How to hack a Latin American election

Bloomberg has a fascinating longread on Andrés Sepúlveda, a man who claims that he rigged elections all over Latin America for almost a decade.

Here is an excerpt:

Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.

His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Campaigns mentioned in this story were contacted through former and current spokespeople; none but Mexico’s PRI and the campaign of Guatemala’s National Advancement Party would comment.

The whole thing, to borrow from Tyler Cowen’s vocabulary, is self-recommending. I am not a Latin Americanist and so cannot vouch for the veracity of the story. But it’s definitely a fantastic read.

And of course, as happens, a multi-country story of this nature is incomplete without casual stereotyping of hackers based on nationality:

For most jobs, Sepúlveda assembled a crew and operated out of rental homes and apartments in Bogotá. He had a rotating group of 7 to 15 hackers brought in from across Latin America, drawing on the various regions’ specialties. Brazilians, in his view, develop the best malware. Venezuelans and Ecuadoreans are superb at scanning systems and software for vulnerabilities. Argentines are mobile intercept artists. Mexicans are masterly hackers in general but talk too much. Sepúlveda used them only in emergencies.

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Cash transfers do not make the poor lazy

This is from the New York Times:

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

Still, Professor Banerjee observed, in many countries, “we encounter the idea that handouts will make people lazy.”

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology,” he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.”

More on this here.

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier – Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.

Effects of Conditional Vs. Unconditional Cash Transfer

Baird, McIntosh and Ozler have an upcoming paper in the QJE investigating the differential impacts of conditional and unconditional cash transfer in Malawi:

Starting with schooling outcomes, we find that although dropout rates declined in both treatment arms, the effect in the UCT arm is 43% as large as that in the CCT arm. Evidence from school ledgers for students enrolled in school also suggests that the fraction of days attended in the CCT arm is higher than the UCT arm. Using independently administered tests of cognitive ability, mathematics, and English reading comprehension, we find that although achievement is significantly improved in all three tests in the CCT arm compared with the control group, no such gains are detectable in the UCT arm. The difference in program impacts between the two treatment arms is significant at the 90% confidence level for English reading comprehension. In summary, the CCT arm had a significant edge in terms of schooling outcomes over the UCT arm: a large gain in enrollment and a modest yet significant advantage in learning.

The paper then gets nuanced:

When we turn to examine marriage and pregnancy rates, however, unconditional transfers dominate. The likelihood of be- ing ever pregnant and ever married were 27% and 44% lower in the UCT arm than in the control group at the end of the 2-year intervention, respectively, whereas program impacts on these two outcomes were small and statistically insignificant in the CCT arm.

……….. Our findings show that UCTs can improve im- portant outcomes among such households even though they might be much less effective than CCTs in achieving the desired behav- ior change.

Check it out here.

THE TAZARA (TOTAL TIME: 2 DAYS 1 HOUR 26 MINUTES)

UPDATE: The photos to accompany this post can be found here.

Note: I will post some photos to accompany this post as soon as I get to a place with a faster internet connection. The post is from Friday, September 2nd.

Over the last two days I have been on the TAZARA from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri-Mposhi. The ride lived up to my expectations, despite the many unexplained delays along the way – the longest was a 4-hour wait in Mbeya (where we stopped either to have the engine serviced or wait for the other train from Zambia).

The train was rather old and showed years, if not decades, of disrepair. That said it was clean and livable. The sleeper coaches had two bunk beds each and were swept twice over the whole journey. They had pillows, a bed sheet and a blanket for the beds. The bathrooms were cleaned every few hours by the tireless crew. The train had lounge and restaurant cars. The lounge had a bar with an assortment of beers from Kenya and Tanzania (I had Tusker the whole way). The restaurant had a limited menu of rice or chips and beef or chicken. In the morning they served breakfast of egg, sausage and sliced bread with tea. Food is served both in the restaurant and in the passenger cars.

The view along the way was fantastic. The Tanzanian side was sparsely populated while the Zambian side was almost empty. We were unfortunate to pass through Selous Reserve (in Tanzania) during the night so we didn’t see any wild animals on the way. Perhaps the ride from Zambia back to Dar passes through the reserve whilst the sun is still up. But animals aren’t the only natural attraction on the Dar-Kapiri line.

The stunning beauty of the Tanzanian and Zambian countryside more than made up for not having seen any wildlife. The sunrise and sunsets were spectacles to behold. The mountains and rolling hills also provided great views. And then there are the smooth endless rides across the plains of northern Zambia between Mpika and Serenje and again onwards toward Kapiri-Mposhi. 

The ride also exposes the endemic poverty in rural Tanzania and Zambia. Quite frankly this was the low-point of the two days.

And it is not just the grass-thatched structures that betrayed their occupier’s meager incomes. At every stop kids with their whole bodies covered in dust would run along the tracks screaming “kopo kopo” (kopo is Swahili for bottle) in a rather bizarre re-enactment of The gods Must be Crazy. People on the train threw empty water bottles, sweets and other items at the kids. Some of them begged for money from the handful of passengers on first and second class cars in the rear of the train.

Day One (Tuesday-Wednesday): 



The departure from Dar was delayed.

The previous day I had missed my Akamba bus out of Nairobi in the morning (I overslept and even my older brother’s valiant attempt to get me there on time did not help) and so had to fly to Dar in order to not miss the Tuesday afternoon train. I arrived in Dar on Monday at around 2 PM in the afternoon. Traffic was terrible. I could not find accommodation at the first three places I checked. The fourth place looked rather sketchy – enough to spook even a true Nairobian like me.

So I settled for the pricier Rainbow Hotel close to downtown. The room was very nice – it had a hot shower, air-conditioning and satellite TV. It also had an over-priced restaurant on the second floor that served very well made Indian food. 

On arrival in Dar and before going on my hotel hunt I asked the Taxi driver to take me to the train station so I could book my ticket for the next day. The lady at the counter calmly told me that the train was fully booked (first class) until the following Tuesday.

I did not have a week to spend in Dar so I pleaded with her, to no avail. She directed me to the coach class counter with the option of upgrading to first class along the way. I was not wiling to risk sitting in coach for two days. So I bought a first class ticked for the 6th of September (a week later) but decided to try my luck anyway the following day (Tuesday) in case there were any cancellations.

The next day the same taxi driver drove me to TAZARA two hours before the 2 PM reporting time. He then asked one of the luggage handlers if there was any way we could get a ticked before the 2 PM departure time. The man directed us to the office of the stationmaster. It is in there that the lady in charge called the ticket office and asked the person on the other end of the line to sell one Ken Opalo a ticket in first class for the 2 o’clock train. She then took my other ticket. No questions asked.

Because of my desperation to take the TAZARA, I had just been robbed of US $80. Thanks very much TAZARA.

It turns out this is an elaborate scheme: The lady at the counter puts up a sign saying that tickets are sold out until the following weak at which point passengers must see the stationmaster and pay a premium for available tickets. This elaborate scheme has its glitches. For half the trip we had in my compartment a guy who had been sold a ticket in a women only compartment. He slept on the couches in the lounge car the first night.

Departure time was 4.30 PM. In just under two hours dusk was upon us and with it came the darkness that is the African countryside at night. I tried reading but promptly fell asleep. I was however woken up by the loud snoring for the guy on the top bunk and couldn’t go back to sleep for the better part of the long stop at a town called Mrimba.

Wednesday morning I was up by 6.30 AM. I read until the breakfast guy came to the compartment. Thereafter I continued reading until the 4-hour stop at Mbeya where I managed to get off the train and stretch my legs. After Mbeya I went to hang out in the lounge and read a bit more until it was dinner time. By the time the sun set I was so tired that I fell asleep as soon as I finished dinner.

Day Two (Thursday):

Thursday morning I woke up at 5.35 AM. One of the guys in my compartment was getting off at Kasama. He and I had build a sense of camaraderie since leaving Dar es Salaam several hours earlier. He is a globe-trotting businessman and evangelist from Kasama – the Capital of Zambia’s Northern Province. He passionately assured me that Michael Sata will win the Zambian presidential election in three weeks and that the opposition “will not accept anything but victory.” The opposition slogan is “Don’t Kubeba” or don’t say.

The main opposition party is urging its supporters to take all the government money being dished out but not say who they’ll vote for. We helped him offload his many bags and gifts for his family through the window of our compartment. The train then left for Mpika.

Northern Zambia is mostly empty. For hours upon hours we did not see much except trees and the occasional telephone masts and power lines. Human settlements were rare and far in between. The long monotonous ride offered me time to read Railroaded by Stanford’s Richard White. The book provides an excellent account of the political economy of the development of North America’s great transcontinental railroads – I believe that at its inception in the 1970s TAZARA had the same dreams of linking the continent of Africa from coast to coast.

Soon the lunch waiter came knocking. At this point the ware of being in a loud and shaky contraption for almost two whole days was beginning to show. People were quieter. The train was emptier. Everyone was dying to get to Kapiri-Mposhi. I had my last meal on the train – kuku na wali. I then went back to reading in anticipation of the last stop at Kapiri-Mposhi. Even the fact that I still had another leg of the journey to Lusaka (this time by bus) and that I had not yet confirmed my accommodation once I got there did not interfere with my sense of accomplishment. In a few hours I was about to have endured one of the longest train rides in the world.

We arrived at Kapiri-Mposhi at 4.56 PM. The whole journey had take exactly 2 days 1 hour and 26 minutes. The two days without a shower or change of clothes was definitely worth it.

Now I had to endure another one and a half hour bus ride to Lusaka.

As I mentioned above the train schedule was rather unpredictable. But I managed to note down the times on which we arrived at some of the main stations along the way. Here is the schedule for the August 30th train from Dar to Kapiri-Mposhi:

Dar es Salaam 4:30 PM

Nzenga 5:38 PM

Watu 6.00 PM

Kisaki 8.21 PM

Mrimba 11:30 PM

Makambako 8:30 AM

Kangaga 10.08 AM

Rujewa 10:30 AM

Inyala 1:28 PM
Yore 1:53 PM

Mbeya 2:14 PM (we stopped here for 4 hours!!)

Mabrizi 6:33 PM

Idiga 7:05 PM

Tanduma-Nakonde 10:00 PM (Tan-Zam border. We left at 11.15 PM)

Kasama 5.35 AM (Central African Time. The rest of the times below are also CAT)

Mpika 8.45 AM

Kalonje 10.23 AM

Serenje 1.03 PM

Kapiri-Mposhi 4.56 PM

TOTAL TIME: 2 DAYS 1 HOUR 26 MINUTES

Africa’s budding narco-states?

UPDATE:

The Kenyan Prime Minister just admitted to the presence of drug money in Kenyan politics. Huge. Also, check the UNODC’s drug trafficking patterns for East Africa.

Also, does anyone out there have a copy of the report on drug trafficking in Kenya? Care to share?

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I have written before about the growing problem of drug-trafficking that is creating new problems for already fragile African states.

Of note is the fact that the problem is not just limited to the usual suspects – weak or failing states – but also extends to countries that most would consider to have it together, like Ghana, South Africa and Kenya.

According to Reuters, “cocaine moves through West Africa” while “heroin transits through the eastern part of the continent.”

The most alarming thing about this new trend is that in most of these African countries drug-trafficking happens with the consent of those in government.

For instance, in Guinea the son of former president Conte was for a long time a leading drug kingpin. In Guinea-Bissau President Vieira’s and Gen. Na Waie’s deaths in March of last year were a result of drug-related feuds. In Ghana President Atta Mills has lamented that the drug lords are too powerful to rein in. In Kenya, a woman (rumored to be) close to the president and other elites have been linked to the drug trade. Indeed on June 1st President Obama listed a sitting Kenyan Member of Parliament (Harun Mwau) as a global drug kingpin.

In South Africa former Chief of Police, Jackie Selebi, was jailed for 10 years in 2010 on drug charges. More recently the wife of the South African Intelligence Minister (Sheryl Cwele) was found guilty of having connections to the illicit trade. In 2009 a Boeing 727 crashed and was later set ablaze by suspected drug traffickers in Mali. The plane is believed to have been a drug cargo plane from Latin America destined for Europe. Other African states whose drug connections have also come to light include The Gambia (where rumors abound that President Jammeh is himself involved in the trade in drugs and arms in collusion with the Bissauian army) and Mozambique (H/T kmmonroe). You can find related news stories here and here.

Clearly, this is a real problem that if not nipped in the bud has the potential of growing to Mexican proportions, especially considering the already low levels of state capacity in most of Africa.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy also addresses this issue in their newly released report:

In just a few years, West Africa has become a major transit and re-packaging hub for cocaine following a strategic shift of Latin American drug syndicates toward the European market. Profiting from weak governance, endemic poverty, instability and ill-equipped police and judicial institutions, and bolstered by the enormous value of the drug trade, criminal networks have infiltrated governments, state institutions and the military. Corruption and money laundering, driven by the drug trade, pervert local politics and skew local economies.

A dangerous scenario is emerging as narco-traffic threatens to metastasize into broader political and security challenges. Initial international responses to support regional and national action have not been able to reverse this trend. New evidence suggests that criminal networks are expanding operations and strengthening their positions through new alliances, notably with armed groups. Current responses need to be urgently scaled up and coordinated under West African leadership, with international financial and technical support. Responses should integrate
law enforcement and judicial approaches with social, development and conflict prevention policies – and they should involve governments and civil society alike.