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Pegasus spyware found on Mexican Ayotzinapa investigator’s phone

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s security forces have been among the most aggressive in the world in using cutting-edge surveillance technology to tap the phones of opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists.

Today, sophisticated spyware Pegasus was directed at members of the President’s own team as he investigated alleged abuses by the military.

Pegasus was found on the cellphones of Alejandro Encinas, undersecretary for human rights in the Mexican government ministry, and at least two other people in his office, according to three people briefed on the matter, who have spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Citizen Lab, a digital research center at the University of Toronto, confirmed the presence of the malware on Encinas’ phone via a forensic audit last year, according to one of the people. Citizen Lab declined to comment, as did Encinas. The hack was first reported by The New York Times.

How does Pegasus spyware work?

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Encinas informed him that his phone had been tapped. But at his daily press conference on Tuesday, the president downplayed the significance of the high-tech attack and said he didn’t believe the military was at fault.

The oversight is particularly striking because Encinas and López Obrador have been close allies for decades since they rose to prominence together as members of Mexico’s left-wing opposition. When López Obrador became president in 2018, he tasked Encinas with investigating one of Mexico’s most notorious scandals: the disappearance of 43 young men studying at a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa in 2014. In a report by Last August, Encinas blamed police, armed forces and civilian officials, as well as drug traffickers, for the disappearances and what he called a subsequent cover-up.

Encinas’ office also investigated the disappearances of hundreds of people in the 1960s and 1970s during the military’s “dirty war” against a leftist insurgency.

López Obrador had promised to investigate and finally reveal the truth about these dark episodes in Mexican history. “There will be no impunity,” he said in December 2018 when he created a truth commission on the Ayotzinapa case. But it has increasingly come to rely on the military for a host of high-priority tasks, from cracking down on drug traffickers to building airports and a new tourist train in the Yucatán.

“This appears to be the most dangerous chapter in Pegasus’ history in Mexico,” said Kate Doyle, senior analyst at the National Security Archive. “If the Mexican military is spying on one of the president’s top aides without his knowledge, then the Mexican military is operating outside of civilian control.”

Ángela Buitrago, a member of an international panel of experts who spent eight years investigating what happened to the missing students of Ayotzinapa, said the surveillance of Encinas and his team was “a sign of the deterioration freedoms and guarantees of democracy”.

How Mexico’s traditional political espionage went high-tech

López Obrador said on Tuesday he had assured Encinas that he was not a government target. “I told him not to worry, because there was no intention to spy on anyone,” the president told reporters. Pressed to know if the military was behind the surveillance, López Obrador said no. He noted that the Ministry of Defense itself was targeted last year by a mysterious group of hackers who call themselves Guacamaya.

The Department of Defense, in a message to The Washington Post, declined to comment.

Mexico has a long history of political espionage, with federal and state authorities eavesdropping on rivals, opposition parties and others. But the use of Pegasus has been particularly notorious in recent years.

Amnesty International, Citizen Lab and Mexican non-governmental organizations found signs of the spyware on the phones of 26 Mexican journalists, activists and politicians between 2015 and 2017. In 2021, Project Pegasus, a consortium of 17 media outlets from the around the world, including The Post, uncovered other abuses.

Last year, the US Commerce Department blacklisted Israel-based NSO Group, which is firing Pegasus.

López Obrador pledged to end political espionage. His administration said the attorney general’s office and CISEN, the domestic spy agency, no longer use Pegasus. But revelations from a coalition of Mexican digital rights groups indicate the military could have continued to use the technology.

22 journalists from Salvadoran news site affected by Pegasus hack

Last year, the coalition released documents – some hacked from the Department of Defense, others obtained through Freedom of Information requests – revealing that the military had acquired a “remote monitoring service ” in 2019 from a company that would have had the only authorization to supply Pegasus to the Mexican army.

This year, the coalition released more hacked documents indicating the military was spying on the phone of a human rights activist in the border town of Nuevo Laredo who was investigating alleged abuses by the military. The phone of the activist, Raymundo Ramos, was later found to have been monitored with Pegasus. The coalition reported that two human rights lawyers representing the parents of some of Ayotzinapa’s students discovered that their phones had been infected with Pegasus last year. (This discovery was first published by the New York Times).

Another document hacked from the Department of Defense and reviewed by The Post showed that as of last August the military had a team of analysts tasked with monitoring “the private communications response”. The document was previously reported by local media El Sur.

“There is ample evidence that the military has used Pegasus against human rights defenders, journalists and now even officials who investigate human rights abuses committed by the armed forces,” the Mexican advocacy group said. digital rights. R3D said in a tweet Tuesday. “We condemn the government’s complicit silence on military espionage.”

López Obrador defended the military’s surveillance activities, saying it targeted organized crime groups and did not prosecute journalists or opposition politicians. “They are doing intelligence, not espionage,” he said on Tuesday. The military said it only used Pegasus from 2011 to 2013.

NSO Group says it limits Pegasus licensing to governments and does not exploit the spyware. He claims his technologies have helped prevent terrorist attacks and break up drug and sex trafficking rings.

Encinas told the Post in 2021 that he had been the target of government espionage for decades, dating back to the 20th century when Mexico was an authoritarian one-party state. To do phone surveillance, he noted, security forces need an order from a judge – which they often did not get.

“In all cases where we know of espionage, no one has been punished,” he said. “I think we are lacking a lot in terms of investigations, to end the impunity associated with this type of practice.”

There was no indication that the latter case would be different. Asked on Tuesday whether there would be an investigation into the Pegasus attacks, López Obrador said no.

“The thing is, he said, we don’t spy.”


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