Wiretaps signal that Mexico's election season has begun

03/29/2012 5:46 PM

03/30/2012 1:15 PM

MEXICO CITY — The frequency in Mexico of wiretapping politicians' telephones and leaking what's said would make even a British tabloid editor envious. The compressed, three-month presidential campaign leading to July 1 doesn't kick off till Friday, yet already a wiretap scandal is unfolding.

Political commentator Raymundo Riva Palacio calls the drumbeat of leaked wiretaps a "perverse factor in Mexican politics."

In the latest case, the ruling party's candidate, allegedly speaking to an aide on the phone, mocks two top functionaries in her party, among them President Felipe Calderon's highly influential security chief, for her suspicion that they listen in on calls.

In this instance, as in nearly every case of apparent illegal eavesdropping, politicians have greeted the leak with condemnations and demands for a criminal probe. But no successful prosecutions for illegal wiretapping have occurred in recent years.

Riva Palacio, who writes a column for 24 Horas, a tabloid newspaper, said political culture in Mexico "isn't to condemn the deed but rather publicize what was said."

"All people who today complain of (wiretaps) have used these illegally taped conversations themselves to deal blows to their adversaries," he said.

He said many larger state governments had the capacity to wiretap telephones, as did the federal government, making it difficult to trace the source of the bugging and putting potential recordings in the hands of politicians of all stripes.

The leaking of an apparent telephone conversation of National Action Party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota came more than two months after microphones were found scattered in the lower house of Congress in what lawmaker Armando Rios Piter said were "quite a lot of offices."

Three major candidates will vie in the elections to succeed Calderon, whose National Action Party, or PAN in its Spanish initials, has presided over the nation since 2000.

Recent opinion polls give the edge to Enrique Pena Nieto, a former governor of the state of Mexico from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the once-corrupt, patronage-doling party that wrote much of Mexico's modern history while it governed for 71 years, until 2000.

Several polls in the past week found him with an edge of 12 to 16 points over Vazquez Mota, his nearest challenger.

Earlier this week, the website lasillarota.com posted what it said was an apparent wiretap of a conversation between Vazquez Mota and a campaign aide. In it, a voice that sounds like Vazquez Mota's mocks two functionaries in the Calderon government.

"Since they are taping us, send a greeting to Alejandra Sota," the voice says, referring to Calderon's spokeswoman on security issues. The woman then refers to Calderon's secretary of public security, Genaro Garcia Luna, a lightning-rod figure who's in charge of hunting crime bosses.

"A warm greeting to Genaro Garcia Luna, who tapes us rather than taping El Chapo," the voice says, referring to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the boss of the drug-trafficking Sinaloa Cartel, whom the U.S. government calls the world's most wanted man.

The tape roiled political waters because it drew attention to a rift between Vazquez Mota and Calderon, who leaves power Dec. 1. The two are battling over the direction and control of the party.

Vazquez Mota, the first female presidential candidate in Mexico's modern history, didn't deny that the taped voice was hers but sought to deflect attention from her party with an unusual allegation: The PRI was behind the wiretap.

The PRI presidential campaign chief, Luis Videgaray, reacted with umbrage.

"Telephone espionage and the airing of wiretaps is an absolutely illegal and unacceptable practice for the development of our democracy," Videgaray said.

A spate of wiretap leaks also occurred in the run-up to the 2010 gubernatorial elections. In one case, the PAN party chief released recordings of conversations of the PRI governor of Veracruz, Fidel Herrera, appearing to show him interfering in regional elections. Herrera filed a criminal complaint that's gone nowhere.

That same year, Mexican radio played a recorded telephone conversation between a leftist federal deputy from Michoacan state and a drug lord who called him "friend" and "son." The deputy affectionately called the drug lord "uncle."

Allegations in 2008 by a PRI stalwart, Sen. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, that political foes were tapping his phone led to an investigation that appeared to show his own party also conducting wiretaps. A PAN statement this week said that among the targets of PRI wiretaps then was Angelica Rivera, the soap opera star who'd become Pena Nieto's second wife in 2010.

In a matter unrelated to wiretapping, Pena Nieto faces growing troubles with a former mistress with whom he fathered an out-of-wedlock child.

Maritza Diaz Hernandez has badgered Pena Nieto on her Twitter account for failing to support their son, who was born in the United States, ridiculing her former lover for attending a papal Mass last weekend while ignoring her pleas.

"Now that he says he has six children, (he) is ignoring and discriminating against ours and my son lives, feels, eats, cries, plays, EXISTS," she posted.

"If my son were well taken care of in the most minimal indispensable ways, I wouldn't have anything to say," she added, referring to demands by PRI supporters that she remain quiet.

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