British-Mexican Relations Tense Following Spying, Immigration Incidents

SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, March 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

British-Mexican Relations Tense Following Spying, Immigration Incidents


Mexico's political relations with the United Kingdom have become strained because of what Mexicans perceive as British violations of the country's sovereignty. Tensions between the two countries first erupted in mid-February following revelations that British intelligence officers spied on the Mexican delegation at the UN in the days leading up to the UN vote on whether the international body would endorse a US resolution to invade Iraq. The spying incident was followed in mid-March by allegations that a team of British cave explorers was conducting military exercises and other unauthorized activities on Mexican territory.

Mexico angered about spying reports

The spying reports first appeared in the London-based daily newspaper The Observer, which said British intelligence agencies acted on a US request to assist in eavesdropping on UN delegates' home and office telephones before the Iraq war. Mexico was important because of its position as a temporary member of the UN Security Council. Like many members of the Security Council, Mexico ended up voting against the US- and British-led resolution (see SourceMex, 2003-03-26).

The US request was contained in a National Security Agency (NSA) memo leaked to the newspaper last year. A former translator at Britain's communications headquarters, Katharine Gun, acknowledged leaking the NSA memo to The Observer. She was accused of breaking Britain's state secrecy laws, but charges were later dropped.

Mexico's former UN ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, said he was aware that the US and Britain may have been spying on Mexico and other countries. The issue came up in a conversation with Chile's UN Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes, who passed on his suspicions to Aguilar Zinser. "I always acted with the understanding that we were the subject of espionage, that our communications were being intercepted," said Aguilar Zinser, who lost his job shortly after accusing the US of treating Mexico as its backyard (see SourceMex, 2003-11-19).

The spying reports created outrage in the Mexican Congress, which urged President Vicente Fox to lodge a vigorous protest with the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It is not right that Britain, which plays a fundamental role in the UN Security Council...dedicate itself to bug telephones and engage in acts of espionage against other nations," said Sen. German Sierra Sanchez, a member of former governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

The Fox government did follow the Senate requests and lodge protests with London and Washington, but later let the matter drop. Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said the decision to shelve the issue was the result of Britain's move to drop charges against Katherine Gun. "If there is no trial [against Gun], we won't be able to verify whether there was espionage," said Derbez.

Some senators took issue with Derbez's decision not to pursue the charges. "Rather than present an energetic protest, the Mexican government offered a lukewarm response," said Sen. Jesus Ortega of the center-left Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD).

Mexico deports British explorers on visa violations

The Mexican anger regarding the spying allegations had not yet subsided when a new incident further strained relations between the two countries. In March, Mexican authorities expelled a team of British scientists and military officers on charges of violating the terms of their visas. The 13-member team was detained at the Cuevas de Cuetzalan in the central state of Puebla after flood waters trapped six members of the expedition in one of the caves.

The Britons raised suspicions because they initially refused assistance from Mexican rescue teams and because they carried sophisticated telecommunications equipment and gas detectors, prompting speculation that they were hunting for radon and accompanying deposits of uranium. …

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