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U.S. funding Mexico's wiretaps

Los Angeles Times | May 25, 2007 
SAM ENRIQUEZ

MEXICO CITY -- 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 U.S. on law enforcement.

The expansion comes as President Felipe Calderon is pushing to amend Mexico's constitution to allow officials to tap phones without a judge's approval in some cases.

Mexican authorities have been able to wiretap most telephone conversations and tap into e-mail for years, but the new $3 million Communications Intercept System being installed by Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency would expand its reach.

The system will allow authorities to track cellphone users as they travel, according to the contract specifications. It would include extensive storage capacity and allow authorities to identify callers by voice. The system, scheduled to begin operation within the next month, was paid for by the U.S. State Department and sold by Verint Systems, a politically connected company based in Melville, N.Y., that specializes in electronic surveillance.

Documents describing the upgrade suggest that the U.S. government 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 U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Questions about its use should be directed to Mexico, she said. Calderon's office declined to comment.

But the U.S. government's 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 lobbied for more authority to use electronic surveillance against drug smuggling. Already this year, drug wars have cost hundreds of lives and threatened Calderon's ability to govern.

It's unclear how broad a net the new surveillance system would 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.

Within the U.S., legal experts say that if prosecutors have access to Mexican wiretaps, they could use the information in U.S. courts. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that Fourth Amendment protections against illegal wiretaps do not apply outside the U.S., particularly if the surveillance is conducted by another country, said Georgetown University law professor David Cole.

Mexico's telecommunications monopoly, Telmex, controlled by Carlos Slim, the world's second-wealthiest person, has not received official notice of the new system that 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 constitution and allow federal prosecutors to conduct searches and secretly record conversations among people suspected of what the government defines as serious crimes.

His proposal would eliminate the current requirement that prosecutors gain approval from a judge before installing any wiretap. Calderon says the legal changes are needed in the battle against drug gangs.

But others argued that the proposal undermines constitutional protections and opens the door to the type of domestic spying that has plagued many Latin American countries.

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