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How to hack an election

Andrés Sepúlveda rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade. He tells his story for the first time.

PART 4

In Mexico, Sepúlveda’s technical mastery and Rendón’s grand vision for a ruthless political machine fully came together, fueled by the huge resources of the PRI. The years under President Felipe Calderón and the National Action Party (also, as in Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) were plagued by a grinding war against the drug cartels, which made kidnappings, street assassinations, and beheadings ordinary. As 2012 approached, the PRI offered the youthful energy of Peña Nieto, who’d just finished a successful term as governor.

Sepúlveda didn’t like the idea of working in Mexico, a dangerous country for involvement in public life. But Rendón persuaded him to travel there for short trips, starting in 2008, often flying him in on his private jet. Working at one point in Tabasco, on the sweltering Gulf of Mexico, Sepúlveda hacked a political boss who turned out to have connections to a drug cartel. After Rendón’s security team learned of a plan to kill Sepúlveda, he spent a night in an armored Chevy Suburban before returning to Mexico City.

Mexico is effectively a three-party system, and Peña Nieto faced opponents from both right and left. On the right, the ruling PAN nominated Josefina Vázquez Mota, its first female presidential candidate. On the left, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, chose Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor.

Early polls showed Peña Nieto 20 points ahead, but his supporters weren’t taking chances. Sepúlveda’s team installed malware in routers in the headquarters of the PRD candidate, which let him tap the phones and computers of anyone using the network, including the candidate. He took similar steps against PAN’s Vázquez Mota. When the candidates’ teams prepared policy speeches, Sepúlveda had the details as soon as a speechwriter’s fingers hit the keyboard. Sepúlveda saw the opponents’ upcoming meetings and campaign schedules before their own teams did.

Money was no problem. At one point, Sepúlveda spent $50,000 on high-end Russian software that made quick work of tapping Apple, BlackBerry, and Android phones. He also splurged on the very best fake Twitter profiles; they’d been maintained for at least a year, giving them a patina of believability.

Sepúlveda managed thousands of such fake profiles and used the accounts to shape discussion around topics such as Peña Nieto’s plan to end drug violence, priming the social media pump with views that real users would mimic. For less nuanced work, he had a larger army of 30,000 Twitter bots, automatic posters that could create trends. One conversation he started stoked fear that the more López Obrador rose in the polls, the lower the peso would sink. Sepúlveda knew the currency issue was a major vulnerability; he’d read it in the candidate’s own internal staff memos.

Just about anything the digital dark arts could offer to Peña Nieto’s campaign or important local allies, Sepúlveda and his team provided. On election night, he had computers call tens of thousands of voters with prerecorded phone messages at 3 a.m. in the critical swing state of Jalisco. The calls appeared to come from the campaign of popular left-wing gubernatorial candidate Enrique Alfaro Ramírez. That angered voters—that was the point—and Alfaro lost by a slim margin. In another governor’s race, in Tabasco, Sepúlveda set up fake Facebook accounts of gay men claiming to back a conservative Catholic candidate representing the PAN, a stunt designed to alienate his base. “I always suspected something was off,” the candidate, Gerardo Priego, said recently when told how Sepúlveda’s team manipulated social media in the campaign.

In May, Peña Nieto visited Mexico City’s Ibero-American University and was bombarded by angry chants and boos from students. The rattled candidate retreated with his bodyguards into an adjacent building, hiding, according to some social media posts, in a bathroom. The images were a disaster. López Obrador soared.

The PRI was able to recover after one of López Obrador’s consultants was caught on tape asking businessmen for $6 million to fund his candidate’s broke campaign, in possible violation of Mexican laws. Although the hacker says he doesn’t know the origin of that particular recording, Sepúlveda and his team had been intercepting the communications of the consultant, Luis Costa Bonino, for months. (On Feb. 2, 2012, Rendón appears to have sent him three e-mail addresses and a cell phone number belonging to Costa Bonino in an e-mail called “Job.”) Sepúlveda’s team disabled the consultant’s personal website and directed journalists to a clone site. There they posted what looked like a long defense written by Costa Bonino, which casually raised questions about whether his Uruguayan roots violated Mexican restrictions on foreigners in elections. Costa Bonino left the campaign a few days later. He indicated recently that he knew he was being spied on, he just didn’t know how. It goes with the trade in Latin America: “Having a phone hacked by the opposition is not a novelty. When I work on a campaign, the assumption is that everything I talk about on the phone will be heard by the opponents.”

The press office for Peña Nieto declined to comment. A spokesman for the PRI said the party has no knowledge of Rendón working for Peña Nieto’s or any other PRI campaign. Rendón says he has worked on behalf of PRI candidates in Mexico for 16 years, from August 2000 until today.

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