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February 7, 2023San Diego, CA, United StatesCyber Crimes

HSI San Diego investigation results in Mexican businessman admitting to brokering spyware

SAN DIEGO — Mexican American businessman Julio Santamaria, 49, pleaded guilty Feb. 7 after admitting he conspired to sell and use private computer-hacking tools in Mexico and the U.S. to monitor political and business rivals. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with help from the Department of Justice’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, investigated the case.

“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates cyberspace is not a refuge from American justice, and as seen in this case, those who violate privacy rights will be held accountable,” said HSI San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “HSI and our law enforcement partners remain committed to protecting the American public from individuals attempting to illegally intercept private communications for illicit gain.”

“Today’s guilty plea helps stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression and advances the digital security of both U.S. and Mexican citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “This office is committed to disrupting malicious cyber activities and mitigating unlawful surveillance.”

According to court documents, beginning in or about January 2016, Santamaria began working for a consortium of U.S. and Mexican companies, including a company called Elite By Carga, for which he brokered the sale of interception and surveillance tools to private citizens and Mexican politicians. Prior to working for this consortium, Santamaria worked for Mexico’s Procuraduría General de la República.

Santamaria admitted to knowing that, in some cases, the consortium’s Mexican government clients intended to use the interception equipment for political purposes rather than legitimate law enforcement purposes. In one case, the consortium knowingly arranged for a Mexican mayor to gain unauthorized access to a political rival’s Twitter, Hotmail and iCloud accounts.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.