Mexican Data Grab

Since the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. Justice Department has gotten access to the personal records of more than 300 million Latin Americans, including the citizens of its two most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, in addition to Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

The U.S. information grab has not been a big hit in Latin America. In Mexico, it has triggered political shock waves. "Alarm over sale of millions of Mexicans' records," headlined Reforma, the rightwing daily that broke the story of how U.S. info giant ChoicePoint acquired the data. "Attack on national sovereignty," editorialized its leftwing rival, La Jornada, "Mid-term elections threatened."

Under an agreement signed in September 2001 with the U.S. Justice Department, ChoicePoint, the Atlanta information entity that was implicated in the 2000 elections shenanigans, provided Washington with dubiously acquired Mexican data, Reforma reported. Attorney General John Ashcroft received access to updated Mexican voter registration lists containing personal information on sixty-five million citizens, Mexico City drivers' license records dating back to 1997 and updated each month, and all automobile registration data collected in the capital during that same period.

The political scandal exploded just two months before a make-or-break midterm election for President Vicente Fox's rightwing National Action Party (PAN) and has spawned an investigation by Ashcroft's counterpart, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha. Whereas in the United States, such public records are fair game for direct mail advertisers, telemarketers, political candidates, and other annoying hucksters, in Mexico their confidentiality is closely guarded. Their sale to ChoicePoint -- and ultimately the U.S. government -- has raised issues of national security and sovereignty.

"I didn't register to vote so that the government could sell my name to the gringos," fumes barber Lalo Miranda, snipping hair in his downtown Mexico City market stall. Miranda grew curious about the sale of his name and address when he began to receive unsolicited junk mail -- in English. "I don't even speak English," he snorts.

The scandal has been made even more conspicuous by ChoicePoint's refusal to divulge from whom or how it obtained the databases, citing confidentiality clauses in the purchase contracts. According to preliminary findings by Macedo's electoral crimes prosecutor Maria de los Angeles Fromow, ChoicePoint bought voting lists from a Mexican database for $250,000 two years ago. When the scandal broke, the Atlanta corporation agreed not to offer the lists for commercial sale while the legality of the information transfer is under investigation, confirms ChoicePoint spokesperson Chuck Jones.

But the brouhaha over the Mexican records goes far beyond junk mail and nuisance phone calls. Voter registration and drivers' license databases are prime law enforcement tools to track suspects and fugitives. And ChoicePoint's leasing of access to this information to the Department of Homeland Security's Quick Response Team worries not a few Mexicans that Big Brother is beaming in from Washington.

Reforma speculated that the data could be used to expand watch lists of undesirable foreigners at all U.S. points of entry as mandated by the Secure Borders Act of 2002. La Jornada Washington correspondent Jim Cason was alarmed that the Mexican data bases could be incorporated into the Terrorism Information Awareness operation being run out of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by Retired Admiral John Poindexter, convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandals. Poindexter's project would incorporate all public and private databases to develop profiles of potential terrorists. In a half dozen years of doing business, ChoicePoint has become the largest purveyor of public records to U.S. law enforcement and other investigative agencies, claiming that it can supply "10,000,000,000 records on individuals and companies." "Whether you are looking for a fugitive or tracking their assets, we provide mission-critical information with a flick of the finger," ChoicePoint's flag-bedecked web page brags. "We get you the info you need now." (That slogan is trademarked, by the way.)

ChoicePoint's accelerated growth from a spin-off of a credit check agency in 1997 into an info industry giant closely parallels the rise of George W. Bush.

In 1999, First Sibling Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid ChoicePoint subsidiary DBT $3.8 million to tidy up the state's voter registration lists by eliminating allegedly ineligible electors. In the process, it knocked off 57,600 mostly black and Latino voters, most of them Democrats, a ploy that ensured Jeb's brother the Presidency.

According to documentation unearthed under the Freedom of Information Act by the independent Electronic Privacy Information Center, ChoicePoint representatives were on the scene at the World Trade Center tragedy in Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-ambulance-chasing time. The company won contracts September 12 to match victims with its growing DNA data bank.

Two weeks later, ChoicePoint, one of the six largest information brokers in the United States, signed a $67 million contract (another $11 million would be attached later) to provide Ashcroft with the personal records of hundreds of millions of Latin Americans, all presumably potential terrorist suspects.

The handing over of Mexican voter registration records was a serious embarrassment to President Vicente Fox's assertion that his country's electoral system is at last free of the fraud that kept one party in power for seven decades. The voting credential issued by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), whose legitimacy is undermined by the scandal, contains a digitized photo and thumb print and is essential I.D. here for everything from cashing a check to entering a public building.

While only the names, addresses, birthplaces, and birthdates of voters are thought to be included in the voting data obtained by ChoicePoint, drivers' license records contain home telephone numbers for six million Mexicans. The vehicle registration lists, which indicate motor serial numbers, are thought to have been taken from Mexico's now-defunct National Automobile Registry, whose director, Ricardo Cavallo, was extradited to Spain, where Judge Baltazar Garzon has pledged to try him for genocide during Argentina's dirty war. Cavallo may have learned the tricks of the document-stealing trade while allegedly processing the confiscated property of suspected leftists held at a Buenos Aires naval training school where 5,000 are thought to have been tortured and killed by the Argentine military.

ChoicePoint's ease in obtaining sensitive Mexican public records has occasioned a flurry of fingerpointing. Some 4,000 underpaid IFE officials in thirty-two states had access to the voter registration lists that were contained on a series of easily copied CDs. In addition, the political parties, whose venality is legendary, all had access to the discs. In fact, the Mexico City drivers' license data dates back to 1997, when the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) took control of the capital. The updating of the data on a monthly and yearly basis suggested ongoing involvement with ChoicePoint by someone with access to the files.

The scandal tarnished Mexico's political system. "Do you think I'm going to vote after all this?" Miranda asks a U.S. reporter. "They would probably pick my pocket while I was marking the ballot."

What is to be done? National Autonomous University law professor Jorge Camil suggests a class action lawsuit by sixty-five million affected Mexicans. "But the U.S. courts do not listen to Mexico," he adds ruefully.

The prospect of the U.S. Border Patrol or its bounty hunters kicking down doors in Mexico City looking for a Los Angeles bail skip or New York parking scofflaw was no longer just a paranoid's vision, says Monterrey Technological Institute professor Julio Tello, who helped write Mexico's protocols on the use of databases. Neither was a phone tap ordered by U.S. Homeland Security. In the new New World Order, borders no longer guarantee privacy. "This is a violation of personal privacy and political rights," says Tello. "Now it is not just the telemarketers. The FBI has your number, too."

But not any longer. This story has a happy ending. Because of the outcry in Mexico, ChoicePoint "has scrapped its practice of obtaining and selling personal information on Mexican citizens," The Wall Street Journal reported in June. "ChoicePoint spokesman Chuck Jones said . . . that the company agreed last month to stop buying and selling the Mexican data because a government inquiry there determined that it was confidential. He said the data would be returned and purged from the ChoicePoint system. U.S. agencies will no longer have access to it."

Reached by The Progressive, Jones says, "We are still interested in obtaining this data but only with the cooperation of Mexican authorities." Jones insists the company obtained the data legally.

Meanwhile, other countries in Latin America are not panning out for ChoicePoint. "We just dropped Argentina because there was no market for it," Jones says. And Costa Rica recently changed its law to make the data confidential.

Reached at his barbershop stall in the Pino Suarez market, Lalo Miranda was incredulous at the news that ChoicePoint had returned the Mexican lists. Said Miranda: "Listen, once they have your name, they have it forever."

John Ross is a longtime Mexico hand and the author of "The War Against Oblivion," a chronicle of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.

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