La Semana: Monday, Oct 17
The week in the "Guacamaya" hacking revelations and my thoughts on paradox
After an unexpected hiatus, I am happy to welcome readers back to a Monday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
“Hacktivism” strikes the Mexican military
Thoughts on paradox
Please share your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You will find all sources linked to directly in the body of the text.
“Hacktivism” strikes the Mexican military
“The role of a hacker is to take part in the different forms of resistance in any territory where there is dignified rage and a joyful desire for radical revolution.”
—From an interview with “Guacamaya” hackers, published on Forbidden Stories (Mar. 2022)
Since Sep. 29, the cyber-attack on Mexico’s Department of Defense (Sedena) by a hacktivist group that calls itself “Guacamaya” has dominated the country’s news cycle as journalists comb through a massive 6 terabytes of emails and attached documents. Major news publications have created sections online dedicated to “Sedena Leaks” coverage. This breach of security—allowing for the largest hack accomplished by this group, in terms of quantity of data, to date—has unveiled not only a series of revelations about the inner workings of the historically opaque military, but also the vulnerability of an increasingly powerful public institution.
There are two parallel narratives emerging: the story of the hack itself and its implications for national security, and the unspooling of the hacked data. The Guacamaya group made its debut in March of this year, and has infiltrated mining and oil companies as well as both military and police departments in Chile, El Salvador, Perú and Colombia. According to a statement published by the “hacktivists”, their aim is to encourage “the peoples of Abya Yala [a word used to refer to the Americas in the Kuna indigenous language of Colombia and Panama] to hack and infiltrate these systems of repression, domination and enslavement that oppress us, so that the people may decide how to free us from the terrorism of states.”
In Chile, a special investigation was opened into the hacking (of a mere 340 gigabytes of data), a general who served as chief of staff resigned, and members of the intelligence and defense ministries have been called to appear before congress to report on the security breach. Thus far, the Mexican government has shown a more laissez-faire response, despite the magnitude of the exposure. It’s worth bearing in mind that President López Obrador (AMLO) has called Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a “[Don] Quixote for freedom of expression”, and has attempted to intervene on the journalist’s behalf with the U.S. government.
The first media outlet to break the Guacamaya-Sedena story was Latinus, and journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who is unwaveringly critical of AMLO and his administration, led the charge with details about the president’s health status. According to the hacked data, the president was rushed from his ranch to a Mexico City hospital in January for “high risk unstable angina”. Loret de Mola also shared some previously unreported details about the infamous failed operation to arrest Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in 2019.
The president’s response in his daily mañanera was a masterclass in political bomb defusing: he admitted the truth about his ailments in an almost casual manner, and then played a song by his favorite, Chico Che, called “The Army Didn’t Want Me”. The substance and serious nature of the cyber-attack was lost, as well as the significance of not disclosing the health of a head of state. Since that first story broke, AMLO’s response to each day’s new revelation has been some variation on “nothing to see here, folks”. On Oct. 2, he told the press that there are no plans to open a criminal investigation into the hacking. On Saturday, the Secretary of Defense announced he would postpone “until further notice” his report to Congress, which had been scheduled for Oct. 18.
The Guacamaya have stated they will make the hacked database available to journalists and historians, who can fill out a form on their site to obtain access. For journalists, this presents not only a gold mine of potential headline-making stories, but also an overwhelming exercise in data analysis (an estimated 4 million emails) and a taxing ethical dilemma. “It is even problematic just downloading all the data and figuring out where to begin…how do we organize and work on all this information?”, notes Nayeli Roldán, investigative journalist from Animal Político. “I think the next challenge is what questions do we ask? What do we look for in that ocean of information? What we find depends on the kinds of questions we formulate.”
Coming soon after a journalist published details from a leaked copy of the Ayotzinapa truth commission report in Reforma newspaper and stirred up a whirlwind of controversy about the ethics of leaks, the debate about how to handle disseminating this trove of confidential information is pulsing through the national conversation.
“The risk of exposing information about operatives, soldiers, even public officials, involved in security is extremely sensitive,” said Mario Gutiérrez of Latinus in an interview with journalist Salvador Camarena. “Even in relation to criminals who are mentioned by name or alias…after all, these are allegations, they have not been tried in a court of law.”
“Without a doubt, there is information here that is in the public’s interest to know, in the face of an institution that is accumulating so much power and does so in near complete secrecy,” explained Luis Fernando García, executive director of the R3D: Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Defense Network for Digital Rights) in an interview. One of the stories exposed thus far is how the government continues to use the spyware “Pegasus”, sold by an Israeli cyber-arms company, to track journalists and activists, which a team of investigative journalists and NGOs had been researching prior to the Guacamaya leak.
According to the president—who was vocal in his criticism of the previous Peña Nieto administration’s surveillance—Pegasus has been used by Sedena (this time around) for intelligence, not espionage. The spyware (a type of malware that aims to collect user data) has gotten more sophisticated since the last sexenio and alarmingly, no longer requires the user of the target cell phone to open any links to infect the device.
What kind of intelligence does this “spy army” glean from infecting the cell phones of reporters and activists? According to the collaborative reporting by Animal Político, Artículo 19 and R3D, “these attacks all have something in common: all used the malware Pegasus during this administration while the victims were doing work related to human rights violations committed by the Armed Forces.”
There will be a part two (maybe three and four) of this story to come soon…
Thoughts on paradox
paradox: a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true
Mexico is a great teacher of paradox: contrasting beauty and ugliness, violence and serenity, decadence and destitution. Hence, Mexico is a teacher of life. When I prod my own motivations for writing about current events in Mexico—if I dig under my solar plexus to ask why, somehow this is the answer: yes, and…yes, Mexico is heaven and also hell. Yes, Mexico laughs at the present and is scarred by the past.
Citizens who come from a superpower state—even those who say they’ve emphatically disowned it—can develop a habit of gazing upon the surrounding world of 194 countries and viewing them as a judge might in a pageant. Ranking them by their attractive landscapes, amusing cultural oddities and human rights records; picking favorites. In fact, there is a defensiveness of the places abroad that Americans may choose to call home, a desire to believe that they have found the promised land, the next frontier, and to explain to their eyebrow-raising compatriots that yes, Mexico or Thailand or Croatia is actually an amazing place! It has to be if I’m living here, right?
While I can empathize with the joy of discovery that precipitates the “expatriotism”, it is worth remembering that patriotism, in any form, isn’t known for nuance. Maybe this is because we humans generally lean towards either/or, true/false, which makes the mental exercise of “holding paradox”—the non-binary notion that the good does co-exist with the bad, even in the same moment—so uncomfortable. But this in-between space is inhabited by great art; the space where we glimpse truths.
The Mexican outlook is often described as “fatalistic”, an inheritance from the Catholic and pre-Hispanic cosmogonies that place the power of the individual beneath not just the power of deities, but also the power of the community. But there is a socio-economic reason too for this narrower view of free will. Privilege could be described as a cascade of choice; an accumulation of advantages that allows individuals to bend fortune in their direction. To be empowered to make choices—from the everyday-scale to the grand—that help us feel more in control of our fates. The paradox to hold onto here is that with greater freedom, comes greater (perceived) responsibility for those choices. In a Zoom-enabled world, the old framework for deciding where to live is fading. If you are no longer limited to one city, or even one country, but can venture anywhere in the shrinking world where you can connect to the internet, choosing well (and justifying your reasons), can become its own burden. “Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” in the words of James Baldwin. Released from the tethers of generations before us, we are set adrift and paradoxically, many of us feel the desire to be rooted again, even as we are also restless. We crave community as we further isolate ourselves from a sense of place.
I feel the weight of both accident and purpose in living here, or fate and free will. I didn’t choose Mexico, but my grandparents did, and then my mother chose to return. I choose to stay, but sometimes I wonder how much of that choice is an illusion; I do feel bound to this place in ways I struggle to put into words. A writer’s paradox.