Politics & Government

Latin American complaints over U.S. spying ignore their own wiretap programs

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.

One such case occurred in Paraguay in early 2010. Officials under then-President Fernando Lugo asked U.S. Ambassador Liliana Ayalde to expand a wire-tapping program far beyond anti-narcotics cases. The U.S. Embassy balked.

“The ambassador made clear that the U.S. had no interest in involving itself in the intercept program if the potential existed for it to be abused for political gain, but confirmed U.S. interest in cooperating on an intercept program with safeguards, as long as it included counternarcotics,” said the Feb. 18, 2010, cable, which carried Ayalde’s name as its signature.

Paraguay subsequently went to Brazil for interception equipment.

Panama’s Martinelli badgered the U.S. ambassador in his country to allow more widespread wiretapping, apparently to keep tabs on political opponents.

“I need help with tapping phones,” Martinelli said in a text message to the ambassador there shortly after coming to office in 2009, one cable said.

At the time, U.S. officials were helping run a secret, court-sanctioned wiretap program in Panama known as “Operation Matador,” which targeted drug traffickers.

“Martinelli’s seeming fixation with wiretaps and his comments to ambassador during an Aug. 12 meeting demonstrate that he may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals,” said another U.S. cable, labeled “secret.”

Leaks of wiretapped calls made by Martinelli’s opponents so riled the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party in June that one of its leaders wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Israel, Colombia and Britain in June to ask if any of their countries had provided wiretapping equipment to Panama.

The U.S. government helped Colombia in the 1990s install and operate wiretapping equipment, specifically 32 machines made by Racom, an Iowa-based company. They were auctioned off a decade later, deemed obsolete, and ended up in private hands, the now-defunct Cambio magazine reported.

Scandals over leaks of telephone intercepts by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, grew so widespread in the last decade that suspicion of wiretaps rages to the point that some Colombians would trust the U.S. National Security Agency over their own government or other foreign powers.

“(It’s) better than the Russians or the Chinese definitely. Not to mention what would happen if it were in the hands of the old DAS,” columnist Daniel Pacheco ruminated this week in El Espectador, an online news site.

Last week, a former Colombian judicial investigator and two police officers were sentenced to eight-year jail terms for tapping the cellular phone calls of a former Supreme Court justice.

Both the current and immediate past Peruvian governments faced accusations of political wiretaps. The most serious was dubbed “Petrogate” and involved recordings of calls in 2008 that discussed oil concession kickback schemes.

Even national heroes have fretted publicly that their phone lines were bugged. Jefferson Perez, a long distance race walker who won Ecuador’s only two Olympic medals (gold in 1996 and silver in 2008), complained in a tweet last year that “my telephone has just been intercepted.” He said he heard a voice on the line saying, “Record him!” At the time, Perez was subject of talk that he would become more active in the political opposition.

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