Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
In January, Salvadoran newspaper El Faro revealed that the country’s police have purchased three Israeli surveillance tools. Through the approximately $2.2 million contract, El Salavador’s police acquired the Wave Guard Tracer, from Wave Guard Technologies, designed to trace calls, text, and data, the GEOLOC system sold by an unknown Israeli firm, which intercepts signals between SIM cards and cellular towers in order to do physical surveillance, and Web Tangles, made by Cobwebs Technologies, which uses a person’s social media account to create an identity report.
Israel is notorious for selling arms and cyber surveillance technologies to governments around the world, and Latin America is no exception. But in countries like Mexico, where government corruption is rampant, these Israeli exports become even more insidious.
THE ISRAELI MIDDLEMEN OVERSEEING LATIN AMERICA’S CYBER MARKET
Salvadoran police bought the cyber surveillance technology through EyeTech Solutions, one of the main Israeli intermediaries selling spyware across Latin America. The majority of the offensive cyber market’s transactions are executed through intermediaries, who often receive a 12-15 percent commission. The Mexico-based Israeli firm is run by Yaniv Zangilevitch, a former spy official in the Israeli army and personal friend of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
Often intermediaries establish contracts due to their connections with government officials, as is the case of Samuel Weinberg. Weinberg’s relationship with former Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna helped him secure several business agreements. García Luna was found guilty in the United States last week for drug trafficking and organized crime. Now, the Mexican Financial Intelligence Unit is investigating the Weinberg family for their relationship with García Luna, as well as their involvement with companies selling products involved in political espionage scandals.The Weinbergs could not be reached for comment.
Former Mexican public security official, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, also holds relationships with Israeli cyber tech middlemen like Avishay Samuel Neriya. Neriya is partners with another Israeli businessman, Uri Emmanuel Ansbacher, at BSD Security Systems, which sold espionage systems to Mexican security agencies. According to Mexican magazine, Proceso, Ansbacher was the main intermediary for Israeli companies selling cyber surveillance technology to Mexican security agencies like the Attorney General’s Office, the National Defense Secretariat, and the National Intelligence and Security Center.
Zerón’s connections to Israel allowed him to travel there in order to escape authorities looking for him for in connection to charges of torture, forced disappearance, and embezzlement.
Mexican security analyst Paloma Mendoza-Cortés explained that offensive cyber technology is being used by the Mexican government in several illegal ways, including to track journalists, human rights defenders, academic critics, and other opponents and by political opposition groups to spy on the government or other parties.
“These practices are widespread precisely because of the legal vacuum,” Mendoza-Cortés told MintPress News, “Consequently, there have been cases of security officials who work simultaneously as consultants, a situation that in other countries would be illegal.”
Another intermediary, Balam Security, headed by Asaf Zanzuri, has sold numerous espionage systems to the Mexican government. These include a tactical unmanned aerial system and an intelligence-gathering drone made by Israeli arms manufacturer Aeronautics. Balam Security has boasted their clients include Mexico’s Secretariat of the Navy, Secretariat of National Defense, federal and state Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection, and the Federal Police.
CYBER SURVEILLANCE, A PERMANENT RISK IN LATIN AMERICA
According to the Mexican embassy in Israel, 30 cybersecurity companies operate in Mexico, with some providing services to the government such as Toka Cyber, InElint, and Centraleyes (formerly Cygov).
In 2020, Toka was selected by Chile and the Inter-American Development Bank to advise Chile on its national cybersecurity readiness. In response to queries from MintPress News regarding its operations in Central and South America, Toka said in a statement:
The Inter-American Development Bank contracted with Toka for a short consulting project in Chile three years ago. Toka no longer provides consulting services and does not have, nor is seeking, any business in Central or South America.
InElint didn’t have contact information or an available website to verify its work in Mexico. Centraleyes did not respond to MintPress News’ queries.
Additionally, the aforementioned intermediaries and other firms orchestrate sales from Israeli cyber companies like Cognyte, Circles, and Cellebrite Solutions, which operate in Mexico and in other Latin American countries.
“State governments acquiring technologies that could be used for unlawful purposes is a permanent risk in Latin America,” Mendoza-Cortés said, explaining the largest markets for offensive cyber weapons are in Colombia, Mexico, and throughout Central America. “[This is] thanks to significant security budgets—bolstered by U.S. security assistance funds, which increases the market’s attractiveness.”
Cellebrite’s customers include law enforcement agencies in Colombia, including the national police, law enforcement in Mexico, and Argentina’s border patrol. Law enforcement often relies on Cellebrite to extract mobile data and use it for evidence, raising legal and security concerns. Moxie Marlinspike, founder of encrypted messaging app, Signal, claimed Cellebrite’s software is unreliable and the data can be corrupted — potentially putting innocent people behind bars.
Concerns have also grown that this technology could be used to prosecute journalists, with police forces around the world using it when arresting reporters. In 2019, the government of Nicolás Maduro purchased over $54,300 in Cellebrite tools for Venezuela’s police. According to trade database ImportGenius, Cellebrite’s technology has also been imported into Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, and by the British Embassy in Panama in 2018. The British Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on why and how it’s using Cellebrite. Cellebrite also did not respond to MintPress News’ inquiries on its operations in the above countries.
Through a U.S. State Department contract, Cognyte, once part of Verint Systems, wiretapped Mexican telecommunications and provided the country’s government access to that information. In 2021, social media giant, Meta, said it removed around 100 accounts linked to Cognyte for targeting journalists and politicians around the world. Meta said Cognyte’s software is designed to exploit human error in order to collect a person’s data. Its investigation identified Cognyte customers in Colombia and Mexico.
A recent Haaretz investigation found the company pitched its Open Source Intelligence system to the Chilean army, but leaked documents did not confirm if these pitches materialized into sales. According to ImportGenius, Cognyte has also been sold in Ecuador and Panama. The company did not respond to MintPress News’ requests for comment.
Mendoza-Cortés explained Israeli cyber weapons have become immensely popular in Latin America due to corruption. “It is incredible that Israel, one of the countries with the best intelligence services, is unaware of the level and depth of corruption in Latin America,” she said.
And in that regard, she explained, “technology is susceptible to falling into the wrong hands, increasing violence, violation of human rights, and insecurity in the region.”
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.