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Mexico Sees Big Brother on the Loose

Spying, a weapon of the ex-ruling party, remains alive and well. But who's behind it now?

September 22, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Just about everyone in Mexican politics professed to be shocked recently when a powerful opposition congresswoman was caught on tape calling one of her rivals a bloodsucker and scheming against her party's leader.

Not that anyone was all that surprised by the evidence that Elba Esther Gordillo can be a ruthless operator who swears like a sailor. Or by the move to embarrass her by tapping and leaking 42 of her phone conversations to Mexican newspapers, which excerpted them last month with no expletives deleted.

But the wiretapping qualifies as the most sensational here in years, if only because of its mysterious origin. Until recently, every Mexican knew who Big Brother was. Now they are not so sure.

For seven decades before President Vicente Fox's election in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, held a monopoly on political power and a near-monopoly on espionage, which it routinely employed to intimidate its foes. Fox himself was bugged while running for president. He read the leaked transcripts, including a chat with his mother, in a newspaper.

But while Fox appears to have honored a pledge to stop the use of wiretapping as a weapon against dissent, remnants of Mexico's once-centralized spying apparatus are acting beyond his government's reach.

Scattered freelance spies now serve criminal enterprises such as kidnapping and drug trafficking rings as well as political party leaders, local officials, legitimate entrepreneurs and even sports authorities intent on gathering dirt on their adversaries.

The same week Gordillo's loose tongue made headlines, so did the wiretapping of Felipe Ramos Rizo, the country's best-known soccer referee. What he said on the phone has not been made public, but the recordings ended up in the hands of a Mexican soccer official -- apparently as ammunition in a dispute over alleged bribe-taking -- and led to the referee's two-month suspension from work.

"Wiretapping has been privatized," said Sergio Aguayo, a leading human rights campaigner who worries that Mexicans' right to privacy is eroding on Fox's watch.

The spying on Gordillo, the PRI's second-ranking official and its newly elected whip in the lower house of Congress, is widely believed to be the work of rivals in the faction-ridden party who were determined to neutralize her growing authority.

Because the PRI still dominates Congress and has resisted Fox's efforts to reform Mexico, Gordillo's willingness to compromise on his key economic initiatives has deepened a split in the party's ranks.

Interior Minister Santiago Creel has denied federal involvement in the Gordillo affair and promised an investigation.

"In a democratic system, there must be open, transparent policies, not policies based on espionage," he told reporters. "That belongs to another era."

Government intelligence services do tap the phones of organized crime suspects, officials say, and have a mandate to bug anyone else in the name of internal security as long as they first get a court order. Any other wiretapping is a crime punishable by six to 12 years in prison, but Fox has had few successes in halting the practice.

Authorities last year dismantled the eavesdropping operation of a suburban Mexico City mayor from Fox's National Action Party, but only after he was charged with the murder of a muckraking city councilwoman he had been spying on.

A spy nest uncovered in Mexico City two summers ago was tapping several Cabinet ministers' phones. But although six of the 11 people arrested worked for Arturo Montiel, the PRI governor of the state of Mexico, there was no probe of his administration's possible involvement.

Human rights activists say they believe that so many state and local government agencies are engaged in unauthorized wiretapping -- with the help of experts and gear once employed by the government -- that it's often impossible to tell who is spying on whom.

"The change Fox brought was to the top of government, but in the middle ranks you still have a lot of the same guys who have been doing this espionage stuff for years and now could be working with their buddies on the outside," said Mariclaire Acosta, Fox's former deputy foreign minister. "Spying is still deeply rooted in political practice. Is the government really trying to eradicate it? Not enough."

Part of the problem is the volume of the bugging equipment and expertise on the open market. The newspaper Reforma filled most of a page recently with an illustrated primer on eavesdropping gear, most of it for sale at spy shops here or on the Internet.

One foreign security specialist estimated that half a dozen sophisticated scanners, costing up to $250,000 each and capable of long-range interception of cellular phone traffic, operate in Mexico outside federal control.

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