Authorities in Mexico are increasingly making use of electronic surveillance in investigations and operations against organized crime, but the growing use of these tools raises questions about their effectiveness and potential for abuse.
A recent Milenio report revealed that over the past four years, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office has gained legal approval to tap more than 1,800 private telephone lines. The number of phone tap orders grew from 396 in 2013 to 584 in 2016, an increase of nearly 50 percent.
In addition, law enforcement during the past four years submitted more than 36,000 requests for information to various technology and communications companies including Google, Hotmail, Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as to private universities. Milenio reports that unlike phone taps, these requests for user information do not require judicial approval when they are related to organized crime investigations.
The number of such information requests has not increased as steadily as the number of phone taps. According to Milenio, some 7,800 requests were made in 2013, compared to more than 12,500 in 2014, more than 8,100 in 2015 and just over 7,800 in 2016.
Authorities are also apparently using real-time telephone location tracking technologies more frequently. Milenio reports that the use of these tools grew from 473 cases in 2013 to more than 1,300 in 2016.
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There are some anecdotal cases in which electronic surveillance has assisted Mexican law enforcement in important respects. For example, cell phone tracking technology reportedly helped authorities locate the infamous Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán during an operation that led to his arrest in 2014.
However, the overall impact of electronic surveillance tools on Mexico’s security situation is unclear. The increase in phone taps and the use of real-time location tracking do not appear to have made an impact on persistently high levels of criminal violence in Mexico. In fact, while these technologies may have helped capture top-ranking members of powerful crime groups, this “kingpin” strategy has tended to fragment the criminal landscape without addressing underlying factors driving organized crime.
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The increasing use of electronic surveillance technologies by authorities in Mexico also raises concerns about its potential for abuse, especially given the Mexican security forces’ reputation for violating citizens’ rights with impunity.
Misuse of such equipment has been documented in other countries in Latin America in recent years. One example is a 2009 scandal involving Colombia’s now-defunct Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – DAS), in which the investigative and intelligence gathering agency was caught spying on then-President Álvaro Uribe’s political opponents. The former head of DAS was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2015 for her role in the incident.
Additionally, Panama is seeking the extradition of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is wanted on a number of charges including accusations that he used electronic surveillance equipment to spy on his own political enemies.