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

Intense Electoral Year in Latin America

By Carlos Malamud*

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet with the leaders of her coalition, Nueva Mayoría. The Chilean presidential election of 2017 will determine the legacy of the Nueva Mayoría. / Gobierno de Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The new year will be an intense one for Latin American elections.  Although perhaps not as important as those taking place in 2018, this year’s elections will have a significant impact on the countries holding them and, in some cases, the region as a whole.

  • In Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections on February 19, the PAIS Alliance will run a slate of nominees for the first time without Rafael Correa heading its slate. The President said he’s stepping down for family reasons, but Ecuador’s economic problems, aggravated by the decline in oil prices, apparently convinced him to seal his legacy on a high note now rather than end his time in office in defeat.  The party’s presidential candidate, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, has a 10-point lead in polls over his closest competitor and has the advantage of facing an opposition divided among seven candidates, but his leadership remains uncertain.
  • In Mexico, the state governors of México, Nayarit, and Coahuila and mayor of Veracruz are up for election on June 4. The race in México state will measure the popular backing of the four parties in contention – PRI, PAN, PRD, and López Obrador’s new Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) – in the 2018 presidential election.  The older parties will begin to weed out the weaker pre-candidates.
  • Elections for half of the Argentine Congress and a third of its Senate in October will define the second half of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency. The government is confident that economic recovery will strengthen its election prospects.  A weak showing will strengthen the Peronista opposition and complicate Macri’s agenda.  The Peronistas are currently divided into three big factions – that of Sergio Massa; the “orthodox” wing headed by some provincial governors, and corruption-plagued Kircherismo grouping headed by former President Cristina Fernández.  Open, simultaneous, and obligatory primaries (known by the Spanish acronym PASO) in August will be an important test for all.
  • Chile will elect a successor to President Michelle Bachelet on November 19. Primaries in July will reveal whether the country’s two big coalitions – the center-left (including the President’s Nueva Mayoría) and the center-right – are holding, as well as the presidential candidates’ identity.  The names of former Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Ricardo Lagos are in the air, but it’s too early to know how things will play out in the environment of growing popular disaffection with politics and politicians.
  • Honduras will hold elections on November 26. Due to a Supreme Court decision permitting reelection, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández could face a challenge from ex-President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was removed from office by the Army in June 2009, running as head of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party.
  • Also in November, Bolivia will elect members of various high courts, including the Constitutional, Supreme, and Agro-Environmental Tribunals and the Magistracy Council. These elections will reveal the support President Evo Morales will have as he tries to reform the Constitution to allow himself to run for yet another term in office.

These elections in 2017 have a heavy national component but will shed light on the region’s future direction.  The success or failure of the populist projects in Ecuador and Honduras, or of President Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría in Chile, will tell us where we are and, above all, help us discern where we’re headed.

January 17, 2017

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  This article was originally published in Infolatam.

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Mexico Elections: Successful Balloting, Mixed Results

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Preparing for elections in Chiapas, Mexico last week.  Photo Credit: Dimitri dF / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparing for elections in Chiapas, Mexico last week. Photo Credit: Dimitri dF / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s mid-term elections last Sunday to select governors, mayors, and local and federal legislators confirmed popular engagement in the democratic process, but deep frustration with the country’s political parties.  Voter turnout – 47 percent of eligible voters cast ballots – was high  despite violence, isolated ballot-burnings, attacks on election board offices, and calls for boycotts.  The elections were carried out under highly adverse conditions. Some 1,400 murders were recorded nationwide in April – the highest rate in a year – and a clash between privately supported vigilantes and suspected cartel members left 13 dead in Guerrero state the day before voting.  Four assassinated candidates remained on Sunday’s ballots (and at least one won).  Pre-election polls showed that some 90 percent of citizens distrusted the political parties, and over half expressed disapproval for President Peña Nieto half-way into his six-year term.  According to press reports, voters were motivated by concern about the government’s inability to deal with the resurgence of violence or even satisfactorily explain massacres, such as the disappearance last September of 43 students who were last seen in police custody.  Mexico’s sluggish economy may have driven people to the polls as well; the government cut growth estimates in May because of lower than expected oil revenues and U.S. growth.

As predicted, the President’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its partners won a parliamentary majority – winning about 40 percent of the votes and, as a coalition, 260-plus seats in the 500-member Congress.  The PRI and the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) lost governorships in the country’s two most violent states – Guerrero and Michoacán – in what’s widely seen as a rebuke to both.  The opposition National Action Party (PAN) held largely steady, garnering about 20 percent of the votes.  By most accounts, the big winner on Sunday is Governor-elect Jaime Rodríguez of Mexico’s second-richest state, Nuevo León.  Running as an outsider, El Bronco took advantage of an electoral reform allowing independent candidacies and waltzed to victory with 48 percent of the vote despite a modest campaign and opposition from local media.  He has pledged that his election marks “the start of a second Mexican Revolution.”

El Bronco can legitimately claim to embody rejection of the traditional parties, and in that respect his rise to prominence is not unlike that of many charismatic politicians in Latin America’s recent and not-so-recent past.  Given his campaign’s lack of programmatic clarity, it is not clear that he or the votes cast in his favor represent anything more than that.  President Peña Nieto achieved important reforms during his first three years in office, particularly in energy and education, but these have neither generated enthusiastic support nor their anticipated benefits.  Whether the President has any new compelling ideas to offer for the remainder of his term remains to be seen.  The relatively high turnout last Sunday despite popular cynicism toward the parties and myriad security challenges does testify to Mexicans’ resilient democratic aspirations, but the election also reflects widespread public disillusion with the available options – incumbent as well as opposition.  The ruling PRI failed to offer (or even project) a credible agenda for Mexico during what are clearly times of trouble, and the country suffers from a lack of coherent alternative visions for either conservative modernization (the PAN) or progressive transformation (PRD or its former standard-bearer, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with his newly established Morena party).  Across the ideological spectrum, Mexico’s politics are stuck, and it’s going to take more than one Bronco to drive out the dinosaurs.

June 11, 2015

Mexico: A hard road for reforms

By Tom Long

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

During the campaign, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proclaimed in thousands of advertisements, “Me comprometo y cumplo” – I make a promise and I keep it.  Offering a list of potentially transformative reforms – regulations, security, telecommunications, energy, and more – he began with one of the most intractable:  the struggling public education system.  In December, at his instigation, the Mexican congress passed a constitutional reform to create stricter standards for teachers and move hiring authority from the teachers’ union to the government.  Enough states had ratified the amendment by the end of February to make it law.  After years of stagnation and interest-group politics, education reform suddenly became politically expedient, passing with support from the PRI, PAN, and PRD.  Last week, the government put an exclamation point on the reform by arresting the teachers’ union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of using her post for illicit gains surpassing $100 million.  A PRI apostate whose opposing alliance was credited with helping former President Felipe Calderón win his razor-thin victory in 2006, she was not just expendable, but an obstacle.

According to OECD education data, just 45 percent of Mexican students complete their secondary education, though the rate has improved over the last decade.  Mexico spends 3.7 percent of GDP on primary and secondary learning, — less than Chile, Argentina, and Brazil but in line with the OECD average.  Experts believe that Mexico’s educational  problems are largely political, not budgetary.  A full 97 percent of spending goes to salaries, feeding a teachers’ union that has a history of patronage and graft.  The problem has deep roots in the clientelistic structure through which the old PRI governed during its 70 years in power before losing in 2000 – and with which the PAN governments coexisted for 12 years.

The storyline shares certain similarities with PRI President Carlos Salinas’ sacking of the head of oil workers’ union in the 1990s, presaging limited reforms in that sector.  Peña Nieto probably intends the removal of the most visible representative of old-style patronage politics as a clear signal that the PRI will not bring back the bad old ways – despite the possible appearance of the firing and arrest being driven by revenge – but the reform legislation is widely seen as a positive step forward.  Rhetorically at least, the major parties have agreed to a multi-pronged effort for more reforms in the “Pact of Mexico.”  However, forging consensus on further reforms will be more difficult, as entrenched PRI politicians at the local level are already resisting many of the president’s proposals.  The PAN and PRD are already criticizing Peña Nieto for being too cozy with media barons and for handling telecommunications reform behind closed doors.  Security policies and proposed energy reforms are more contentious still.  Reforming other sectors will require going after harder targets than Gordillo and will pose greater tests of Peña Nieto’s ability to win votes in the Mexican Congress.

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.