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López Obrador refuses to let defense secretary address army hack

The refusal was the second failed attempt in recent weeks to hold Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval to account for evidence of malfeasance and corruption in the armed forces, revealed by a massive hack in early October.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Claiming it would “stain” his morning press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador Wednesday refused to allow Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval to address reporters’ questions about a recent leak of army documents. 

Speaking while on the road in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, López Obrador called the hack a failure.

“Surely it was hard work for them, just imagine how many strategists, consultants and experts, and it ended up being a dud,” he said when asked to let Secretary Cresencio, who was present at the conference, speak on the subject. “They want us to keep talking about this, but no. They’d be better to apply themselves, to look for another issue, because this one didn’t work.”

Carried out by a group calling itself Guacamaya, Spanish for Macaw, the 6-terabyte leak of hacked emails from Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) indicated that the army has spied on journalists, sold weapons and equipment to drug cartels, and has plans to run tourism services and an airline, among other revelations.

“The macaw has turned into a vulture,” said the president. 

López Obrador initially acknowledged that information from the hacks concerning his health was true. He was treated for a serious heart issue in January and also suffers from gout and hyperthyroidism. 

Wednesday’s statements clashed with both his previous statements about the hack and his stance on other influential leaks, such as those of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, according to Felipe López Veneroni, a political communication professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. 

“It is contradictory to say that I’m all in favor of Assange, but I’m not going to deal with whatever Guacamaya leaks is publishing,” said López Veneroni. 

“As a politician, you cannot say you’re in favor of this kind of hacktivism, but he must be playing a very dangerous game,” he said. “I think he’s skating on thin ice, because the political power of the army is something real.”

Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval gives President López Obrador a tour of construction on an ecological park the army was tasked with building on the site where a new airport for Mexico City was canceled. Such expanded responsibilities are one reason experts say accountability for military officials is so important for democracy in Mexico. (Facebook via Courthouse News)

The denied request for Cresencio to address the issue followed last week’s failed attempt by Mexico’s Congress to hold the general accountable for the information contained in the leak. The National Defense Commission in the Chamber of Deputies issued a summons for Cresencio to speak with legislators about the hack in early October. 

On Oct. 12, Cresencio refused to go to Congress, saying he would only speak to federal deputies if they came to his office in the Sedena headquarters the following week. Days later, he canceled that meeting.

Holding Mexico’s highest ranking military officer to account will be no easy task for government or civil society, according to security analyst David Saucedo. The Mexican political system has long protected such officials from appearing before legislative and judicial authorities, and he has seen no change in this tendency in recent years. 

“That is why we have such high rates of impunity among the armed forces,” said Saucedo. “It was an arrangement that we all knew about and which allowed the military to be exempt from being held responsible.”

The only time Mexico came close was when the United States dropped drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda so that he could be tried south of the border. However, Cienfuegos was exonerated upon his return to Mexico.

López Obrador has greatly expanded the power and responsibilities of the military during his term, putting the armed forces in charge of everything from building megaprojects to overseeing public safety. Saucedo said this only makes accountability more important for democracy in Mexico. 

“If the armed forces want to be more involved in politics and government, there has to be a system of transparency, accountability and supervision, and, when necessary, investigation and sanctioning in cases of corruption,” said Saucedo. 

While López Obrador said Wednesday that his main goal is to “end corruption and have justice,” he did not consider allowing Cresencio to address reporters’ concerns to be the way to achieve that objective. He called the leaks “politicking” meant to “snag me with whatever they can think up.”

Avoiding accountability, Saucedo said, merely gives Cresencio what he wants: “a blank check, the possibility to act without any kind of democratic supervision.”

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