Wiretapping in Mexico: A threat to free expression?

Wiretapping has become so fashionable in Mexico that it could pose a problem for freedom of expression. The latest victim of this type of espionage was presidential candidate Josefina Vasquez Mota, of the ruling National Political Action Party (PAN). A telephone conversation in which Mota is heard complaining that National Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna spends more time spying on her than on fugitive drug kingpin Joaquin Chapo Guzman was released publically and made available on video sharing site YouTube.

Many of the wiretaps released in Mexico in the past have involved politicians or aspiring candidates during electoral periods. But in a country at war with organised crime, and where the number of journalists killed because of what they write or know is among the highest in the world, it is worrisome that nobody is alarmed by this eavesdropping fashionista streak.

Access to eavesdropping equipment in Mexico is easily done. US and Mexican authorities use eavesdropping to get access to information on organised crime cases, which is of concern as many times these wiretaps are carried out with information that might not be totally correct. However, both US and Mexican authorities say the practice is important and useful as it has helped them nab high-level organised crime figures.

What worries journalists and other freedom of expression advocates, however is how is organised crime and corrupt government officials use wiretaps to curb a free press.

Mexican politicians embrace social media

Mexican politicians are using social networks in sleight of hand similar to the ones they used in elections before the age of technology, say critics.  Instead of paying voters to show up for the vote, or stuffing boxes — known practices in previous mid-term or presidential elections —  today’s savvy campaign managers are helping their candidates swell up their numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook “likes”.

“They are doing online what they used to do offline,” according to Maria Elena Meneses, a media expert and professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey who has studied elections and the Internet.

The campaign of ruling party presidential candidate Josefina Vasquez Mota drew much criticism after it  allegedly used an internet bot to create a trending topic during recent elections to select the presidential candidate for the  ruling Partido de Accion Nacional. News magazine Procesoreported that news sites that had measured the growth of the Vasquez Mota’s followers could determine how many of them were obtained through the bots.

Despite this criticism, Vasquez Mota seems to have one of the best online media teams. Her approach is similar to that used by US President Barak Obama in his 2008 presidential elections. The team’s use of various hashtags to trigger a trending topic, including the hashtag  #HoyganaJosefina, which means “today Josefina wins”, helped expand her followers list by 31,000 in only a few hours in late January during her party’s  internal election process (detractors say this is where the campaign used bots). The candidate’s Facebook page also has a lot of young followers.

Meneses says it is estimated that 15 million Internet users in Mexico are between the ages of 18 and 34.  The young vote will be the more difficult to harness in the next presidential elections in July: 34 million new voters who turned 18 between 2006 and this year will be voting this presidential election.

But the presidential campaigns have a wooden Internet presence.  Enrique Peña Nieto,  the presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose party ruled Mexico for 70 years until 2000, uses YouTube, but, Meneses says, not in a way that would attract young voters.  “They only tape their campaign presentations.  There is no give and take with the audience, which is what young voters want,” she says.

Meneses says none of the three presidential candidates for the three major parties — the PAN, the PRI and the left of center Partido Revolucionario Democratico, (PRD) — are using social media effectively to reach and communicate with common citizens. “They could use those sites to respond to uncomfortable questions,” she insists.