Fears grow that Russia could meddle in Mexican election

Fears grow that Russia could meddle in Mexican election
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Fears that Russia could meddle in next year’s Mexican presidential election are growing.

While there is no hard evidence to suggest that Moscow will be involved in the contest, its effort to disrupt last year’s U.S. election and reports that it is trying to affect elections in Europe have augmented concerns.

“Russia meddles in elections, we know that,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.

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Sen. Armando Ríos Piter of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) told The Hill on Monday that the prospect of Russian interference in Mexican elections “must not be minimized.”

“If [Russia] intervened in the United States, there's every reason to think that Mexico is a target for attack,” said Ríos Piter, who recently launched an independent presidential bid.

He said Mexico’s government needs to revamp its counterintelligence capabilities and consider alliances with other countries that could be facing similar challenges.

Russia has been seeking to increase its influence in Latin America, particularly as relations between the United States and Cuba improve.

Moscow continues to support Venezuela’s troubled socialist government, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly involved with Nicaragua.

A new Russian compound near the U.S. embassy in Managua has caught the attention of American officials and regional powers alike. Nicaraguans claim the compound, packed with antennas and globe-shaped devices, is just a tracking station for the Russian version of GPS.

Russian military support for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has steadily increased, as Ortega's relations with the United States have soured. Last week, a bilateral group of representatives led by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Albio Sires (D-N.J.) reintroduced the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act, designed to cut foreign aid to the country unless it holds free and fair elections.

“The most fruitful political relationship that Russia has, and where it’s made its greatest advances, has been Nicaragua,” Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College, told the Washington Post.

Ríos Piter said Mexico is a natural target for Russia, as the country is expected to become a top-five economy over the next half century.

“The geopolitical and economic transcendence of Mexico is evident — it's not a country in the periphery,” he said.

Wilson opined that Putin would only assign finite resources to interfering in Mexico as part of a larger geopolitical play against the United States.

“Russia's biggest interest would be on wreaking some havoc on the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” said Wilson.

Across Latin America, Putin has made the state-owned Russian cable news RT Español his political beachhead. RT Español's funding has consistently increased since its inception, and its content is fully available for free streaming online.

A Wilson Center report in February stated that “perhaps the most ambitious effort by the Kremlin is its promotion of RT Spanish language broadcasting and internet expansion into the region.”

Some have speculated that Russia could back a left-wing populist candidate for Mexico’s presidency, former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He is leading most polls ahead of the July 2018 election.

López Obrador narrowly lost the country's last two presidential elections, twice claiming electoral fraud kept him from victory.

Political opponents of López Obrador argue that RT is offering him backing.

John Ackerman, the top English-language surrogate for López Obrador, is frequently featured on RT. Anchor Max Keiser called Ackerman “our man in Mexico” in 2015.

Ackerman has a video column called “The Battle for Mexico” on RT.com.

In March, Ackerman claimed on RT that “for 2018, the [Mexican] regime is preparing yet another [electoral] fraud.”

Pablo Hiriart, a right-wing commentator whose friction with López Obrador dates back decades, wrote last week that “the Russian propaganda machinery is pointing towards [Latin] America, and maybe Mexico will not be the exception in next year's presidential elections.”

If RT is seen as supporting López Obrador, it could hurt the candidate with Mexican voters, who have historically rejected candidates who appear beholden to foreign interests.

Accepting Russian support, tacitly or explicitly, would also be a risk for any Mexican candidate, given allegations of Russian support for President Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in the country.