Phonetapping on the rise in Mexico

It was the scandal of the week. A clandestine telephone interception revealed the conversation between two top executives from Stendhal and Norvartis pharmaceutical companies, as they discussed pay offs to a government official working for the Mexican social security system called Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social (IMSS) in order to obtain an $80m government contract.

The tape was aired by Televisa, the television giant, on its nightly show last Tuesday to a national uproar. It was picked up by every newsmedia, something that is rare in Mexico, where professional jealousy keeps national media away from stories that are broken by other colleagues. The story conveniently broke as the Mexican Congress was debating an overhaul of the social security system, a multi-million programme that provides top medical care to more than 14 million Mexicans employed by private businesses. The system is facing bankruptcy. The tape release cost the two pharmaceutical officials their jobs, and the position of a top social security official.

The tapes are part of a trend that has taken over Mexico, a place where charges of corruption abound, and few government officials pay for their misdoings. Citizens, politicians and unknown sources are producing clandestine telephone recordings and videotapes that go on to accuse corrupt officials. In another case, a complaint by a resident of Aguascalientes province led police to videotape a doctor who was illegally asking for graft before he offered a service that fell within his insurance.

The tape was also released in another Televisa news program called Primero Noticias and placed in YouTube. The second case led to the government levying charges against the doctor.

But the proliferation of illegal recordings and videotapes is of concern to some in Mexico, as leaks from unidentified sources often further the personal goals of those who release the material to the media.

In the case of the pharmaceutical executives, it has been revealed that the recordings disappeared from social security offices. The telephone tapes had been sent to social security director, Daniel Karam, earlier on Tuesday and submitted for an internal investigation. Thus someone in the system decided it was better to send them to national television where an outcry would condemn the individuals featured on the tape before it was investigated whether the charges were real.

One of the executives in the tape has claimed that whoever taped their private conversations conducted an illegal act and connected three different conversations to make it seem convincing. It will be hard for the public, which is so accustomed to government officials asking for bribes to believe this turn of the story. A doctor friend of mine who works at the IMSS told me corruption in the system is endemic and even doctors engage in it by not working more than three hours a day. But it seems this tape appearance is more political—the two opposition political parties have used it to attack the ruling Partido de Accion Nacional for missteps in public policy.

Last year’s most famous recording was that of the former minister of labour, Luis Tellez, who accused former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of stealing money. The release of the tape cost Tellez his job. Nothing happened to Salinas.

These illegal tapings or videotapes subvert Mexico’s legal system. They contribute to an overall cynicism among citizens who already feel the legal system does not protect them from corruption.

More dangerous is the possibility that drug cartels are also taping individuals and government officials. One security expert said he didn’t doubt the cartels are using sophisticated eavesdropping equipment. In Ciudad Juarez last year, the Federal Police were surprised when they discovered that an aerostatic balloon that had gone up in the city had eavesdropping equipment that could target their operation communications. This balloon apparently cost the lives of several police officers.

Fifteen years ago, while working on a story on Ciudad Juarez, I found a US citizen working for the Juarez Cartel who had built intercepting equipment to tape cellular conversations. The boxes cost $50,000 at the time and had been acquired by the late kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes. The inventor was eventually killed by Carrillo Fuentes. Technology has improved and with that the right to have interception free conversations has become more and more of an issue in Mexico these days.