Fears of Russian cyberattacks ahead of Mexico’s Sunday elections

The Business Insider noted that “according to Mexican magazine Reforma. McMaster has mentioned Russia’s “destabilizing behavior” in Mexico and elsewhere several times in recent weeks.”

Shannon O’Neill, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the close links between the United States and Mexico on energy, economic, transportation, and national-security issues — and the fact that there are 37 million Mexican-Americans and immigrants in the United States with roots in Mexico — make Mexico an appealing target if Russia seeks to undermine the Western world and the U.S. role in it.

The goals Russia is pursuing in Latin America are the same goals it is pursuing in Europe and the United States: Undermine democracies, compromise liberal-pluralistic societies, weaken the United States, weaken U.S.-led alliances, and destroy the rule-based international order created after the Second World War.

In Europe and the United States, Russia is pursuing these goals by supporting populist, far-right, nationalist, racist, and xenophobic politicians and movements. In Latin America, Russia is pursuing the same goals by supporting far-left, radical leaders and movements.

The far-right populists in Europe the and the radical leftists in Latin America, despite their other differences, share three ideological tendencies: hostility toward the United States and the international institutions and alliances it helped create and lead since the Second World War; support for Russia and its policies, and even an dmiration for Vladimir Putin and his governing style; and a suspicion of liberal democracy, free markets, and open borders — coupled with a distinct preference for a Strong Man rule, often with authoritarian overtones.

Mexico presidential election
Three major candidates are running in the presidential election (on Sunday, Mexicans will also vote for more than 3,400 legislative seats at a local and state level, including 128 senators and 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies):

— Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, is leading the polls by a wide margin. For many years he was a member of the leftist Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD), but in 2014 he left PRD and created a new, even more radical, leftist-populist party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA).

— Running second is Ricardo Anaya, the leader of the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN). Vicente Fox won the party’s first presidency in 2000, and he was followed, in 2006, by another PAN leader — Felipe Calderón.

— In third place is Jose Antonio Meade, a technocrat who served in both PAN- and PRI-led governments. In order to project a fresh image, the center-left Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) chose Meade as its candidate for the presidency. The PRI was in power in Mexico from 1929 to 2000. The current prime minister, Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected in 2012, is the outgoing leader of PRI.

Russia has not concealed its preference for the socialist firebrand Obrador, especially as he agrees with Trump that NAFTA should be renegotiated or abolished. Russia believes that the weakening, or abolition, of NAFTA would weaken the United States economically, in the same way that the weakening or dismantling of the EU would weaken Europe economically. A weaker United States and a weaker Europe would serve Russia’s interests.

The PAN has been complaining about Russia’s hacking for a while. Last week, in the most recent complaint PAN filed with the Mexican election commission, PAN bitterly complained that Russian hackers disrupted one of the PAN’s more important website.

Three days ago, Anaya’s campaign team said in a statement: “On this website, 185,000 visits were registered within 15 minutes, with the attacks coming mainly from Russia and China.”

The website was created by PAN to publish documents critical of leading candidate Obrador, and his alleged ties to a corrupt contractor.

Anaya’s campaign team said it suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack and that the bulk of traffic came from Russia and China.

Cyber experts said this recent attack was likely to have been carried out by hackers for hire working for someone who wanted to prevent people from accessing PAN’s website.

The Express reports that the site was shut down during a final televised debate before Mexican citizens go to the polls. Anaya held up a placard with the site’s address – but the hackers’ DDoS attack prevented people from viewing the incriminating documents.

The former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan told the Express that “Cyber security continues to be a potential Achilles heel of Mexico’s electoral process.”

Mexicans will cast their vote by paper ballot, but electronic systems will be used to tally and transmit the results. 

Ron Bushar, the vice president of government solutions for cybersecurity services company Mandiant, says the slightest disruption can cause doubt and distrust. “The outcome of an election almost doesn’t matter. It’s about calling into question the legitimacy (of the process) or creating a lot of tension between the political parties.”

Experts note that in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, the fake news battlefield on social media in Mexico looked different than the 2016 U.S. case. In the United States, Kremlin’s disinformation specialists dominated the fake news scene, and were successful both in helping Donald Trump win the election and in deepening divisions in American society along social, ethnic, racial, and religious lines.

Russian disinformation specialists were also active in Mexico earlier this year – this is when General McMaster drew attention to their activities — but since early spring, as Obrador was increasing his lead in the polls, Russia limited its disinformation efforts and focused more on hacking Obrador rivals’ networks.

This left the fake news field open to Mexican private fake news entrepreneurs, especially Victory Lab, which is run by 29-year old Carlos Merlo (see this BuzzFeed’s portrait and this Reuters report). An analysis by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that most of the fake news disseminated by Victory Lab were hostile to Obrador. The researchers say that with a double-digit lead, the Obrador campaign did not have to resort to misleading social media campaign. The Victory Lab anti-Obrador campaign was thus likely financed by supporters of either PRI or Anaya.