McMaster: US has seen signs of Russian ‘subversion and disinformation’ in upcoming Mexican election

  • National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in mid-December that the US had seen signs of Russia interference in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election.
  • Analysts and officials have warned for some time about the potential for Russian attempts to influence the result of that vote.
  • Such interference would likely be part of an effort to undermine Western countries and US influence around the world.

The US has seen “initial signs” of Russian “subversion and disinformation and propaganda” in Mexico’s presidential campaign, according to National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster

McMaster made the comments when asked about Russia during a mid-December event at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC,according to Mexican magazine Reforma. McMaster has mentioned Russia’s “destablizing behaviour” in Mexico and elsewhere several times in recent weeks.

“For example, with Russia we are concerned, increasingly concerned, with these sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda, the use of cyber tools to do that,” McMaster said, according to a clip of his speech obtained by José Díaz Briseño, Reforma’s US correspondent.

“As you’ve seen this is a really sophisticated effort to polarize democratic societies and pit communities within those societies against each other and create crises of confidence and to undermine the strength within Europe.”

“You see this most recently with the Catalonia independence referendum in Spain, for example,” McMaster said. “You see actually initial signs of it in the Mexican presidential campaign already.”

Spain’s government said state and private-sector Russian groups, as well as groups in Venezuela, used social media and the internet to publicize the separatist cause and affect the outcome of Catalonia’s October 1 referendum on independence from Spain. A Madrid-backed research institute said Russians spread true and false news and used trolls, bots, and fake accounts – augmented by coverage from Russian state-backed television outlets.

European Parliament members have said Russia mounted a propaganda effort in Catalonia to undermine EU stability, and a cyber task force operated by the EU’s foreign affairs arm compiled what it calls disinformation produced by outlets backed by or tied to the Russian government.

Members of the US Senate have also said there were signs of Russian-based groups attempting to affect Catalonia’s October vote.

Catalan leaders denied the interference and criticised Spain and the EU for suppressing the October 1 vote. A majority of voters in that election backed independence, though turnout was low. Separatists parties stopped short of splitting from Spain, and they won a majority in regional elections held in December.

‘There’s every reason to think that Mexico is a target for attack’

Mexicans will vote on July 1 to elect a new president, every senator and representative, some governors, and thousands of officials in states across the country, and analysts and officials have already expressed concern about the potential for Russian interference.

“If [Russia] intervened in the United States, there’s every reason to think that Mexico is a target for attack,” Mexican Sen. Armando Ríos Piter of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution told The Hill this spring.

Ríos Piter, who launched an independent presidential bid, said Mexico’s standing in the world made it a natural target and that the country needed to strengthen its counterintelligence capabilities.

Close links between US and Mexico on energy, economic, transportation, and national-security issues – as well as 37 million Mexican-Americans and immigrants in the US with roots in Mexico – make the southern country an appealing target if Russia seeks to undermine the Western world and the US’s role in it,according to Shannon O’Neill, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Russian intelligence services have a long history in Mexico, O’Neill notes, and the Mexican government’s history of hacking, the media’s role in exchanging coverage for payments or ad money, and the lack of agencies equipped to deal with such interference could leave Mexico hard-pressed or unable to counter misinformation.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district in Texas borders Mexico, has already called for an investigation into Russian meddling in Mexico’s election.

“A US official told me that it looks like the Russians are already playing in the Mexican presidential election, so I thought it was only proper that we go ahead and get a little bit more information by bringing in some folks and talking to us about this particular situation,” Cuellar told Texas Standard in early December. “Being next door neighbours, we certainly need to know if the Russians or other actors have been or will be getting involved in this presidential election.”

Mexico’s political parties have been accused of electoral malfeasance in the past – the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party chief among them – and the potential for dirty tricks by Mexican officials themselves remains high.

Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University,told Bloomberg that hacking of the Mexican electoral system – either by the PRI or by a government like Russia – is a significant risk.

According to Reforma, Mexico’s National Electoral Institute has expressed concern about disinformation campaigns directed toward the electoral process on social networks.

However, “Mexico’s government has no evidence to validate claims about Moscow’s supposed interest in influencing the results” of the election, Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said during a mid-November trip to Russia. (Videgaray has warned US officials about commenting on Mexico’s upcoming election.)

Russia has a history of backing left-wing governments in Latin America. It had close relations with Cuba throughout the Cold War, maintains ties with Nicaragua’s government, and has grown increasingly close to Venezuela’s embattled government.

Many speculate Moscow could try to back Mexico’s left-wing presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador has run in the past two presidential elections, losing both times in close votes he’s suggested were affected by fraud. His stock has risen with the election of President Donald Trump in the US, as Lopez Obrador is seen by some as the best candidate to counter Trump’s anti-Mexico posture. He has also been boosted by widespread dissatisfaction with Peña Nieto and establishment parties like the PRI, who have presided over slow economic growth, rising violence, and several high-profile political corruption scandals.

Numerous polls in recent months have found Lopez Obrador with an advantage. A Parametría poll published in early January found that his coalition would win the election with 42% of votes, while the PRI-led coalition would come in third with 26%.