia 47; Honduras 68; and Venezuela 81), but it slipped three points because of “an increase in death threats and violence against journalists, ongoing impunity for past crimes, and a lack of political will to address the problem.”
  • The decline in metals earnings has fueled internal tensions as the government has attempted increasingly aggressive policies to open new areas to mining and accelerate mining projects in the pipeline. The mobilization of military troops last week to quell protests over a new $1.4 billion mining project in the south, which have already resulted in the death of three police and several civilians, poses a real problem.

Humala is by no means unique in suffering a contradiction between basically sound economic performance and chronic inability to sustain domestic political support.  His predecessors have suffered variations of the same malady, rooted in part in the country’s notorious lack of a functioning political party system.  But with seven different prime ministers, his government has looked particularly disorganized.  He has arguably been a competent manager but an ineffective leader – muddling through rather than executing a vision for a better future for Peru.  In the runup to winning his vote of confidence, Cateriano showed strong, consultative political skills in garnering the support of most former Peruvian Presidents, but overcoming the administration’s lame-duck status amidst growing conflict over metals extraction and the beginning of campaigning for the 2016 election will be a constant challenge.  And this government’s experience, like that of its predecessors, suggests that his successor will also face powerful headwinds in a persistently fragmented political landscape.

May 11, 2015

Dominicans of Haitian Origin: Foreigners in their native land

By Maribel Vásquez

Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic / Photo credit: ElMarto / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic / Photo credit: ElMarto / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Nearly three months after the Dominican Republic stripped residents born to unauthorized migrants of their Dominican citizenship, the Constitutional Tribunal’s controversial decision remains the source of high tensions in the country. The ruling expanded on a 2010 amendment to the Constitution stating that children born in the Dominican Republic must have at least one parent with legal residency to be eligible for Dominican citizenship. The court has now determined that the ruling can be applied retroactively to 1929 – in effect leaving three generations of immigrants’ children in legal limbo. At an estimated 200,000, Dominicans of Haitian descent are the largest affected group. In recent years, they have already been denied identity documents, and officials have refused to return copies of their birth certificates, arguing that such births occurred while their parents were “in transit” and therefore did not meet the criteria for Dominican nationality.

International criticism of the ruling was immediate. Many critics have called it racist. After visiting the Dominican Republic earlier this month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a highly critical report. The United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has also expressed concern that the court’s decision threatens to leave hundreds of thousands stateless. CARICOM has called on the Dominican Republic to “right this terrible wrong” and suspended its membership application. Caribbean leaders have expressed outrage.  Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, said the ruling created a “grave humanitarian situation,” and the former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Lester Bird, said the ruling was “so absolutely racist that it’s almost pathetic.” The United States has kept an extremely low profile on the issue.

The tribulations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic date back to the country’s independence in 1844, after 22 years of Haitian occupation, during which tensions between Dominicans and Haitians were high. Since then, relations between the two peoples of Hispañiola have often been in turmoil, most notably when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937 issued orders that led to el corte – “the cutting” – that massacred over 30,000 Haitians along the border. The Constitutional Tribunal’s decision appears to reflect the tradition of anti-haitianismo that underlines Dominican national identity. It raises questions about the legal status of past political figures and surely excludes the living from political processes. Applied retroactively, for example, the ruling leaves former Santo Domingo mayor and three-time presidential candidate, José Francisco Peña Gómez stateless in death. While the prospect of another el corte is inconceivable for many of the now-stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent, incidents of violence against them have risen since the ruling – and activists have called the disenfranchisement of Haitian-Dominicans a “civil genocide.”