The news didn't come as a surprise to most Mexicans: Their new government has confirmed that its predecessor, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, carried out systematic, illegal spying on its opponents during its decades in power.
In an unusual public assessment of past spying activities, Mexican intelligence chief Eduardo Medina-Mora said Thursday that previous governments run by the PRI, as the party is known, had created an infrastructure for political spying and often leaked the material to damage opponents. He vowed that such political espionage would never happen again.
He said that many of the old phone-tapping records had been destroyed by his predecessors but that other archives could prove valuable for discovering the truth about incidents such as the massacre of students in Mexico City in 1968 and the brutal campaign against leftist guerrillas in the 1970s. He said procedures for opening those archives to victims and their families will be issued soon.
PRI governments were often accused of widespread eavesdropping and other dirty tricks, so Medina-Mora's revelations did not come as a bombshell. But even human rights advocates called the openness of the spy agency's self-evaluation an important advance in President Vicente Fox's attempt to rebuild the nation on a foundation of legality.
Sergio Aguayo, a prominent human rights activist who served on an intelligence review commission that contributed to Medina-Mora's report, told the newspaper El Universal that it was obvious such spying had been carried out during the 71-year rule of the PRI, which ended with Fox's inauguration Dec. 1.
The important change, Aguayo said, lies in the government's formal confirmation of what everyone suspected. "The weight of this affirmation is that the government is saying that the PRI spied," he said. "I think it is a step forward and an opening up on the part of the government."
Medina-Mora took over the Center for Investigation and National Security, known by its Spanish initials CISEN, soon after Fox took office. The lawyer immediately launched the review that ended in this week's report.
He said his goal is to restructure the CISEN "into an authentic organ of the state, focused on collecting and analyzing information, and not an instrument of the regime and even less at the service of a political group."
Under Mexican law, only the attorney general's office may conduct wiretaps, and only with a court order, in cases specifically involving organized crime and drug trafficking.
Under the former government, political spying "was a daily practice in the institution," Medina-Mora said. "It is clear that in terms of political espionage, the election campaigns had the busiest activity."
Dulce Maria Sauri, president of the PRI, called Medina-Mora's remarks about her party's past governments "absolutely irresponsible" and demanded that he provide details to back up his accusations, or retract them.
Medina-Mora said he plans to strengthen CISEN's international ties and its attention to Mexico's borders, which he said the previous intelligence leadership neglected. He added that a new intelligence law is needed to define the goals of the service and the legal constraints it must work within, establishing "adequate controls on intelligence activities."
"From the first day of this administration, the CISEN has not conducted political espionage," he said. "The CISEN will not carry out political espionage, and it will function strictly within the legal framework."
Furthermore, he said, the agency is already working with authorities to dismantle any other clandestine phone-tapping or other spying activities, such as those uncovered accidentally this month in the state of Mexico, just outside the capital. The attorney general's office said 11 people have been arrested in that case, some of them suspected of working for the government of Mexico state.
The CISEN will respond within a few days to petitions by the national Human Rights Commission and other agencies to give victims of rights violations and their families access to files regarding torture, disappearances and other violations, the intelligence chief said.
The Fox government still hasn't said how it intends to carry out its pledge to establish some kind of truth commission to investigate past rights abuses, including those that might have been committed by intelligence agents.
Some Cabinet members want an aggressive commission, and others prefer a more conciliatory approach. The burden now lies with Fox to decide how to proceed.