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With US funds, Mexico widens ability to tap phones, e-mails

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico is expanding its ability to tap telephone calls and e-mail using money from the US government, a move that underlines how the country's conservative government is increasingly willing to cooperate with United States on law enforcement.

The expansion comes as President Felipe Calderon is pushing to amend Mexico's constitution to allow officials to tap phones without a judge's approval in some cases.

Mexican authorities for years have been able to wiretap most telephone conversations and tap into e-mail, but the new $3 million Communications Intercept System being installed by Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency would expand its reach.

The system would allow authorities to track cellphone users as they travel, according to the contract specifications.

It would include extensive storage capacity and allow authorities to identify callers by voice. The system, scheduled to begin operation within the next month, was paid for by the State Department and sold by Verint Systems Inc., a politically connected company based in Melville, N.Y., that specializes in electronic surveillance.

Documents describing the upgrade suggest that the US government could have access to information derived from the surveillance.

Officials of both governments declined to comment on that possibility.

"It is a government of Mexico operation, funded by the US," said Susan Pittman, of the US State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Questions over its use should be directed to Mexico, she said.

Calderon's office declined comment.

But the US government's contract specifications say the system is designed to allow both governments to "disseminate timely and accurate, actionable information to each country's respective federal, state, local, private and international partners."

Calderon has been lobbying for more authority to use electronic surveillance against drug smuggling.

Already this year, drug wars have cost hundreds of lives and threatened Calderon's ability to govern.

Despite federal troops posted in nine Mexican states, the violence continues as smugglers fight over shipping routes to the US-Mexico border, as well as for control of Mexican port cities and marijuana- and poppy-growing regions inland.