The use of intelligence information was used to defame opposition politicians and Supreme Court justices, among others. It is the journalists' turn now.
Spying on journalists has been an old practice of Mexican governments. This was done by the old political police, the Federal Directorate of Security, and military intelligence. After the disappearance of the political police and the setting up of a professional civilian intelligence service, the practice was maintained and, in specific cases, material surveillance was carried out with records on their personal life, habits and routines.
What they were always interested in knowing were their networks and links in order to understand their relationships and interactions with politicians as well as detect if they were used for their ambitions of power, or as happened in the 80's and 90's, to detect if they had a relationship with guerrilla or drug trafficking groups, about which they wrote in certain occasions.
But what is was being carried in fact was counterintelligence work, in which information collected was used for the sole purposes of national security. With the arrival of Ernesto Zedillo to the presidency, surveillance was extended to journalists, particularly eight journalists who in the 90's served as sounding boards and unannounced messengers for politicians in conflict. That dialectic was not unusual. Political columns in the Mexican press have been, for 60 years, an arena where the struggles and aspirations of politicians are expressed.
But it wasn't until Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto's government took power that spying on journalists became more intense, as they were placed in the same category as armed groups, drug traffickers, anti-government activists, lobbyists, and politicians. Since 2015, the Israeli-made Pegasus software began being used, acquired by the federal government and several state governments to combat kidnapping, but the opinions of that software were always very effective ...to spy on journalists.
In October 2015, it was revealed that CISEN had made 729 telephone taps to a wide range of critics and opponents of the government, including two journalists, Carmen Aristegui and the author of this article, and listened to phones identified as "Talento Televisa," which is how the company defines itself to its managers and journalists.
The University of Toronto's Citizens Lab and The New York Times newspaper, documented in 2017 a total of 76 cases of espionage against several journalists, including the renowned Aristegui and Carlos Loret, as well as other renowned journalists, such as Salvador Camarena, who headed the investigation unit of Mexicanos Contra la CorrupciÃ³n, which regularly revealed illegal or irregular acts by the PeÃ±ista government. The intentionality of these wiretaps and the use of Pegasus malware intended, like in the past, to trace their networks and know which interests they represented or where they obtained their information from.
Spying on critics, dissidents and opponents was always criticized by the left and progressive groups in Mexico, which enthusiastically welcomed the arrival to the Presidency of AMLO, who promised that political espionage would be banished, and that CISEN, the civilian intelligence agency, would be dismantled.
The latter changed quickly. When the new CISEN director arrived with this entrustment, General Audomaro Martinez came across a professional technical staff and good technology that was used to combat the drug cartels. Martinez explained to him the benefits of having an intelligence apparatus like CISEN, and persuaded LÃ³pez Obrador.
As his government progressed and stumbled into the accelerated dismantling of institutions, criticism increased along with tensions within the government, which, together with inexperience in public administration, resulted in a large volume of private and confidential information being released by the press that covered politics and economy.
The columns became the daily record of disorder within the government and of tensions and conflicts among officials, or of the president's changing moods. This led to journalists being spied on, since the autumn of last year.
The first to have their phones tapped were columnists covering security and politics. Then, other political columnists that described how the president was making decisions had their phones tapped. After that, columnists who wrote about economy and described in great detail the crisis in the cabinet also suffered phone interventions.
In that escalation that was being converted into regular practice, the Secretary of Defense, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval ordered the actual following and phone tapping of two columnists who disclosed the steps he was taking to get the National Guard, a paramilitary group that was transferred from the Army to manage security, to be formally integrated into the Ministry of Defense.
In LÃ³pez Obrador's team, the concern related with the fact that they did not know where so much information was coming from. The quality of this information was such that, in one of his morning press conferences, the president openly complained about two journalists, since what had been discussed a day earlier in their offices, was published the next in detail.
The issue concerning journalists being spied on was relevant this week, after a columnist for El Universal, Javier Tejado, said that a senior homeland security official, whom he identified by name, had ordered the spying on several journalists who had been critical of the government's proposal to create a registry of mobile phone users.
Tejado spoke of the official's abuse of power, but the complaint was a form of warning and concern among various columnists, not because of the fact that they wanted to know where the information they were publishing came from, as has long been the case with the persecution against journalists, but because, unlike other presidents, LÃ³pez Obrador has proven to be unscrupulous in the use of intelligence information to defame and damage the reputation of those who cross his way. That has been the case with politicians and Supreme Court justices, with leaders of autonomous bodies, as well as heads of institutions that serve as counterweights.
LÃ³pez Obrador has been dismantling all the second and third generation democratic institutions that served as a balance of power. The press, increasingly critical of his direct attacks on the media and journalists, seems to be the new target. How will he begin to use confidential information, as he has done in the past, using it out of context and misrepresenting the facts, or manipulating and lying, cannot be known, because nobody knows how AMLO will act each day. What can be anticipated is that he will deny that such espionage exists, because "we are not like those that came before", as he always says, and it will continue to be done.
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