Mexico’s President confirms agreement with Russia to use the Glonass satellite system, believed to be used for espionage

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) confirmed that Mexico signed an agreement with Russia to use the Glonass satellite system “for peaceful purposes”, for which he denied that the system had espionage purposes, despite the opinion of many international bodies who specialize in the subject.

The announcement comes one day after Mexico’s Department of Foreign Affairs denied that there was any agreement that included Glonass.

The president explained that the agreement was signed last year, in September, before the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and criticized the ‘scandal’ being made of the issue now.

“It is an agreement that was signed last year, in September, before the war between Russia and Ukraine. Now a scandal is being made because there is talk that Mexico is allowing Russian satellites to spy on Mexican and North American airspace. ”

AMLO denied that the purpose of the agreement is to spy from Mexico on northern countries, such as the United States, or to violate the sovereignty of nations, which isn’t something that would typically be laid out in an agreement as the purpose of cooperation, even if it was the intention of one participant of the agreement.

“The truth is that these agreements are signed with all countries and are not intended to spy on anyone, or to affect the sovereignty of any nation,” he said.

The Mexican president reiterated that with the beginning of the conflict, everything related to the countries involved “becomes a scandal”, wanting to convince citizens that “there are good and bad.”

He once again highlighted Mexico’s neutral position in the face of the European conflict, and called for peace, just as his government did before the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (UN) with a peace proposal for a cease-fire for five years just as Ukraine was seen as beginning to turn the war in its favor. Ukraine insisted that Mexico’s peace plan was to buy Russia time to regroup and invade again in five years, calling it the Russian Plan.

“There are those who do not want to stop the war, which is the most irrational thing there can be, and there is propaganda in the Manichaean world, as usually happens with all wars, wanting to convince us that there are good guys and bad guys. Everything becomes a scandal,” he insisted, equating Ukraine’s defense of its country with Russia’s invasion.

Satellite stations or espionage?

From 2013 to the present, Russia has installed 9 terrestrial satellite stations known as Glonass (Global Navigation Satellite System, abbreviation in Russian) outside its borders. The last one was installed in Nicaragua 5 years ago.

Glonass is a Russian equivalent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and was created in 1982. Like GPS, the Russian system was born out of military interest in the context of the Cold War and is powered by satellites, and can determine the position and speed of signal receivers. Russia has four ground stations in Brazil, three in Antarctica, one in South Africa, and one in Nicaragua. The first station outside Russia was installed in Brazil in 2013 under the chair of Dilma Rousseff.

On April 6, 2017, the Russian district base Glonass was inaugurated at an event attended by about 20 guests from Nicaragua and was chaired by Daniel Ortega and Laureano Ortega Murillo, son of Rosario Murillo, and Igor Komarov, general manager of the Russian Space Commissioner and Promoter Roscosmos project.

A building with a huge satellite dish was built on the coast of Nejapa Lagoon, a majestic crater formation in Managua, in front of the premises of the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua. All installation work was carried out by Russian employees and access is limited. A concrete wall decorated with barbed wire closes the passage.

The Russian news agency Sputnik stated that the plan is to install ground agencies in addition to Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, China, India, Vietnam, Cuba, Spain, Argentina, Indonesia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico, and Switzerland.

“When Russia expressed interest in reinstalling military facilities in the Caribbean Sea, the opening of a Russian station in the Managua region raised suspicions. The Russian space agency Roscosmos opened four stations in Brazil that were managed with transparency and easy access. On the other hand, the station we built in Nicaragua is surrounded by secrecy.” Jakub Hodek is an article published by the University of Navarra in Spain.

“The level of transparency that surrounds the construction and prevails in the management of stations in Brazil is certainly not the same as that applied to the public level of Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There are several reports questioning the actual use of the system. First of all, there is no information on the cost of the facility or the specialization of the staff. The fact that it was placed near the U.S. Embassy gave rise to speculation about its use for eavesdropping and espionage.” he adds.

The Earth Bureau of Nicaragua was named Chaika, the pseudonym of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman who flew into space. It was built by a Russian soldier who entered the country under the pretext of directing it to the Nicaraguan army using a T-72 tank purchased in Russia in 2016.

The retired principal Roberto Samcam is direct on the role of the Glonass station in Nicaragua. “Obviously, it is aimed at espionage and surveillance.”

He says that antennas aimed at the US embassy in Nicaragua are “to monitor the calls of the embassy”, and the stations are part of “all electronic and telephone surveillance carried out by Telcor.”

Its presence, located three thousand kilometers from Washington, aroused suspicion in the United States.

“Thirty years after this small Central American country became the prize of the Cold War battle against Washington, Russia again puts its flag in Nicaragua. Over the past two years, the Russian government has strengthened its security association by building facilities that sell tanks and weapons, send troops, and train Central American troops to fight drug trafficking.” The Washington Post columnist Joshua Patlow said.

“Security analysts see the military movement in Central America as a possible response to an increase in US military presence in Eastern Europe, which shows that Russia can strut even in the US backyard.” he says.

For security expert Elvira Cuadra, the presence of the Russian army in Nicaragua is considered a “provocation” in the United States, but at the moment it is not considered a high risk because “another level of influence is needed in Central America.”

“Moscow’s strategic interest in relation to Nicaragua has always been to set foot in Central America since the 1980s and expand its capacity for influence,” said the Nicaraguan researcher.

The Glonass station is part of the Russian package, which also includes the delivery of weapons and a police training center located in Las Colinas, Managua. Both Cuadra and Samcam say they do not know the anti-drug trafficking operation in which Russian intelligence or technology was used.

“In 2013, Daniel Ortega took away the DEA and the US military mission from Nicaragua and began to cooperate with the FSB (General Counter Intelligence Service of Russia), the anti-drug agency of the Russian Federation, but they have no experience in fighting drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere.” explains Samcam.

In similar actions, Mexico’s president has recently been seen pulling away from DEA assistance in the fight against drug cartels.

Mexico has disbanded a select anti-narcotics unit that for a quarter of a century worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to tackle organized crime, two sources said, in a major blow to bilateral security cooperation.

The group was one of the Sensitive Investigative Units (SIU) operating in about 15 countries which U.S. officials tout as invaluable in dismantling powerful smuggling rings and busting countless drug lords around the globe. The units are trained by the DEA but under the control of national governments.

Mexico has disbanded a select anti-narcotics unit that for a quarter of a century worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to tackle organized crime, two sources said, in a major blow to bilateral security cooperation.

The group was one of the Sensitive Investigative Units (SIU) operating in about 15 countries which U.S. officials tout as invaluable in dismantling powerful smuggling rings and busting countless drug lords around the globe. The units are trained by the DEA but under the control of national governments.

In Mexico, the over 50 officers in the SIU police unit were considered many of the country’s best and worked on the biggest cases such as the 2016 capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, then the boss of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

The closure threatens to imperil U.S. efforts to combat organized crime groups inside Mexico, one of the epicenters of the multi-billion dollar global narcotics trade, and make it harder to catch and prosecute cartel leaders.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government formally notified the DEA in April last year that the unit had been shut down, according to a DEA agent with knowledge of the matter who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak about the issue. A second source familiar with the situation confirmed the closure of the unit.

Mexico’s Public Security Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The DEA declined to comment. The closure of the unit was not reported before. Reuters was unable to find out why the Mexican government did not announce it publicly at the time.

“They strangled it,” the agent said, referring to the unit. “It shatters the bridges we spent decades putting together.”

The closure could prove costly on U.S. streets, where authorities are battling to reduce a surge in overdoses that last year led to more than 100,000 deaths mostly linked to a new wave of synthetic drugs produced by Mexican cartels.

The elite team, founded in 1997, was the main conduit for the DEA to share leads on drugs shipments and tips obtained on U.S. soil with Mexico’s government.

The DEA would fly new Mexican entrants to its state-of-the-art facility in Quantico, Virginia, to train them on latest surveillance and policing techniques. U.S. officials also vetted them, including with polygraph tests.

A second Mexican SIU unit, based inside the Attorney General’s Office and independent of Lopez Obrador’s government, continues to operate.

For Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, the SIU closure and Lopez Obrador’s curbing of security cooperation will hurt both countries.

“It will mean more drugs going to the United States and more violence in Mexico,” he said.

SHOOTING ITSELF IN THE FOOT

The SIU’s closure is the latest example of the breakdown in cooperation between the DEA and Mexico since Lopez Obrador assumed power in 2018 and vowed to overhaul the country’s security policy.

Angered by the soaring bloodshed he blamed on the heavy-handed tactics of his predecessors, Lopez Obrador sought to implement a less confrontational policing style and pledged to tackle what he claims are the root causes of the violence, such as poverty, instead of hunting down cartel chiefs.

The president also made it harder for foreign security officials to operate inside Mexico, rebuking the DEA over its modus operandi which he said equated to trampling on Mexico’s sovereignty.

Privately, U.S. officials say Mexico’s vital role in blocking the flow of migrants from Latin America – a priority for Washington – leaves them with limited leverage to pressure Lopez Obrador on other issues, such as security cooperation.

Though the SIU’s reputation was damaged when its former chief, Ivan Reyes Arzate, was detained in 2017 and pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to taking bribes to leak tips to a drug gang, the unit was seen as vital by DEA officials who needed Mexican officers to help their investigations in the country.

Alarm bells for the future of the unit rang in 2019, when Lopez Obrador mothballed the Federal Police – inside which the SIU was based – to create a new force called the National Guard.

DEA agents kept working with Mexican counterparts for a while, especially in Mexico City’s airport where SIU officers were intercepting smuggled fentanyl, a hyper-potent synthetic drug blamed for soaring overdoses in the United States.

But security cooperation between the DEA and Mexico plummeted to a fresh low in Oct. 2020 when U.S. security officials in Los Angeles detained Mexico’s former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos, alleging he colluded with a drug cartel.

U.S. prosecutors swiftly released Cienfuegos, citing “sensitive” foreign policy considerations, but Lopez Obrador accused the DEA of having “little professionalism” and of fabricating evidence in the case.

In Dec. 2020, Lopez Obrador’s government stripped foreign agents of diplomatic immunity and forced Mexican officials to write reports on interactions with security officers from abroad.

“That was the nail in the coffin,” the DEA agent said. Months later the SIU was shut down.

By the time the unit was formally wound up it had, according to the DEA agent, already been inoperative for some time as Mexico’s National Guard prioritized the deterrence of violence over investigations of drug cartels.

But with more than 33,000 homicides recorded in Mexico last year, Vigil, the ex-DEA agent, said closing an elite unit that goes after organized crime groups responsible for most of the murders doesn’t make sense.

“Mexico is shooting itself in the foot,” he said.

As Mexico continues to push the US away and strengthens ties with Moscow, it’s yet to be seen if Russia will fill the gap left by the DEA as it did in Nicaragua.

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