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Does Mexico Use Illicit Espionage Against Cartels?

The military has spent millions on high-tech "spy gear," causing suspicion about its real intent.


Anti-cartel use only? Photo via

By May Wilkerson


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The beleaguered Mexican army is reportedly turning to high-tech spy technology in its efforts to combat the country's violent drug traffickers. Mexican newspaper El Universal recently published secret government contracts from 2011-2012, showing that a top army general purchased more than $350 million in "spy gear" that can be used to record cellphone conversations and mine data. The purchases reportedly also included a radar scanner capable of seeing through walls. With no exact details given as to how these tools could help track drug traffickers, various military sources claim they will be used for "various tasks, including political espionage." The Department of Defense denies this, saying the technologies were purchased for legal crime-fighting purposes and to help Mexico stay on top of the technological age. Adding to the intrigue, the company that's supplying the technology—listed on the contracts as "Security Tracking Devices"—is nowhere to be found, claim reporters—who followed the company's purported address to a "run-down residential area".

If the tools are really intended to bring down drug traffickers, some still worry that they could be misused, or end up in the wrong hands—especially given Mexico's history of government corruption and lack of transparency when it comes to surveillance. In recent years, the military has reportedly installed over 100 monitoring systems to intercept and monitor communications, with help from the US. And just last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Mexico's building of its surveillance capacity. Although interception of communications legally requires judicial approval, the country's legal system is notoriously problematic and corrupt—with only one in 100 crimes reportedly ever reaching a judge. Human Rights Watch has accused the Mexican military—which has received US guidance in cracking down on drug cartels—of operating with “near total impunity.”

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