An imprisoned Colombian hacker, Andrés Sepúlveda, claims he fraudulently helped Enrique Peña Nieto win Mexico's 2012 presidential election, as well as manipulate elections in eight additional countries across Latin America.
Sepúlveda's interview with Bloomberg Businessweek caused a stir throughout Latin America, as well as the United States, particularly for the alleged involvement of Juan Jose Rendón, a Miami-based political consultant who, Bloomberg wrote, has been called the Karl Rove of Latin America for his dark influence on right-wing politics.
And according to the campaign manager for the candidate whom Peña Nieto beat, cybercrimes of the sort Sepúlveda alleged are still happening in Mexican politics.
The hacker claimed that Rendón hired him repeatedly to commit a wide variety of crimes to affect the outcomes of elections, including installing malware, hacking websites, creating fake profiles, and digitally spying on opposition candidates.
Rendón emphatically denied these allegations to Bloomberg when contacted ahead of the article's publication, and reiterated the denial after its publication. He also said that he is talking to a "leading US presidential campaign" to go work for it once the primaries end and the general election campaign begins — but didn't specify which one.
As for Sepúlveda, he is currently serving 10 years in a Colombian prison for use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, and espionage related to Colombia's 2014 elections. But some of his most serious allegations regard the current Mexican president.
He claimed when Enrique Peña Nieto was a presidential candidate, his campaign team hired him to spy on the private communications of his rivals, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Josefina Vázquez Mota, and rig the election. Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI paid him $600,000, Sepúlveda said.
"Sepúlveda's team installed malware in routers in the headquarters of the PRD candidate (leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador), which let him tap the phones and computers of anyone using the phones and computers of anyone using the network, including the candidate," Bloomberg journalist Jordan Robertson wrote.
"He took similar steps against 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," the article goes on.
After Peña Nieto's victory, Sepúlveda's said he destroyed all evidence of his wrongdoing, including hard drives, to hide his digital traces. To hack the Mexican and other elections, he said he employed a team of experts from all over Latin America, from Argentinians to Mexicans themselves.
Ricardo Monreal, the coordinator for López Obrador 2012 campaign, when he came in second, told VICE News that the campaign had long suspected something of the sort, adding that the practice is still going on, even with the self-confessed main perpetrator imprisoned.
"Of course they spied and interfered in the social networks" of the campaign, "and they continue to do so now. Back then we publicly denounced the existence of a network of foreign publicists and bot operators," he said.
"This is a very serious and delicate accusation that Mexican authorities need to investigate. Political espionage is a common practice in our country, but the fact that it is so common does not make it legal, but one of the most unpunished crimes practiced and encouraged by public officials," Monreal, who now is the head of the Cuauhtémoc borough in Mexico City, added.
Conversely, Ernesto Cordero, who was coordinator of Public Policies for Vázquez Mota's campaign, said he never felt spied on by his political opponents.
Sepúlveda "led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto," the story continues. The alleged hacker said he created an estimated 30,000 fake Twitter profiles to shape discussion around Peña Nieto's favorite topics, like his plans to end drug violence.
He made his admissions to Bloomberg because he is "hoping to convince the public that he's rehabilitated – and gather support for a reduced sentence," the article read. Sepúlveda is under unusually heavy security even in prison; he sleeps under a bulletproof blanket, is constantly checked on by guards, and when he has to be moved, is driven in a convoy of armored vehicles with cell phone jammers intended to prevent the detonation of roadside bombs.
The PRI, asked for comment by Bloomberg, maintains it had no knowledge of Sepúlveda or any member of his team having worked for the current president or other political campaigns. PRI leader César Camacho called the story "absurd" and dismissed it as a distraction.
"This is information that only distracts people. We have to focus on issues that are actually true," Camacho said, "and not isolated statements that can in no way be backed."
Over an eight-year period, Sepúlveda said, he applied similar tactics in other elections in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela. He also said that he was offered work in Spain, but turned it down because he was too busy.
And when asked whether the current US election was being tampered with in the same way that he allegedly did to elections in Latin America, Sepúlveda had no doubt: "I'm 100 percent sure it is," he said.
Gabriela Gorbea and Alberto Riva contributed to this report.