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How Mexico’s ruling party keeps its grip on power

Instead of investigating allegations that spyware, known as Pegasus, has infiltrated the smartphones of journalists, human rights activists, and anti-corruption critics of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the government is directing security forces to intimidate journalists and activists.
Gladys McCormick is associate professor of history and the Jay and Debe Moskowitz Chair in Mexico-US Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, center, vowed last month to take concrete steps to ensure the safety of journalists in Mexico. Since 2011, the Mexican government has bought around $80 million worth of spyware for the stated purpose of combating crime. Crédito: Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the past few months, reports have surfaced that the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto is using surveillance technology intended to fight terrorists and organized crime to monitor its critics. The president has promised to investigate but nothing will come of it because this is how politics work in Mexico.

Spyware, known as Pegasus, has infiltrated the smartphones of journalists, human rights activists, and anti-corruption critics of Peña Nieto’s government, and these are just some of the victims known to have fallen trap to this latest cyber-warfare tool. Targets received messages to click on a link that then deployed the spyware into their phones, and often into the phones of their family members, as well.

Rather than use the technology for its intended purpose, Peña Nieto is directing security forces to tackle a less-daunting enemy: the fixtures of a legitimate democratic system, namely journalists and activists, who hold official institutions accountable. Hobbling them with subtle threats and acts of intimidation stands in the way of an effective and robust political system.

In doing so, Peña Nieto is going back to the darkest days of modern Mexican history. Though the technology is new, this type of harassment has been common in Mexico for more than half a century. It is one of the key ways in which the Mexican government deals with internal threats to its control.

The government’s surveillance of private citizens can be traced back to the early 20 th century and the birth of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, when party leaders used such tactics to deal with dissent among their ranks and to ensure compliance to the government’s agenda. Those leaders, coming out of the chaos brought on by ten years of social revolution, used intelligence gathering as a way to fend off threats from their enemies and shore up their power.

The advent of new forms of surveillance technology in the aftermath of World War II and the newly declared Cold War, however, upped the ante for the political uses of information.

Sophisticated recording devices, infiltration of opposition groups, and misinformation tactics developed in counter-insurgency campaigns went hand-in-hand with traditional surveillance methods, such as creating webs of informants and, when necessary, threatening violence.

But it was rare to actually carry out threats. In most cases, the head of Mexico’s secret police had only to call a target into his office and, with no words spoken, push a folder of papers across the table. The offender got the message: Toe the line or else your secrets – the bribes you have taken, the affairs you have had, the lies you have told or other devastating indiscretions – will be revealed. Just the threat of a scandal was enough to act as a corrective.

Government officials justified this type of official incursion into civilian life because the enemy could be anywhere and everywhere: the sons and daughters of political leaders who were susceptible to the ideological scourge of Communism; an overly ambitious union leader who skipped over his bosses in an internal election; a greedy bureaucrat who demanded too many pay-offs and risked jeopardizing the balance of institutionalized corruption.

The strength of the executive branch rested on monitoring every rung of the political ladder beneath it to ensure that others respected the president’s authority and knew their place. How else do you explain a political party that, with the exception of the twelve years from 2000 to 2012, has controlled the executive branch and large swaths of Mexico’s political landscape for almost a century?

The impression of an immutable and paternalistic presence on high conferred a sense of stability in a chaotic world, protection against the threat of guerrilla insurgents attempting an armed takeover, against the sexual liberation of young people in the havens of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and against emerging drug cartel in the 1980s.

Citizens, the logic went, had to be taught not to make unreasonable demands of their political leaders, because it would make Mexico vulnerable to attacks from external and, even more ominous, internal enemies.

In Mexico today, it seems as if the old PRI of grizzled and corrupt political bosses has metamorphosed into a new generation of telegenic but equally sinister politicians. In the end it is a case of old wine in new bottles: The bottle may have been given a sophisticated redesign, but the wine remains the same.