Russia’s ongoing effort to destroy faith in democracy is not only a problem for the United States and Europe. The Kremlin has set its sights on destabilizing next year’s Mexican and Colombian elections — even capturing the attention of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — and has been strengthening its instruments of political influence in both countries. In 2015, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, then in his capacity as Commander of U.S. Southern Command, warned that “Russia has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements, and trade.” Additionally, he warned that Russia under President Putin is returning to Cold War tactics, and is “using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere …” Russia’s main apparatus for spreading disinformation in Latin America, RT en Español, has already targeted the 2018 elections in Mexico and Colombia, particularly on its Spanish-language YouTube channel, which is reported to have almost 4.5 million monthly viewers and approximately 400,000 subscribers.
Why is the Kremlin interested in the 2018 Mexican election? One plausible argument, outlined by Vladimir Rouvinski at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is that Russia views Mexico as Washington’s “near abroad” and wants revenge for U.S. interference in the post-Soviet space, Russia’s so-called “sphere of influence.” Indeed, RT en Espanol’s coverage has included anti-American content and sought to drive a wedge between the two neighbors. In September 2016, RT en Español began broadcasting “La Batalla por Mexico” or “The Battle for Mexico,” a weekly video blog hosted by political activist John Ackerman. Ackerman’s blog appears to serve two main purposes: to frame the United States as an existential threat to Mexico and to convince Mexican voters to support Andres Manuel López Obrador, a leftist candidate who is rising in popularity by appealing to Mexican nationalism and anti-Trump sentiment. This will be the politician’s third try at the presidency, but this time he has the added support of Russia’s state-sponsored media and its growing audience in Mexico.
Ackerman tells his viewers that López Obrador is the only candidate willing to stand up to President Trump and defend the rights of Mexicans both in Mexico and in the United States. Lopez Obrador has called Mexico’s current president Peña Nieto “a weak leader who could sell out Mexico to the U.S.” Even as far back as 2015, Ackerman was asking for political support from RT when he was interviewed on the Keiser Report. He said, “Over the next few years, if we have international support and attention by independent media, like you Max and others, Mexico will triumph, and we will be another example just like Syriza, just like Podemos, and perhaps even more, and right at the backyard of Washington.”
Just as troubling for the prospects of foreign interference is the state of election security in Mexico. The National Electoral Institute (INE) in Mexico has created an online portal that will enable citizens to vote from abroad during the 2018 election. According to an INE report prepared with Google Analytica, computers in Russia have been making the largest number of visits to the portal’s website, with 65 percent of entries coming from St. Petersburg, the location of the Internet Research Agency. This data raises concerns about fraud in the actual voting process, which could impact the results or undermine Mexicans’ faith in the election’s credibility.
Further south, Colombia is headed for a historic election in 2018. For the first time, former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will participate in the election process, led by ex-FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” who announced his presidential candidacy on November 1. Political representation for the FARC was guaranteed in a peace deal signed between the rebel group and President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 that ended the deadly, half-century-long war. While the FARC remains an unpopular political party — nearly 9 in 10 Colombians say they will not vote for a FARC candidate for President — the Russian media is standing behind Londoño by framing him as a proponent for peace. In May 2017, RT en Español hosted Londoño in an exclusive interview titled “Now FARC’s Only Plan is Peace in Colombia.”
The FARC has had deep criminal ties to Russia that continue today. In February 2014, a joint investigation by the FBI and Colombia’s police intelligence unit discovered that corrupt Russian military officers and criminal networks were supplying sophisticated weapons to the FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in exchange for huge shipments of cocaine. Londoño has close ties to Russia of his own (he also studied at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University). The candidate’s war alias, “Timochenko,” alludes to the former Red Army commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Timoshenko, close friend of Josef Stalin. Beyond its nefarious connections to the FARC, Russia is interested in supporting Londoño, because a strong alliance between Russia and the post-FARC political party (Revolutionary Alternative Common Force) will secure a direct point of influence into political decision-making. The benefits of friendly Russian-Colombian relations were demonstrated at the 2014 BRICS Summit, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov thanked then President Santos for not backing U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Potential Russian interference in the 2018 elections in Mexico and Colombia, America’s two largest economic and security partners in the region, is part of a greater strategy to disrupt U.S.–Latin American relations by supporting authoritarian figures that are hostile to the United States and the West. At a deeper level, the Kremlin’s Spanish-language media networks are heavily promoting false news stories and inflammatory content to incite fear and hostility toward the United States and undermine public faith in democratic elections. Evidence of Russian-Venezuelan coordinated efforts to enflame the crisis in Catalonia proves that Russia has already established platforms for disinformation in Latin America that it can mobilize to infiltrate elections in Mexico and Colombia. Additionally, Russia wants stronger economic ties with Latin America, such as the cooperation agreement signed by LUKOIL and Mexican company Pemex in January 2014, that could help compensate for the effects of western sanctions on the Russian economy. What we know for sure is that the Kremlin’s efforts to influence political opinion in Latin America transcend the 2018 elections, seek to split Latin American nations from the United States, and will continue to affect the geopolitical landscape of the Western hemisphere.