In Mexico, Russian media and diplomatic efforts swell

In Mexico, Russian media and diplomatic efforts swell

MEXICO CITY — Russian messaging and media are growing in Mexico, which is holding federal elections in June and whose proximity to the United States makes it an invaluable intelligence target.

Russia’s diplomatic footprint in Mexico is also disproportionately large compared to Mexico’s representation in Moscow, a disparity that’s raising concerns about potential Kremlin espionage and cyber activity in North America.

According to official data from the Mexican Foreign Ministry, 72 Russian diplomats are currently accredited at the Russian Embassy in Mexico City, compared to 46 accredited diplomats at the U.S. Embassy, 38 at the Chinese Embassy and only 10 diplomats accredited at the Mexican Embassy in Moscow.

“The Russian Embassy in Mexico is very active, much more active than it used to be, and in a sometimes surprising activism, to say the least, because it’s critical of some positions and to an extent taking [political] sides, intervening,” said Martha Bárcena, who served as Mexican ambassador to the United States from 2018 to 2021.

“I would not attribute to the Russian Embassy or to Russian intelligence services a master plan. I simply think this is framed in the traditional anti-Americanism of a sector of the Mexican population,” added Bárcena.

Though the Russian presence in Mexico is more palpable now than in previous years, a key sector of Mexican civil society and political structures has historically sought closer relations to the Soviet Union, and now to Russia.

“There’s a solid base of the Mexican Communist Party that comes from 1919 … their floor is 5 percent of the electorate, and that 5 percent has grown as that base has allied with larger groups,” said Roberta Lajous, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and former diplomat who represented Mexico as ambassador to four countries, including Cuba from 2002 to 2005.

That early Communist Party base has survived through different political eras — though always marked by a strong anti-American stance — and ultimately found a home as part of the coalition behind Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The communist base has largely maintained its affinity for Russia, even as that country fully abandoned communism.

López Obrador’s coalition is broad, ranging from the remnants of that base to Mexico’s right-wing green party, and swathes of the hegemonic party of the second half of the 20th century, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is now officially a member of the opposition coalition.

López Obrador, a former member of the PRI, has kept a neutral stance on geopolitical issues broadly, and specifically those that involve Russia. He has refused to take sides in the invasion of Ukraine, and has yet to condemn the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“Geopolitically, what the Russians want with Mexico is to drive a wedge between Mexico and the United States, its principal trading partner, friend and ally,” said Dolia Estévez, a Washington-based Mexican journalist who first reported on the growing Russian diplomatic footprint in Mexico.

“The strategy is not for the governments of Latin America like Mexico, beyond the three dictatorships [Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela], to support the war or the invasion [of Ukraine], that’s not what [the Russians] want, they want them to remain neutral, because a neutrality benefits Russia. That’s the objective. They don’t want, for example, for López Obrador to support Russia, to attack the United States and NATO.”

But Russia’s investment in the country is not only tangible for people researching the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic rolls, it’s ubiquitous for Mexicans riding public transportation.

Russian media network RT — banned in Europe and generally decried as propaganda in the West — advertises on billboards throughout Mexico City and is broadcast on screens in the city’s Metro system, which carries about a billion individual rides per year.

“Faced with closure in Europe, where their transmission is prohibited, in the United States, Canada, channels like Russia Today — now just RT — Sputnik and so on have reinforced their presence in those countries where they’re not banned, and that’s Latin America in general,” said Bárcena.

In a January interview with Nacho “El Chapucero” Rodríguez, an online influencer who supports López Obrador, Russian Ambassador Nikolay Sofinskiy said he “received RT. Since the advertising started, our audience grew immensely.”

The direct appeal to Mexican consumers is a new approach for Russia, which has for decades maintained a presence in Mexico City, like other world powers.

“Mexico has been, like Vienna, like Istanbul, always a city where there has been a lot of intelligence, a lot of intelligence interaction,” said Bárcena.

“Many secret agents from different countries. And obviously, for Russia it’s very attractive because it’s so close to the United States. So now, since their access to the United States is so restricted by sanctions, well, following the U.S. situation from Mexico can be easier than following it from other parts.”

Still, during a long stretch of the Cold War, Russia largely farmed out its Latin American intelligence operations to Cuba.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the promotion of communism in Latin America was largely left to Cuba and its guerrilla model, according to Lajous.

“Communist parties become subordinate to guerrilla strategy and the Soviet Union externalizes to Cuba the bulk of its relations with Latin America,” she said.

The Mexican political system under the PRI, a broad ideological umbrella that included fervent anti-communist sectors — including its internal security apparatus — cut a deal with Cuba, embracing some left-leaning rhetoric.

“It was a rhetorical left, precisely to appease the communists. It was a left that defended the Cuban Revolution, and also defended the Cuban Revolution in the OAS, but with limits and with an agreement: ‘OK, I recognize your government, but you don’t sponsor guerrillas in Mexico,'” said Lajous.

On the flip side, the PRI was officially neutral but anti-communist at a global scale, and sided with the United States where it mattered.

“Mexico supported the United States fundamentally during the Cold War in exchange for U.S. support for the industrialization of Mexico, and that’s especially relevant because the U.S. project for the Americas after the war was free trade,” said Lajous.

That ambiguous priísta stance dominated López Obrador’s public rhetoric throughout his career and into the beginning of his presidency

“López Obrador had behaved like a priísta until recently, when he invited the Cuban president to give the speech on Independence Day and had Russian troops parade on the main square of Mexico City amid the invasion of Ukraine. There has been a qualitative change that to me is fundamental,” said Lajous.

López Obrador sparked controversy this week, voicing complaints after an electoral tribunal ordered him to remove from certain social networks an interview with former-RT reporter Inna Afinogenova, who published the interview on Canal Red, a Spanish social media channel.

Canal Red is operated by Pablo Iglesias, a Spanish politician who has called for a diplomatic end to the war in Ukraine.

López Obrador was ordered to take down the video from YouTube and Facebook because the court deemed it promotion of Claudia Sheinbaum, the former Mexico City mayor running for president under López Obrador’s political umbrella.

“They gave [Afinogenova] two hours, more than two hours in an interview. A complete softball. If you think that Tucker Carlson’s [Vladimir Putin] interview was a softball, this was worse,” said Estévez.

López Obrador first announced the interview the same day Navalny’s death in prison was made public by the Kremlin.

López Obrador’s increasingly brazen flirtations with geopolitical fire are an indication that his party’s populist, anti-Yankee base holds some sway over the president.

“The populism that has derived from the Mexican left has always played the pro-communist card, pro-Cuba, pro-Soviet, because they are very anti-Yankee, profoundly anti-Yankee, they detest the United States,” said Estévez.

The growth of that ideological branch should attract U.S. attention, according to Bárcena.

“I think the United States should be worried. I think for Mexico there is no destabilization objective on the part of Russia. More likely what they want to ensure is that Mexico continues with this position of supposed neutrality with respect to the war in Ukraine, which in reality ends up favoring Russia,” said Bárcena.

—Updated March 18 at 9:46 a.m.

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