MEXICO CITY -- Several Latin American presidents have complained bitterly following recent revelations about U.S. electronic surveillance, but there’s a bit of hypocrisy in some of their griping.
At least four Latin countries have requested, and received, U.S. help in setting up eavesdropping programs of their own, ostensibly designed to fight organized crime. But the programs are easily diverted to political ends, and with weak rule of law in parts of the region, wiretapping scandals erupt every few months.
The latest brouhaha occurred six weeks ago in Panama, where a leading presidential candidate complained of wiretapping by the government.
“All Panamanians know that illegal recordings are done by the government every day. The only party able to record and tap telephones is the state, not anyone else,” said Juan Carlos Navarro, a center-left presidential candidate.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told Navarro to watch his mouth because some “beauts” were about to leak out showing how “the most corrupt man” in the nation seeks its presidency.
Some experts on Latin America say they believe wiretapping is probably widespread – and not just under authoritarian leaders, and is a reflection of political mistrust, lack of adherence to law and poor accountability.
“You know that old saying,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “In God we trust, in everyone else we spy.”
Disclosures last month by The Guardian and The Washington Post of a vast U.S. electronic data-sweeping program, based on documents leaked by a former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, have sparked angry responses around the region.
President Enrique Pena Nieto said Wednesday that he’d asked “quite clearly” for Mexican diplomats to seek an explanation for the U.S. spying allegations, and, if proven true, “it would obviously be totally unacceptable."
Mexico is one of four Latin nations to receive sophisticated surveillance equipment, software and training from the United States in recent years. The other nations are Colombia, Panama and Paraguay.
Other Latin governments can easily obtain surveillance technology if they want it and Washington refuses to provide it.
“There are a lot of companies, especially Israeli ones, that offer the equipment,” said Hiddekel Morrison, a telecommunications expert in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.
When Mexico needed help tracking down narcotics kingpins, the State Department awarded a contract in 2007 to a Melville, N.Y., company, Verint Systems Inc., to provide it with an interception system to monitor up to 60 simultaneous calls and record 25,000 hours of fixed-line or cellular calls.
The company’s Mexico website says its technologies “permit the police forces, national security, intelligence and other government agencies to detect and investigate criminal and terrorist threats.”
Last year, the State Department put out a request for new bids to update the surveillance system, requiring vendors to offer programs making “location tracking available on all 107 workstations” to pinpoint “phone calls, SMS messages, faxes, mails and chat rooms” made anywhere in Mexico.
The masses of U.S. diplomatic cables made public in 2011 by WikiLeaks show that U.S. diplomats are sometimes asked to set up or expand surveillance programs.