According to the report, Dangerous Alliances: Russia’s Strategic Inroads in Latin America, published in late December by the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) of the U.S. National Defense University, the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo regime has been using the Russian software System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) to spy in Nicaragua since 2018.
“This social control technology is part of the Kremlin’s modus operandi, extended in Latin America to support the most nefarious regimes, but also to expand and recruit more countries in the region,” Jorge Serrano, a security expert and member of the advisory team of Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo on March 19.
According to the report by U.S. researchers Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson, the SORM system is part of the operations of groups and individuals with deep ties to Russian intelligence and the former Soviet KGB police.
The report stresses that the technology grants access to multiple advanced Russian surveillance systems, which are now used by authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, as well as criminal groups. “SORM increases the repressive capability of these authoritarian regimes,” the report says.
The Russian surveillance operating system allows access to all communications, to monitor credit card transactions, emails, phone calls, text messages, social networks, Wi-Fi networks, and forum chats, the report indicates.
The Russian system has three versions. SORM-1 monitors telephone traffic, SORM-2 monitors online traffic, and SORM-3 monitors all forms of communication for up to three years, according to international organization Access Now, dedicated to the defense of the free and open internet.
The Ortega-Murillo version
The report found that the SORM-3 version, provided by the Russian cyber surveillance firm NTC PROTEI, is behind the growing spying and monitoring capabilities of the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua, the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, and increased Cuban repression.
“We believe that there is a team inside the [Nicaraguan] telephone system and another that monitors at the political level everything that happens in the region,” researcher Farah told Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial.
The Russian system allowed the Nicaraguan repression to quickly track and identify young people who communicated via WhatsApp during the 2018 protests, Farah said. “It’s a very efficient tool to help [the Ortega-Murillo regime] keep a super heavy hand and do surgical and massive violence in certain parts,” he added.
SORM-3 works by copying all data flows on internet and telecommunications networks, sending one copy to the regime and the other to the intended destination, the report says.
“The dictatorship in Nicaragua is unstoppable. It feels powerful because it’s protected by the Russia-Iran-China axis,” Serrano said. “We know that this dictatorship is fiercer than the Venezuelan one because it totally crosses the criminality threshold, with not only the support of Russia or China, but also of Iran — in other words, the most sinister countries in the world.”
In a report on spying tools, the United Nations (U.N.) said that it considered the “improper and illegal” use of surveillance technology to undermine people’s human rights “extremely alarming.”
The INSS report further details that the Kremlin’s main activities in Nicaragua — military, cyber, and law enforcement training — mostly take place in the shadows.
Moscow trains some 100 Nicaraguan officers in Russia each year, as well as several hundred more from Venezuela and Cuba, the report indicates. Another ongoing area of collaboration is the Russian Interior Ministry’s training center in Managua, under the command of Russian Police Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Surov.
When protests against the Ortega-Murillo regime broke out, Lt. Col. Surov provided special training to a select group of Nicaraguan police officers in a class titled “Modern Means and Methods to Combat Extremism and Terrorism.” The training included digital and electronic surveillance techniques to repress and control civil society.
In addition to running the center, according to the report, one of Lt. Col. Surov’s main tasks is to select Nicaraguan officers who are sent on a regular basis for training in Russia, to create a cadre of intelligence operatives familiar with and loyal to Moscow, who can operate not only in Nicaragua but throughout the region.
“The [Russia-China-Iran] axis is a multidimensional threat that manifests itself in different areas: technological, political, security, intelligence, psychosocial, communicational, and simultaneous warfare,” Serrano said. “It’s like a monster with a thousand heads, in which if you cut off one head another one will attack us. We have to attack all of them simultaneously.”
“The tool provided by Moscow in Nicaragua for social control, the destruction of political dissent, persecution, imprisonment, and murder, should be enough evidence to make a case to present to the U.N. Security Council,” Serrano said. “This is already serious.”
“At the same time, we must coordinate security and intelligence support among the countries of the region and closer ties with democratic powers. All of this must be done simultaneously. Acting alone is no longer possible, because Russia’s behavior is extremely dangerous and aggressive,” Serrano concluded.