It was just before midnight when Enrique Peña Nieto declared victory as the newly elected president of Mexico. Peña Nieto was a lawyer and a millionaire, from a family of mayors and governors. His wife was a telenovela star. He beamed as he was showered with red, green, and white confetti at the Mexico City headquarters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled for more than 70 years before being forced out in 2000. Returning the party to power on that night in July 2012, Peña Nieto vowed to tame drug violence, fight corruption, and open a more transparent era in Mexican politics.
Two thousand miles away, in an apartment in Bogotá’s upscale Chicó Navarra neighborhood, Andrés Sepúlveda sat before six computer screens. Sepúlveda is Colombian, bricklike, with a shaved head, goatee, and a tattoo of a QR code containing an encryption key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on coding. He was watching a live feed of Peña Nieto’s victory party, waiting for an official declaration of the results.
When Peña Nieto won, Sepúlveda began destroying evidence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their circuits in a microwave, then broke them to shards with a hammer. He shredded documents and flushed them down the toilet and erased servers in Russia and Ukraine rented anonymously with Bitcoins. He was dismantling what he says was a secret history of one of the dirtiest Latin American campaigns in recent memory.
For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. On that July night, he cracked bottle after bottle of Colón Negra beer in celebration. As usual on election night, he was alone.
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.