In Mexico, surveillance orders that look like a list of political power | ET REALITY


An outstanding presidential candidate. The head of the country’s customs agency. At least three district mayors of the capital. It is a list that includes powerful members of the Mexican government.

And, court records show, all were recently under surveillance by the Mexico City attorney general’s office.

At least 14 written orders reviewed by The New York Times show that the attorney general ordered Mexico’s largest telecommunications company to turn over the phone and text records, as well as location data, of more than a dozen prominent officials and Mexican politicians.

Telcel, the telecommunications company, acknowledged in a court filing reviewed by The Times that it had received the orders and turned over the records, which spanned from 2021 to the beginning of this year. The surveillance included both opponents of the ruling Morena party and its allies.

Orders from the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office say the information was sought in connection with investigations into kidnappings and disappearances.

However, the attorney general’s office says it has no such criminal investigations on file and “categorically denies” subpoenaing phone records of officials and politicians named in the warrants.

“This institution does not spy on political figures or any person,” the attorney general’s office said. “On the contrary, it investigates exclusively for legal purposes.”

Despite the denials, a federal judge said this year that the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office had indeed asked Telcel to hand over the records. The judge’s assessment came in a lawsuit against the attorney general filed by a Mexico City mayor who had been named in the 14 written orders.

Many of the people named in the warrants say the real reason they were singled out was because they are political targets, victims of a broader systemic abuse of power.

Mexico has been repeatedly rocked by surveillance scandals, and when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, he promised to end any illegal surveillance of Mexicans, after having criticized his predecessors for such actions.

But his administration has employed some of the same tactics he condemned. During López Obrador’s term, the country’s military has repeatedly used the notorious spyware known as Pegasus to spy on journalists, human rights defenders and even senior members of his own administration.

“The justice system is being used to attack politicians,” said Santiago Taboada Cortina, the district mayor who filed the lawsuit. A member of the political opposition, Taboada has announced plans to run for mayor in next year’s elections.

“What is not normal is that these things happen, that as a result of your aspirations you have the government on your neck,” he said.

In emergency cases where a life is in danger (such as kidnappings), Mexican law allows investigators to immediately obtain phone records without a warrant.

However, prosecutors must still obtain an order from a federal judge within 48 hours of communicating with the telecommunications companies, which the attorney general’s office did not do. In court papers, Telcel’s lawyers said they never received a warrant from a federal judge for any of the requested phone records.

Telcel did not respond to requests for comment.

“The president promised that no one would be spied on in this government,” said Higinio Martínez Miranda, a senior senator from the ruling Morena party representing the state of Mexico. His cell phone data from October 2021 to January 2022 was obtained by the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office, according to Telcel court documents.

“It is regrettable, condemnable,” he said. Martinez denied any wrongdoing and said he had no idea he was under investigation until Times reporters informed him.

Taboada, the district’s mayor, was monitored in 2021, but it was more than a year later that he was first informed about the surveillance after a friend in the Mexico City attorney general’s office told him they were being monitored. investigating, he said. .

Alarmed by the news, Taboada filed a lawsuit to force the attorney general of Mexico City and Telcel to respond to the accusation.

In court documents related to the lawsuit, Telcel acknowledged that it had provided Taboada’s phone records to the attorney general of Mexico City in response to 14 warrants linked to kidnappings, and to the attorney general of the state of Colima for one warrant.

Dozens of other phone numbers were also listed on the orders, Telcel said, including those of powerful figures within Morena, the ruling party, and some of its opponents.

In court documents, Colima’s attorney general said he had requested Taboada’s phone records from Telcel after an anonymous person submitted his phone number, and others, in connection with a local kidnapping case. Colima prosecutors said that line of investigation had turned up nothing relevant and had since destroyed phone records.

In the same lawsuit, Mexico City’s attorney general denied having requested Mr. Taboada’s phone records.

Taboada denied any involvement in the kidnappings.

The actions of the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office were illegal, according to two jurists. Another expert said they may not necessarily be illegal, but a clear abuse of power.

“The system is easy to fool. Prosecutors can invent investigative files or they can use open investigative files to obtain data from whoever they want without any judicial oversight,” said Luis Fernando García Muñoz, executive director of R3D, a Mexican digital rights group.

“It’s definitely a system designed for abuse and is being abused.”

Telecommunications companies are legally expected to collaborate with authorities, “but they also have the ability to reject abusive requests,” García said. But these companies rely on government licenses and often over-comply, perhaps for fear of repercussions, he said.

This is not the first time that the attorney general’s office has misused its power. In 2016, the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic of Mexico secretly requested phone records for a human rights lawyer, an investigative journalist and a forensic anthropologist as they investigated the massacre of 193 people, arguing that the women were linked to a kidnapping investigation.

The monitoring ordered by prosecutors “sends the message that they can use the criminal justice system against defenders, against journalists, against independent experts, against opponents,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, the lawyer who was attacked in 2016. “It sends the message that they can do it and nothing is going to happen to them.”

In the most recent case, Telcel also handed over the telephone data of Horacio Duarte, a Morena ally who at that time headed Mexico’s customs agency in 2022.

Conservative senator Lilly Téllez, until recently one of the main opposition presidential candidates, and Alessandra Rojo de la Vega, former congresswoman and outspoken opponent of Claudia Sheinbaum, former mayor of Mexico City and candidate of the ruling party in the presidential elections of the next year. , were also monitored, according to written orders and court records reviewed by The Times.

Mexico City’s attorney general accused Rojo de la Vega of electoral crimes last year, which Rojo de la Vega said was political retaliation for opposing Sheinbaum’s policies. A judge later dismissed the case.

A spokesman for Sheinbaum, who was mayor during the time the phone records were requested, declined to comment.

Rojo de la Vega, angered by the monitoring, said such surveillance should be used to investigate real criminals. “That should be the prosecutor’s job, but they’re busy going after people who make them uncomfortable,” she said.

Téllez and Rojo de la Vega, whose cell phone data was requested seven times each in 2021 and 2022, denied any involvement in any kidnapping case.

Prosecutors also subpoenaed the phone data of Dolores Igareda, a senior Supreme Court official, and Ricardo Amezcua, a member of Mexico City’s judicial council, documents and court orders show. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Ernestina Godoy Ramos, attorney general of Mexico City, is expected to be re-elected later this year.

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