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Complaining Latin American countries eavesdrop

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 7:36 p.m.
REUTERS
Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli listens to the national anthem before his meeting with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas July 8, 2013. Martinelli is on official visit in Venezuela. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS)

MEXICO CITY — Several Latin American presidents have complained bitterly after recent revelations about the United States' electronic surveillance, but there's a bit of hypocrisy in some of their griping.

At least four Latin countries have requested, and received, American help in setting up eavesdropping programs of their own, ostensibly designed to fight organized crime. But the programs are easily diverted to political ends, and with weak rule of law in parts of the region, wiretapping scandals erupt every few months.

The latest brouhaha occurred six weeks ago in Panama, where a leading presidential candidate complained of wiretapping by the government.

“All Panamanians know that illegal recordings are done by the government every day. The only party able to record and tap telephones is the state, not anyone else,” said Juan Carlos Navarro, a center-left presidential candidate.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told Navarro to watch his mouth because some “beauts” were about to leak out showing how “the most corrupt man” in the nation seeks its presidency.

Some experts on Latin America say they believe wiretapping is probably widespread — not just under authoritarian leaders — and is a reflection of political mistrust, lack of adherence to law and poor accountability.

“You know that old saying,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “In God we trust, in everyone else we spy.”

Leaks by Edward Snowden have sparked angry responses around the region.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said Wednesday that he'd asked “quite clearly” for Mexican diplomats to seek an explanation for the U.S. spying allegations, and, if proven true, “it would obviously be totally unacceptable.”

Mexico is one of four Latin nations to receive sophisticated surveillance equipment, software and training from the United States in recent years. The other nations are Colombia, Panama and Paraguay.

Other Latin governments can easily obtain surveillance technology if they want it and Washington refuses to provide it.

“There are a lot of companies, especially Israeli ones, that offer the equipment,” said Hiddekel Morrison, a telecommunications expert in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.

When Mexico needed help tracking down narcotics kingpins, the State Department awarded a contract in 2007 to a Melville, N.Y., company, Verint Systems Inc., to provide it with an interception system to monitor up to 60 simultaneous calls and record 25,000 hours of fixed-line or cellular calls.

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