How the US fuels Latin America’s surveillance technology

The US war on drugs often bolsters anti-democratic forces abroad, say authors.

Alvaro Uribe
Under President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian government targeted political opponents and human rights activists [EPA]

San Francisco, California – In executing its wars on terror and drugs, the United States has been aiding the adoption of surveillance technologies in Latin America for decades.

In Colombia, these surveillance technologies have been repurposed to silence judges and opposition voices, demonstrating the ease with which they can be abused to subvert the rule of law in any democratic nation lacking robust checks and balances. Nevertheless, the US government recently unveiled a plan to help the Mexican government triple the size of a national surveillance system to assist with counternarcotics efforts. It’s the latest example of the United States’ quiet practice of helping foreign security agencies expand their reach, a trend that warrants close scrutiny. Amid Mexican government corruption, secrecy in the judiciary, and killings allegedly involving government security forces, activists are worried that a Mexican surveillance upgrade will only compromise the privacy of law-abiding citizens, affecting both Mexicans and their foreign contacts.

In a call for bids published on April 27, the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said it would award a contract to upgrade a surveillance system from 30 to 107 monitoring stations. Installed by a New York-based company called Verint in 2006, the system can interceptcommunications from “national telephonic and other communications service providers in Mexico”.

The stated objective is to deter narcotics trafficking, terrorism and other “serious crimes” by aiding Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat. The notice comes on the heels of a newly approved set of unconstitutional revisions to Mexican federal laws – revisions that recently prompted an outcry from privacy advocates. The amendments give law enforcement unprecedented ability to pinpoint the whereabouts of cell phone users, without judicial oversight. The Mexican Ombudsman has recently filed an unconstitutionality action against the law.

The Colombian government misused American cash and equipment to target political opponents and human rights activists rather than drug lords.”

This United States investment in Mexico’s surveillance apparatus is not a new trend. In February of 2007, the State Department awarded a $3m contract to Verint for a Communications Intercept System to be used by Mexico’s Federal Investigations Agency (AFI). This lawful interception technology was designed to make it possible for the Mexican intelligence agency to intercept communications from telephone and internet providers, including VoIP networks, landlines, faxes, emails, chats, IRC, and SMS text messages. It created a centralised monitoring centre, enabling cellular and location tracking with capacity to store phone calls for at least 25,000 hours.

United States efforts to ferret out narco-traffickers by providing surveillance technology to foreign governments have backfired in the past. For instance, the Colombian government misused American cash and equipment to target political opponents and human rights activists rather than drug lords. The “Las Chuzadas” scandal erupted around former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Colombia’s intelligence agency (DAS) in 2009. As a result, a former head of the intelligence agency from 2002-2005, Jorge Noguera, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for targeting political activists and collaborating with paramilitary death squads. Noguera’s successor, now-former DAS head Maria del Pilar Hurtado, was forced to flee to Panama in order to avoid facing charges over illegal wiretapping of government opponents. These various scandals ultimately led to the dissolution of the DAS.

Instead of focussing on drug lords, DAS used the US government-supplied wiretapping devices, cameras, and cell phone interception systems to spy on political opponents, journalists, labour organisers, and even NGOs seeking to alleviate human rights abuses. Noguera then facilitated a paramilitary group’s selective murder of trade unionists and other activists in Colombia by providing the paramilitaries with detailed dossiers on these political opponents in order to facilitate their execution.

The DAS also sought to neutralise the work of the European Parliament Human Rights Commission by using smear campaigns in an attempt to discredit the work of human rights defenders, and silence and manipulate critical voices in the media. In September of 2002, soon after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took office, he emphasised his priorities: “We will not stop. We will spray and spray. We will intercept. We will seize. We will do all the best every day and every night to destroy narcotics in Colombia.”

A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that when the surveillance was in full swing, a US ambassador had warned Uribe that their partnership would suffer if word of illegal activity got out. Later, the US government announced the suspension of its aid to the DAS.

DAS misuse of US-sponsored surveillance equipment for internal political oppression was not unique among Latin American countries. Another cable, sent from the US Embassy in Paraguay to the US Government in February 2010 (and disclosed by WikiLeaks), revealed that Paraguay had partnered with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on a mobile phone spying programme. Although the purpose of this partnership was to combat drug trafficking, according to the cable Paraguayan authorities petitioned the US government to grant use of the eavesdropping equipment for purposes outside the scope of counter-narcotics. Top governmental officials wanted to spy on members of their own Paraguayan People’s Army, which they treated as a higher priority than investigating drug traffickers.

Similar government sentiments were evident in Panama, where a leaked cable from August of 2009 revealed that President Ricardo Martinelli repeatedly requested technical assistance from the United States to expand its wiretapping capacity for political gain: “President Martinelli has reached out to the Embassy, among other actors, to request help in building infrastructure to conduct wiretaps against ostensible security threats as well as political opponents”. The US Ambassador warned against Martinelli’s intention to illegally surveil his people:

“Martinelli’s seeming fixation with wiretaps and his comments to Ambassador during an August 12 meeting demonstrate that he may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”

Moreover, the US Ambassador notes in the cable that: “[Martinelli] made reference to various groups and individuals whom he believes should be wiretapped, and he clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies.” In this instance, at least, the US Ambassador recommends against supporting politically motivated wiretaps and points to the catastrophic consequences of Las Chuzadas scandal in Colombia as reason not to proceed. However, it is clear that the domestic inclination to use US-sponsored surveillance equipment for illegal political wiretapping was alive and well in President Martinelli’s regime.

As it moves ahead with aid to enhance the Mexican government’s surveillance capacity, the US government should take note of these cautionary tales. In its zeal to fight the war on drugs, the United States could wind up leading those struggling democratic nations down the dangerous path of further erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.

From the widespread abuses committed against Uribe’s opponents in Colombia to the requests for use of DEA-supplied wiretapping technology to target political enemies in Panama, history has taught us that building up powerful government surveillance infrastructure will often lead to abuse in democracies lacking robust check and balances. Whether for political gain or in the hands of agencies that have fallen victim to corruption, enhanced surveillance capacity can be illegally used to jeopardize the privacy and lives of law-abiding dissidents and journalists, placing them in physical danger or at risk of death. Without great caution, the results of the United States’ surveillance-driven drug enforcement efforts may be antithetical to its state mandate for freedom and democracy.

Katitza Rodriguez is the International Rights Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Rebecca Bowe is the International Privacy Coordinator on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s international team.

Follow her on Twitter: @ByRebeccaBowe