In the last two weeks, two computer system hacks that dumped private data on the web has put an uncomfortable light on Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Most individuals that I speak to usually have the misconception that Mexico is a little sleepy siesta country where beaches and Tequila go hand in hand. Obviously, corruption, drug trafficking and immigration are the other major topics that come up. What seldom is understood is that Mexico is one of the largest economies in the world and with it comes problems of sophisticated tax evasion and the use of technology that is seldom associated with Mexico. Unfortunately, the latest scandals showcase the negativity of the misuse of sophisticated techniques and technology.
Almost ten months ago I shared with you how the Mexican government was the largest client of Hacking Team, an Italian company that specializes in intrusion software for spying on computers, software and telephones of Mexican citizens and others connected to Mexico. Sophisticated spying was something that was rarely associated with Mexico. Hacking Team was hacked on July of 2015. Its proprietary company data was dumped to the internet and the company’s involvement with Mexico, the United States and many repressive governments was exposed. Mexico, by far, was the largest consumer of surveillance software and hardware provided by the Hacking Team.
In 2013, questions about Gamma International’s surveillance system, FinFisher, were raised by various human rights organizations in Mexico demanding an explanation to the software being deployed against them. Mexico’s Constitution, like the United States, offers privacy protections to its citizens. For the most part, the FinFisher case went unnoticed while the Hacking Team received more attention because different Mexican government entities were the largest purchasers of the systems. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is, or was, it is unclear at this point, also a user of the Hacking Team systems.
We now know the extent of the use by the Mexican government of surveillance systems because hackers dumped the company’s proprietary information on the Internet. Last week, the Panama Papers began to give us a glimpse into the shadowy world of tax havens. The Panama Papers were also exposed by hackers.
The Panama Papers have begun to expose many world politicians and people around them that seem to have avoided paying taxes in their respective countries through the use of tax havens created by Mossack Fonseca. There has already been some political fallout from the published reports and others are sure to follow as more information becomes available. In the case of Mexico, a controversial businessman, Juan Armando Hinojosa, has been shown to be using Mossack Fonseca tax havens. Hinojosa has been criticized for more than $750 million in contracts that his companies have secured from the Mexican government. In 2014, it was revealed that Mexico’s first lady, Angélica Rivera was buying a $7 million mansion. The mansion was owned by one of Hinojosa’s companies. Hinojosa’s company had given the first lady an eight-year loan for $4 million with which to make the purchase of the mansion.
Now the Mossack Fonseca data trove has shown that Juan Armando Hinojosa was using the firm’s services for setting up offshore companies, that many consider to be tax avoidance shelters. In addition to the latest financial revelations connected to Peña Nieto, a hacker has come forward to allege that Peña Nieto used his hacking services to win the presidency.
Before the Panama Papers were made public, a hacker’s interview was published by Bloomberg Businessweek where the hacker details how he was paid to hack political campaigns and build “dirty war” political campaigns against political opponents.
Andrés Sepúlveda told Bloomberg Businessweek (March 31, 2016) that he helped Enrique Peña Nieto win the Mexican presidency in 2012 through computer hacking. According to the Bloomberg Businessweek article by Jordon Robertson, Michael Riley and Andrew Willis, Sepúlveda, a Columbian is a real-life “Mr. Robot” – type character that hacks systems to rig election outcomes.
According to Sepulveda, he worked on numerous political hacking operations on behalf of Miami-based political consultant, Juan José Randón. Sepulveda alleges in the article that starting in 2008 he worked for the PRI party in state campaigns. Sepulveda further alleges that he was paid to “tap the phones and computers” of the PAN and PRD candidates running against Peña Nieto. He also alleges that he created fake Twitter accounts to manage the social media public perceptions of the candidates. The Mexican President’s office refused to comment to Bloomberg about the allegations.
Although we do not know how accurate Sepulveda’s allegations are, we do know that Mexico has been operating sophisticated surveillance operations against its citizens, and possibly against foreigners in the country. Political shenanigans have been ongoing in Mexican politics for generations but it appears that their sophistication has increased considerably in recent years.
Anecdotally and recently, I have started to see a stepping-back by the Mexican government to how open records are handled by them. For the last three to four years, accessing public information from Mexican government entities, including the military, was easily done through internet-based government portals. Requests for information was readily made available each time I asked for something. Starting about six-months ago, I started to sense a resistance to releasing public information by different Mexican governmental bodies.
It is subtle but it is definitely there. I do not know if this is a temporary thing or a result of the specific data I have been after but the released information is less forthcoming and I have been receiving many more “information not available” responses to my queries. At this point, I am not sure if it is related to a change in government attitude about access to public records, as a result of the exposure by the hackers, US-Mexico security working relationships, or a combination of all of them.
Regardless, the hackers have started to pierce the underworld that we all know exists but are seldom given an opportunity to view it first-hand. It is likely not much will come of the latest revelations but they are sure to have an effect on attitudes and actions by government officials in Mexico and by the citizens of Mexico.