Friday, June 30, 2017

Mexican spyware scandal broadens (June 29, 2017)

Mexico's spyware scandal widened yesterday with news that opposition leaders were targeted by government owned software. (See yesterday's briefs.) Last week news broke that human rights activists and journalists critical of the government were also victims of hacking by the software. 

The report by Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab doesn't say who is responsible for the spying, but notes that the infiltration of the conservative National Action Party leaders' phones occurred as Congress was debating anti-corruption legislation, reports the Los Angeles Times. PAN members also received infected messages after key state elections in 2016, in which voters punished the PRI over a string of corruption scandals, reports the Guardian.

NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes the spyware, says it sells its product only to government agencies for the purpose of fighting criminals and terrorists. President Enrique Peña Nieto admitted the government purchased the software, but denied ordering surveillance of targets. (See June 23's briefs.)

The purchase of the Pegasus program for about $32 million took place in October of 2014, under the aegis of then-chief prosecutor Arely Gómez, reports Animal Político. Prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui received the first messages with links that would hack her phone in November of 2015. Other activists and journalists started receiving the messages in early 2016. In an interview with Animal Político, Gómez insists the spyware was used lawfully during her tenure.

The scandal is a new low for Peña Nieto's tarnished administration, according to the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's "renegade" chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz charged the former head of the country's national guard, Antonio Benavides Torres, with systemically violating human rights during three months of anti-government protests that have left nearly 80 people dead yesterday. In a statement, she cited the use of unauthorized firearms and torture of those apprehended. Police and military officers are responsible for about a quarter of the nearly 80 deaths so far in about three months of protests, according to information released by her office yesterday, reports the Associated Press. Benavides was replaced last week by President Nicolás Maduro, who assigned him as government head of the capital district. He is one of seven Venezuelan officials sanctioned by then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 for allegedly violating human rights against protesters during the 2014 demonstrations that left 43 people dead.
  • Today, the U.N. criticized President Nicolas Maduro's government for curtailing the powers of the chief state prosecutor and called on it to uphold the rule of law and freedom of assembly in Venezuela amid a clampdown on protesters, reports Reuters. A Supreme Court decision earlier this week began removal proceedings against Ortega, froze her assets and forbade her to leave the country. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • A new WOLA report examines Mexico’s immigration enforcement and its emerging role as an asylum destination. It finds that low levels of migrant apprehensions in Mexico and at the U.S. border during the first few months of 2017 are not sustainable -- in fact, over the past few months apprehensions have increased already, by 31 percent over April, with apprehensions of unaccompanied minors jumping 50 percent. Significant migration is likely to continue, given ongoing violence and insecurity in Central America. "The Trump administration’s hard line inspired a wave of Central American migration before the inauguration, and a sharp drop afterward. But these decreased migration flows are not likely to last," said Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate for Defense Oversight. "The violence and misery in Central America that cause people to migrate—and often flee for their lives—have not changed," he said.
  • The displacement surge from Central America is driven by two main factors -- organized violence and deportations, writes Robert Muggah in a Guardian opinion piece. Hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes due to extremely high rates of violence, in part fomented by the U.S. policy of deporting people with criminal records between 2013 and 2015, he argues.
  • The recent Central America summit in Miami shows how U.S. priorities have shifted away from development towards security based initiatives, writes Laura Weiss in World Politics Review. "The return to militarized policies and investment plans that benefit a small circle of business interests in the U.S. and Central America will only exacerbate the current crisis. Although security and economic issues in Central America are inextricably related to migration, the Homeland Security office that handles asylum requests was not invited to the conference, nor was the Office of Population and Resettlement, which handles budgeting for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Civil society groups in Central America and Mexico were not consulted, either—an ongoing issue since the launch of the Alliance for Prosperity in 2015."
  • Brazil's powerful attorney general's term is set to end in September. Yesterday, just two days after Rodrigo Janot charged President Michel Temer with corruption, the leader chose his successor. Temer bucked tradition and chose the runner-up in an election among top prosecutors that generated a list of three attorney-general candidates from which he could choose, reports the Wall Street Journal. Leaders traditionally choose the candidate favored by prosecutor. The choice comes as critics say the government is aiming to undermine the broad-ranging Operation Car Wash probe into corruption, and as the administration accuses prosecutors of politically motivated attacks. (See Wednesday's post.)
  • The lower house of Congress must now vote over whether to put Temer on trial based on the charges filed earlier this week. Few lawmakers attended the reading of the charges, indicating a lack of appetite among legislators to put the embattled president on trial, according to Bloomberg.
  • Brazilian authorities issued arrest warrants for 95 Rio de Janiero cops yesterday, in an effort to root out entrenched corruption. They allegedly sold arms and tipped off drug gangs to future operations, reports Reuters. The massive operation adds "to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the state's militarized security policy is failing," according to InSight Crime.
  • The U.S. requested the extradition of former Guatemalan interior minister and police chief Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla. The court documents allege he issued orders for his subordinate agents to guard cocaine shipments that drug traffickers moved throughout the country, gave advance warning to criminals of police operations aimed at capturing them, and reassigned officials in an attempt to facilitate drug trafficking, reports InSight Crime.
  • Tamaulipas authorities detained two of the four suspected murderers of activist Miriam Rodríguez, who was killed last month, reports Animal Político. Prosecutors said yesterday she was apparently murdered in revenge for her years searching for her disappeared daughter, reports the Associated Press. Her investigations led to the detention of several people in relation to her daughter's kidnapping.
  • A rare positive note for Mexico's kingpin targeting strategy? New government data shows a reduction in Sinaloa Cartel activity in Mexico since the extradition of leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán to the U.S. earlier this year, reports Animal Político.
  • The case of over 100 Ecuadorean fishermen incarcerated in the U.S. and Central America on drug trafficking charges is indicative of "how those at the bottom of the trafficking chain often pay a disproportionate judicial price in the war on drugs," reports Insight Crime.
  • Chile's government might not be able to carry out pension reform before elections later this year, reports Reuters based on an interview with the country's finance minister.
  • The Pacific Alliance, which comprises Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru, will admit Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as associate members today. The move is aimed at broadening the reach of its trade flows and investments, reports Reuters. The Alliance has a marked support of free trade in the region, even as the U.S. threatens to derail NAFTA.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his U.S. counterpart are set to meet up at next week's G-20 meeting in Hamburg, a chat likely to attract scrutiny ahead of NAFTA renegotiation talks, reports the Financial Times.
  • China is open to a free trade agreement with Mexico, according to China's ambassador to the country. Mexico is anxious to reduce its economic dependence on the U.S., reports Reuters.
  • Bloomberg is touting Mexican finance minister Jose Antonio Meade as an honest functionary and potential presidential candidate, thought the man himself demurred over whether he'd run.
  • This week marks the eight year anniversary of the coup that removed Honduran President Mel Zelaya, reports TeleSUR.
  • Brazil seeks to become a palm oil giant -- and could well compete with dominant producers Indonesia and Malaysia, given its vast tracts of land suitable for growing oil palm. The catch? Most of it is the Amazon, and environmentalists fear the push will fuel a surge in land grabbing, conflict and deforestation, reports the Guardian.

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