Are Mexico's Elections Russia's Next Target?

The warning signs are everywhere, but it’s uncertain whether the country can mount a defense.

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask waves a Mexican flag during a march organized by student movement "Yo Soy 132" at Zocalo square, in Mexico City, on July 22, 2012.  (Edgard Garrido / Reuters)

Amid the political firestorm over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections here in the United States, it may have been easy to overlook the steady drip of warnings about a possible replay of Russian mischief-making right next door in Mexico. Back in December, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster spoke ominously about “initial signs” of a trademark campaign of subversion, disinformation, and propaganda, ahead of Mexico’s presidential elections on July 1. One month later at a press conference in Mexico City on February 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about evidence of Russian election interference. He had this advice to offer to Mexican officials: “Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s happening.”

But it’s unclear whether Mexican officials, who have repeatedly denied that they see any signs of Russian interference, will heed such advice. President Donald Trump’s relentless vitriol for Mexican immigrants and contempt for NAFTA haven’t exactly endeared his administration to Mexicans, potentially undermining the credibility of such warnings from Washington. (Tillerson didn’t do himself any favors when he called the Monroe Doctrine, which called for keeping European powers out of the Americas, “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”) Mexico may even view U.S. warnings about the Russian threat as a potential smokescreen for Washington’s intention to interfere in its election, which will pit the unpopular incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party and the center-right National Action Party against frontrunner and fiery populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City known as AMLO. Indeed, some members of the U.S. political establishment seem to view Lopez Obrador as the second coming of Hugo Chavez.

Against this backdrop, it’s uncertain whether the United States or its European allies will be able to share with Mexico the lessons they’ve learned from their own election experiences, let alone with the long roster of Latin American countries holding national elections this year, including Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. But unless countries like Mexico confront election-related vulnerabilities and the manipulation of voters through fake news and propaganda, the democratic process will be at risk.

Why would Russia choose to meddle with Mexico? For one thing, Moscow seeks to project itself as a great power. It likely sees Mexico’s election as an opportunity to reciprocate for what it perceives as Washington’s long history of meddling in the internal political of former Soviet states. Interfering in the Mexican election is also an easy way for Russia to cast itself as an equal to the United States—to show that it’s no mere regional power, to borrow from Barack Obama’s unfortunate phrasing.

By now, Russia also knows that effective influence campaigns require eager audiences—which, thanks in part to Trump, it’s likely to find in Mexico. According to a 2017 Pew survey, 65 percent of Mexicans express a negative opinion of the United States, more than double the share two years ago. This downturn in relations has strengthened the resolve of Mexican political and economic elites to diversify their country’s foreign policy and trade relationships, given the damage Trump has done to America’s image as a reliable partner. Taken together, this anti-American animus and white-hot anger inside the electorate about a soaring crime rate, Mexico’s failed war on drugs, and endemic corruption help make Mexican audiences amenable to the kind of reports that are dished out 24/7 by the Spanish language arms of Russia’s sprawling propaganda apparatus.

What, then, are the initial signs of a Moscow-directed interference campaign? First, its use of its own state-controlled media to deliver messages that are in favor of a candidate, or that seek to exploit existing divisions within a population, including by fear-mongering about alleged U.S. designs on Latin America. In Mexico, Russia’s state-controlled RT media network has been broadcasting Spanish language programming favorable to populist frontrunner Lopez Obrador since 2016. One of the most curious elements of this pro-AMLO onslaught is “The Battle for Mexico,” an RT video blog hosted by a Mexico City-based American law professor named John Ackerman. Recently, Lopez Obrador named Irma Sandoval, Ackerman’s wife, as a future cabinet member in charge of fighting corruption.

Moscow likely views Lopez Obrador as a potential ally, based on his conservative stance on values issues like same-sex marriage and abortion and nationalist, anti-American rhetoric. By devoting propaganda resources to AMLO, Moscow likely hopes to ensure that a divisive and anti-U.S. candidate wins the presidency, and that it can curry favor with him once he is in office. Other state-run Russian outlets, such as Sputnik, broadcast programing with anti-U.S. narratives, and there are early indications that a significant percentage of pro-AMLO social media activity surrounding the campaign may be emanating from Russia. (Nearly 60 percent of Mexicans have internet access or are active on social media.)

After the propaganda phase, a hypothetical Russian effort to interfere might include a  cyber-hacking operation to sway Mexico’s election in favor of one candidate, or to cast doubt on the entire process. Mexico’s National Electoral Institute, the body which organizes and supervises the country’s election machinery, is well-respected, but according to an internal report cited by El Universal, a leading Mexican daily, the country’s new electronic voting system allowing Mexicans to cast their ballots on line from overseas may be vulnerable to outside manipulation of voting results. Moreover, the report revealed that entities located in Russia are among the most frequent visitors to the site, despite the fact that there are few Mexican citizens residing there. The Institute has requested international assistance with observation missions to enhance the legitimacy of the results and is trying to work with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to hamper the spread of fake news online. Mexican authorities have also requested international assistance with electoral observation.

Russia may also seek to spread real or fake corruption allegations to damage specific candidates or political players. Corruption is a key issue for Mexican voters, making the exposure of high-level corruption a potential game changer. This is an area where Russia excels—collecting and leveraging kompromat.

The real question now is whether the Mexican establishment and electorate will heed these warnings and move quickly to set up barriers to the Russian tactics that were so effective in the 2016 U.S. election. Several European governments have built an entire cottage industry around fighting fake news, bolstering societal resilience, and strengthening public education about threats to election integrity. With the Mexican elections just four months away, there’s hardly any margin for error.