MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Interior Department acknowledged Wednesday that a federal intelligence agency sent a plainclothes agent to tail an opposition presidential candidate, even though the candidate never asked for and apparently did not want a tail.
There have long been fears the ruling party was using the National Center for Security and Investigation for political spying. But few suspected the monitoring would be so clumsy.
Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete said that the agency, known as CISEN, had put a tail on candidate Ricardo Anaya solely for security reasons, and said authorities had thought he had been informed.
“It was apparently an irregularity, because he should have been informed,” Navarrete said, adding the “the only purpose was to report any mishap” that might occur when the candidate was on the highway to a campaign event over the weekend in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, where drug cartel violence is common.
On Tuesday, Anaya posted a video of himself confronting the agent, who identified himself as a CISEN employee when asked why he had been following the candidate in an SUV. Navarrete acknowledged the man was indeed a longtime agent with 26 years’ experience at the agency.
“Instead of pursuing criminals, they spy on opponents,” Anaya wrote, claiming other agents in other cars had also been following him.
Navarrete, who oversees the agency, denied that the tails constituted spying. He said he thought Anaya knew about the arrangement because federal authorities had informed the Veracruz state government, whose governor belongs to Anaya’s conservative National Action Party.
Navarrete said agents were “following, keeping an eye on the campaigns,” something he said was legal.
“This is not a question, let me be perfectly clear, of clandestine spying, of anything illegal, of anything other than a protocol in which we analyze security issues in the states.”
Navarrete said the CISEN had suspended one of its officials and would carry out an internal investigation.
Critics questioned the justification for monitoring political opponents in a country that has struggled to carry out successful intelligence operations against its main security threat, the drug cartels.
Mexico has been unable to locate nearly 30,000 people who disappeared during the country’s drug war, has had to rely heavily on U.S. intelligence to capture key drug capos and has left large swaths of the country under the de-facto rule of the cartels.
In that context, security analyst and former CISEN employee Alejandro Hope wrote in a column in the newspaper El Universal that tailing candidates was “stupid” and “wasteful.”
Hope said that the National Security Law gives the agency overly broad and vague discretion. The law says CISEN can “carry out intelligence as part of the national security system to aid in preserving the integrity, stability and continuance of the Mexican government, to sustain governability.”
“That says nothing and can allow anything,” Hope wrote. “It should be reviewed as quickly as possible.”
Political analyst Ruben Aguilar called it “an enormous error” and said “it looks like something done by amateurs,” adding, “It can’t be seen as anything other than espionage.”
“The government has to offer security details to the candidates … and it is up to them to decide whether they want it or not,” Aguilar said, who was a senior adviser in the administration of former President Vicente Fox. “The government should have talked to the candidates and offered them security.”
What a lone agent in a following car could have done to protect the candidate was unclear. Social media users quickly took to making fun of the inoffensive-looking, white-haired agent, comparing him alternately to James Bond or Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons.
The Mexican intelligence agency already was under fire due to the January appointment of former Mexico State prosecutor Alberto Bazbaz as its new chief, despite the fact he is best known nationally for failing to find a missing girl who lay dead in her own bed for nine days.
Bazbaz resigned as state prosecutor in 2010 following his announcement that 4-year-old Paulette Gebara had accidentally smothered and her body had been found in her own bed after police had been searching for her for nine days. Agents working under Bazbaz apparently found her only after the body began to smell.
The scandal also comes amid a crisis for Mexican law enforcement.
A chilling video emerged earlier this month showing two kneeling, bound Mexican prosecution agents confessing supposed rights violations while surrounded by five masked gunmen, apparently from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, pointing machine pistols and assault rifles at them.
The two agents of the federal Attorney General’s Office went missing Feb. 5. The office said they were on vacation and attending a family event, but the cartel claimed they were conducting undercover operations.