Mexico is expanding its ability to tap telephone calls and e-mail using money from the U.S. government, a move that underlines how the country's conservative government is increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States on law enforcement.
The expansion comes as President Felipe Calderon is pushing to amend the Mexican Constitution to allow officials to tap phones without a judge's approval in some cases. Calderon argues that the government needs the authority to combat drug gangs, which have killed hundreds of people this year.
Mexican authorities for years have been able to wiretap most telephone conversations and tap into e-mail, but the new $3-million Communications Intercept System being installed by Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency will expand their reach.
The system will allow authorities to track cellphone users as they travel, according to contract specifications. It includes extensive storage capacity and will allow authorities to identify callers by voice. The system, scheduled to begin operation this month, was paid for by the U.S. State Department and sold by Verint Systems Inc., a politically well-connected firm based in Melville, N.Y., that specializes in electronic surveillance.
Although information about the system is publicly available, the matter has drawn little attention so far in the United States or Mexico. The modernization program is described in U.S. government documents, including the contract specifications, reviewed by The Times.
They suggest that Washington could have access to information derived from the surveillance. Officials of both governments declined to comment on that possibility.
"It is a government of Mexico operation funded by the U.S.," said Susan Pittman, of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Queries should be directed to the Mexican government, she said.
Calderon's office declined to comment.
But the contract specifications say the system is designed to allow both governments to "disseminate timely and accurate, actionable information to each country's respective federal, state, local, private and international partners."
Calderon has been lobbying for more authority to use electronic surveillance against drug violence, which has threatened his ability to govern. Despite federal troops posted in nine Mexican states, the violence continues as rival smugglers fight over shipping routes to the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as for control of Mexican port cities and inland marijuana and poppy growing regions.
Nonetheless, the prospect of U.S. involvement in surveillance could be extremely sensitive in Mexico, where the United States historically has been viewed by many as a bullying and intrusive neighbor. U.S. government agents working in Mexico maintain a low profile to spare their government hosts any political fallout.
It's unclear how broad a net the new surveillance system will cast: Mexicans speak regularly by phone, for example, with millions of relatives living in the U.S. Those conversations appear to be fair game for both governments.
Legal experts say that prosecutors with access to Mexican wiretaps could use the information in U.S. courts. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that 4th Amendment protections against illegal wiretaps do not apply outside the United States, particularly if the surveillance is conducted by another country, Georgetown University law professor David Cole said.
Mexico's telecommunications monopoly, Telmex, controlled by Carlos Slim Helu, the world's second-wealthiest individual, has not received official notice of the new system, which will intercept its electronic signals, a spokeswoman said this week.
"Telmex is a firm that always complies with laws and rules set by the Mexican government," she said.
Calderon recently asked Mexico's Congress to amend the country's constitution and allow federal prosecutors free rein to conduct searches and secretly record conversations among people suspected of what the government defines as serious crimes.
His proposal would eliminate the current legal requirement that prosecutors gain approval from a judge before installing any wiretap, the vetting process that will for now govern use of the new system's intercepts. Calderon says the legal changes are needed to turn the tide in the battle against the drug gangs.
"The purpose is to create swift investigative measures against organized crime," Calderon wrote senators when introducing his proposed constitutional amendments in March. "At times, turning to judicial authorities hinders or makes investigations impossible."
But others argued that the proposed changes would undermine constitutional protections and open the door to the type of domestic spying that has plagued many Latin American countries. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe last week ousted a dozen generals, including the head of intelligence, after police were found to be wiretapping public figures, including members of his government.
"Calderon's proposal is limited to 'urgent cases' and organized crime, but the problem is that when the judiciary has been put out of the loop, the attorney general can basically decide these however he wants to," said John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Without the intervention of a judge, the door swings wide open to widespread abuse of basic civil liberties."
The proposal is being considered by a panel of the Mexican Senate. It is strongly opposed by members of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. Members of Calderon's National Action Party have been lobbying senators from the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, for support.
Renato Sales, a former deputy prosecutor for Mexico City, said Calderon's desire to expand federal policing powers to combat organized crime was parallel to the Bush administration's use of a secret wiretapping program to fight terrorism.
"Suddenly anyone suspected of organized crime is presumed guilty and treated as someone without any constitutional rights," said Sales, now a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "And who will determine who is an organized crime suspect? The state will."
Federal lawmaker Cesar Octavio Camacho, president of the justice and human rights commission in the lower house of Congress, said he too worried about prosecutorial abuse.
"Although the proposal stems from the president's noble intention of efficiently fighting organized crime," he said, "the remedy seems worse than the problem."
Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau and Times staff writer Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.