State Intelligence and Organized Crime: An Old Relationship in Latin America

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Investigations have revealed that Argentina’s intelligence services under President Mauricio Macri allegedly bugged jail cells, engaged with criminals to ensnare opponents and targeted journalists in a type of illegal spying all too common in Latin America.

Earlier this year, alleged drug trafficker Sergio Rodríguez, alias “Tomate” or “Verdura,” told a judge who was investigating him that a lawyer for Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Authority (AFI) offered him protection if he planted a bomb to threaten a Defense Ministry official and former intelligence agent, La Nación reported.

After launching an investigation into the lawyer’s suspected links to criminal activity, authorities raided his home and seized his cell phone, which reportedly contained details of an illegal government spying program, according to La Nación.

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

The phone’s archives held conversations about the AFI spying program and its targets, which included former president and current Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, government officials, judges, journalists, academics, trade unionists and businesspeople. 

In a separate case, an investigation has begun into the AFI profiling the social media activities and political views of nearly 500 people who took part in the G20 Summit in late 2018 and the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference in 2017, the Buenos Aires Times reported.

The investigation also extends to Ezeiza prison in Buenos Aires province, where the AFI, working alongside Argentina’s penitentiary service, allegedly tapped phones and bugged areas where officials from the Kirchner administration and businessmen held on corruption charges met with their lawyers and conducted other visits, according to Página 12.

This comes after a 2019 investigation into suspected drug traffickers and other prominent inmates being placed in certain areas of the prison in an effort to eavesdrop on and record their conversations, according to Página 12. One section of the prison was “almost entirely wired.”

The illegal spying occurred under the tenure of AFI director Gustavo Arribas, who headed Argentina’s intelligence agency during the Macri presidency from 2015 to 2019. Both Macri and Arribas deny involvement.

When Kirchner was summoned to the federal courts on June 8 to review the evidence, she posted a video on Twitter in which she said that the AFI under Macri “used drug traffickers to carry out attacks on his own government officials and to monitor and spy on opponents and their own leaders.”

Shortly after news of the scandal broke in late May, current President Alberto Fernández said “all of this amazes me” in a radio interview with AM 750.

This is not the first time that a Macri government has been accused of spying. The former president was investigated in connection to a case of illegal wiretapping while he was mayor of Buenos Aires between 2007 and 2015. The case was dismissed two weeks after he took office as head of state.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Macri administration is accused of having engaged in a practice common among Latin America’s political elites: abusing national intelligence services for political gain. 

The current scandal is just the latest in a long history of cases in which authorities in Argentina allegedly relied on state intelligence services to achieve their own goals, while at the same time empowering criminals.

In early 2015, the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman and the subsequent investigation opened a Pandora’s Box that implicated the intelligence services during Kirchner’s presidency from 2007 to 2015. 

When Nisman was found dead, he was investigating the president’s possible participation in covering up for those responsible for the infamous 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

Through investigations into the Nisman case, evidence of the Argentine intelligence services’ association with criminals also came to light.

Other countries have also seen recent abuse of intelligence services and surveillance technology.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Authorities Misusing Surveillance Tech to Spy on Political Opponents: Reports 

In Mexico, a number of federal agencies were found to have been using spyware technology in 2017 to surveil human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists. The software, known as Pegasus, was sold to the Mexican government under the condition that it only be used to investigate terrorists and criminals.

More recently, Colombia’s military has been embroiled in a vast spying operation against journalists, judges and politicians.

In Guatemala, the so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS) that were formed under Guatemala’s military dictatorships eventually spawned shadow political-criminal groups implicated in corruption cases and other crimes, including extrajudicial killings.

The CIACS are composed in large part of officials that belong to military intelligence networks, such as La Oficinita or the Moreno network, which used state resources and protection to facilitate organized crime activities.

In 2018, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and an international commission discovered a spying scheme involving then-President Jimmy Morales and targeting state prosecutors, journalists and opposition student leaders.

While each circumstance is different, all of these cases, extending from Buenos Aires to the Mexican capital, share a common thread: the use of state intelligence services, which have been given enormous power and technological capabilities to combat organized crime, as political weapons.

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