Mexico Uncovers Spy Ring


What many prominent Mexicans have long suspected--that their private lives are hardly their own--was confirmed here Saturday as federal investigators disclosed the discovery of a rogue espionage network that was spying on public officials, politicians and government agencies in the capital.

The revelations by the national attorney general's office appear to mark the first time that police have documented the existence of an organized civilian spy operation that used widespread illicit phone taps to gather intelligence outside official law enforcement in the heart of the nation.

Special prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconselos, chief of the federal organized crime unit, said at a news conference that investigators have identified 35 members of the ring, 11 of whom were detained Wednesday.

Three operations centers and five eavesdropping offices were seized in the capital and suburbs, and police confiscated 100 audiotapes of clandestinely recorded phone conversations, Santiago said. Investigators had yet to listen to the recordings, he added.

Federal investigators are still probing the identity of the group's ringleaders, their motives and the extent to which they might have compromised public officials, politicians and their secrets, Santiago said.

He did not identify which officials and politicians were targeted, saying only that they included members of all three of Mexico's major parties and officials in state and federal agencies.

Suggesting that the operation may well have had the blessing of some government officials, Santiago said his office is investigating claims by several of those detained that they were public servants working for the state of Mexico.

But the mere disclosure of so widespread an operation is certain to send shivers through the ranks of Mexico City's powerful political elite. It also underscores vows by members of President Vicente Fox's government to dismantle a vast, clandestine web of official and unofficial wiretaps nationwide.

Fox himself has angrily complained that his own conversations were bugged both before and after his watershed victory a year ago. In his regular radio address Saturday afternoon, he said the newly revealed organization had listened in on "secretaries of state, public officials and political parties," adding, "This [investigation] is not going to stop here."

Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which Fox unseated in July 2000, was often accused of using the government's sophisticated internal state security services to spy illegally on opposition leaders, social activists and the media.

Santiago said two of the men detained last week said they had worked for the government's now-disbanded Federal Security Directorate, an intelligence agency that, in previous decades, was widely considered something of a hub for espionage and dirty tricks.

The directorate was disbanded in 1985, and former presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo said they would curb such practices. But most Mexicans assumed the eavesdropping had continued.

Several prominent Mexican officials said last year that they were being victimized by clandestine surveillance.

Santiago said Saturday that his investigators stumbled onto the Mexico City spy network accidentally.

The organized crime unit, he said, was attempting to track a kidnapping ring, one of the many heavily armed hostage-for-profit operations that have terrorized the capital in recent years. Through that probe, he said, it discovered the wiretap network.

Another prosecutor, Gilberto Higuera Bernal, chief of penal procedures, said at Saturday's news conference that his department will ask Fox to launch an initiative to increase the penalties for illicit wiretapping, which is the equivalent of a misdemeanor under Mexican law.


Researcher Rafael Aguirre of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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