Written by Lic. Edward V. Byrne for The Yucatan Times
While the PRI administration of Mayor Angelica Aruajo Lara continues to seek public support for the planned construction of a controversial underpass at the intersection of Paseo de Montejo and Circuito Colonias in north Merida, the case took on a new dimension this week when a City internet email account was utilized by unidentified persons for a mass mailing expressing vigorous opposition to the project. The event has prompted charges and countercharges by local PRI and PAN officials, and has refocused attention from construction of the project itself to claims of possible electronic sabotage, ostensibly committed by the Mayor’s political opponents.
The latest developments began to unfold early on Tuesday evening, June 21, when members of Merida’s press corps who cover city news and events received an unsolicited email from an organization identifying itself as “Birds on the Wire.” The email was sent via a Google mail account belonging to the City government, which is routinely used by its Dept. of Public Relations and Social Communications to dispatch news and promotional information to the local press. The email claimed to have been sent by students opposed to both the underpass and the planned July 16 concert by Shakira, which has also been vigorously criticized since its announcement months ago at a projected City government cost of $21 million pesos. The brief message was directed to city council members and said “we, too, have an opinion” on these issues.
On Wednesday morning, June 22, the City issued a press release condemning the misuse of its own email account by parties unknown, which it characterized as an “illegal act” interfering with the public’s right to receive timely and accurate news and information about City government matters. According to the release, the City’s IT (Information Technology) Department has determined that someone “outside of City government staff” managed to access the account and send the “false” email to members of the press corps, although the identity of the person or group responsible is yet unknown. But in another statement in the same press release, the City said that it had concluded that this was not a case of external “hacking” or an internet-staged attack against the municipality’s digital services system. The implication of the second statement is that someone inside of City government was likely responsible.
During a brief interview Wednesday while attending another event, the Mayor herself did not discount this latter possibility, and warned that an investigation would be done to determine if the attack originated within the City’s own cyber network, or came from the computer of a City worker or a City department.
“We are treating this matter with the seriousness which it warrants – a criminal complaint with internet authorities, who will pursue an investigation wherever it may lead,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that someone would employ illegal means to break into our system of communication with city residents, especially to misinform and divide them and to generate controversy, and we won’t tolerate it,” she added.
“I’ve ordered that a report be made, and that our [Google] email account be closed for now. We have the internal mechanisms in place to verify who may have used our account and the municipal computer systems, and we’ll share this information with the authorities so that they can expose who did this, and why. We have to stop situations like this that divide and misinform citizens about projects so critical as this one (referring to the planned underpass),” she added.
When asked directly if she thought City personnel were involved in generating the malicious email, the Mayor responded, “we can’t discard that possibility at this time, we can’t say that in fact, no one within the City did this. We have to investigate thoroughly so that we find out who was responsible.” But in a thinly veiled reference to her belief that political enemies exist within City government, the Mayor added that “from the very beginning, one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to confront is dealing with people who appropriate and use City resources to serve their own ends, and who want to continue working against us while they remain on the City team. They have repeatedly violated the confidence we’ve placed in them. We are going to identify them and see that they receive their due, including criminal prosecution.”
On Wednesday afternoon, PAN City council member Lizette Mimenza Herrera joined the controversy by suggesting that the City’s computers, email accounts, data bases and entire IT system are at risk since they are managed internally rather than by an outside contractor. While condemning any unauthorized use of City computers or abuse of its email accounts and electronic services, Herrera indicated that formal bids for IT services should be solicited at once to avoid future abuses of this nature, and to guarantee the integrity of information maintained by the City for the benefit of its citizens. Herrera pointed out that while Merida may be the most “wired” city in Mexico, with internet available in every public park, there is almost no electronic security in place to protect users from hackers, computer viruses and other problems inherent in the electronic world, including the unintended download of pornography.
LIC. Edward V. Byrne