Mexican authorities have launched an investigation into the controversial sale of the list of 65 million Mexican voters to Atlanta-based company ChoicePoint. The US company, which also acquired the list of 6 million registered drivers in Mexico City, compiles a wide range of data for resale to insurance companies, government agencies, and other buyers.
In this case, ChoicePoint acquired the information from an unidentified Mexican seller for resale to the US government. The US agency or agencies that requested the information was not revealed, although ChoicePoint in the past has compiled information for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which has been renamed the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS).
The Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada reported that the Pentagon, the Department of Transportation, and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security are also relying increasingly on information provided by ChoicePoint and six other companies for their "anti-terrorism" campaigns.
A US Department of Justice document obtained by the Mexico City daily newspaper Milenio Diario said ChoicePoint has acquired similar information during the past two years from Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina on behalf of the US government.
Critics say Mexican sovereignty violated
The sale of the voter rolls created an uproar among a wide range of government officials and citizen organizations in Mexico.
Opposition legislators, in particular, criticized the release of private information to a foreign entity. "This is a serious violation of our sovereignty," said federal Deputy Rafael Hernandez of the center-left Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD).
Deputy Ranulfo Marquez of the former governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) urged the Fox administration to lodge a vigorous protest with the administration of US President George W. Bush. "The US government acquired the voter rolls illegally, which is not consistent with its stated desire to improve bilateral diplomatic relations with Mexico," said Marquez, who represents the PRI in the elections watchdog agency, the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE).
Legislators like Deputy Arturo Escobar of the Partido Verde Ecologista Mexicano (PVEM) expressed concerns that the release of the voter rolls to an entity outside the electoral process could compromise the July 6 congressional and gubernatorial elections.
But IFE officials said there was almost no chance that anyone could tamper with the voter rolls. "It is important to point out that the voter list is not connected with any public-information network," said IFE counselor Jaime Cardenas. "Therefore, there is no possibility of it being altered by parties outside the IFE."
PRI Sen. Fidel Herrera Beltran said the issue should have been a major topic at the recent summit between Mexican Interior Secretary Santiago Creel Miranda and US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge in Tijuana in late April.
The meeting was held to review bilateral security measures along the US-Mexico border. The measures are part of the heightened US anti-terrorism campaign implemented in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and the US attack on Iraq in March of this year.
"This is not a case of bringing a complaint or seeking an explanation from the US," said Herrera. "Rather, we need to emphasize to Ridge in an official manner that this voter roll is a confidential instrument and cannot be legally used for any means other than the Mexican elections."
The IFE recently levied a fine of 2.5 million pesos (US$243,000) against the PVEM for improper use of a voter roll obtained from electoral authorities. The PVEM's only violation was to allow an unregistered political party access to the list.
Creel, who used the meeting with Ridge to push for the US to reopen talks on immigration reform, did not say whether he discussed the ChoicePoint case with the US official. A few days before the meeting, however, the interior secretary issued a strongly worded statement condemning the release of the voter list, which Mexico considers private information. "The misuse of information is a crime that cannot be tolerated," Creel told reporters.
Attorney general's office promises full investigation
Maria de los Angeles Fromow Rangel, director of the Fiscalia Especializada para la Atencion de Delitos Electorales (FEPADE), a unit of the Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR), said her office was planning a full investigation, including a request for legal assistance from US authorities to prosecute the matter.
But critics said the Bush administration could not be expected to be forthcoming on this matter, since it was the US government that asked ChoicePoint to act as its intermediary in acquiring the information.
"The government in Washington knows that it cannot go into another country and legally obtain a voter list," said legal expert Jorge Camil, who writes a column in the Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada. "But it can hire a private party to get together with someone who works for an agency like the IFE or a political party and propose a business arrangement."
Camil also questioned the initially lukewarm response from the IFE. "The only response from [IFE director] Jorge Woldenberg is that this is a 'grave situation,' which is something we already know," said Camil.
But IFE counselor Jacqueline Peschard said the elections agency has already begun some contacts with ChoicePoint to determine how the US company obtained the elections data.
Peschard said the IFE has heard contradictory reports on the type of data obtained by the US company. "Some reports suggest that the list obtained by ChoicePoint included telephone numbers and information about bank accounts, which is information that is not included in the IFE voter rolls.
The only information listed in IFE voter rolls are names, addresses, voting districts, and registration dates.
Alberto Alonso y Coria, director of the Registro Federal de Electores (RFE), said preliminary investigations have not uncovered any evidence that the information acquired by ChoicePoint originated at the IFE or RFE.
The IFE list is available to a wide range of individuals and organizations, any of which could have easily provided the information to the party that eventually sold the list to ChoicePoint. Among those with access to the list are all the political parties registered with the IFE, the counselors from the 32 state electoral institutes, and members of the IFE's 32 state and 300 district committees.
ChoicePoint marketing director James Lee declined to identify the seller, but confirmed that the information was obtained from a private party and not a government entity. "Our position is that we acquired the data from a Mexican company, which certified that they were obtained legally," said Lee. "If Mexican officials have a different opinion, or if they need more information from us, we are willing to cooperate and are anxious to resolve this situation."
Lee told reporters that ChoicePoint went as far as to hire its own team of lawyers in Mexico to review the country's privacy laws to ensure that the transaction was legal. [Note: Peso-dollar conversions in this article are based on the Interbank rate in effect on April 30, reported at 10.26 pesos per US$1.00] (Sources: Spanish news service EFE, 04/16/03; La Cronica de Hoy, 04/18/03; CNI en Linea, 04/14/03, 04/15/03, 04/21/03; Epoca, 04/21/03; Agencia de noticias Proceso, 04/15/03, 04/23/03; Associated Press, 04/23/03; Notimex, 04/15/03, 04/18/03, 04/22/03, 04/24/03; Reforma, 04/16-18/03, 04/21/03, 04/22/03, 04/24, 04/25/03; El Universal, 04/16- 18/03, 04/22/03, 04/29/03; Milenio Diario, 04/15/03, 04/17/03, 04/18/03, 04/21/03, 04/23/03; La Jornada, 04/15/03, 04/17/03, 04/18/03, 04/21/03, 04/23/03, 04/24/03, 04/29/03, 04/30/03)…