Press freedom groups said Tuesday the Mexican government apparently continued to use Pegasus spyware to infect telephones of human rights activists as recently as late 2022, despite a pledge by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to stop such spying.
The activists targeted by the spyware work for the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez human rights center. The center has been spied on in the past, and has worked to expose abuses by the government, including the Mexican Army.
The Pegasus infection was confirmed through a forensic investigation by the University of Toronto group Citizen Lab, the groups said Tuesday.
“So far in the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at least three human rights activists and two journalists have been illegally spied on with Pegasus, presumably by the Army, which, according to press information, is the only (government) agency that currently has Pegasus,” according to a report by the press freedom group Article 19, The Network for the Defense of Digital Rights and Mexican media organizations.
The New York Times first reported the new hacks.
The Israeli-made spyware Pegasus spyware is available only to countries’ government agencies; it silently infiltrates phones or other devices to harvest data and potentially spy on their owners.
The revelation came one day after Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down a 2016 regulation that had allowed the military to place wiretaps on civilians’ phones without a court order.
López Obrador took office in December 2018 pledging to end government spying. The president said he himself had been the victim of government surveillance for decades as an opposition leader.
Asked about the alleged hacks Tuesday in his daily press briefing, the president did not answer directly, but repeated the distinction that what his government does is intelligence gathering, not espionage.
“We have a clear conscience to say that human rights are not going to be violated, no one is going to be spied on either,” López Obrador said. “We haven’t done it to anyone.”
Press freedom groups said the Mexican government continued to use Pegasus spyware to infect the telephones of human rights activists.
The director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez human rights center, Santiago Aguirre, and the center’s international affairs director were targeted in the most recent hacks.
The report said their phones were infected between June and September of 2022, while the two activists were involved in investigations and protests regarding past army abuses, including the 2014 abduction and disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college.
The other previous victims included journalist and author Ricardo Raphael in 2019 and 2020, and an unnamed journalist for the online media outlet Animal Politico.
In October, the same groups released a report saying the Mexican army has allegedly continued to use spyware against targets including rights activist Raymundo Ramos. The government apparently leaked a recording of a phone call in which Ramos’ voice is heard. The government says it had tapped the phone of an alleged drug trafficker, and that Ramos either was called or called the number.
Ramos has worked for years documenting military and police abuses, including multiple killings, in the drug cartel-dominated border city of Nuevo Laredo. Ramos’ cellphone was apparently infected with Pegasus spyware in 2020.
Leaked documents show the Mexican army has allegedly requested price quotes for surveillance programs from companies connected to the distribution of Pegasus. The report said the hacker group Guacamaya found army documents listing requests for price quotes from 2020, 2021 and 2022.
The victims of the spyware attacks said they assumed the military was responsible, because of the nature of their work and the timing of the espionage.
Mexico’s Defense Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the allegations.
López Obrador’s top security official has said that two previous administrations spent $61 million to buy Pegasus spyware.
López Obrador has relied more on the military and given it more responsibilities — from building infrastructure projects to overseeing seaports and airports — than any of his predecessors.
That has raised concerns that the Mexican army — which has traditionally stayed out of politics — may be turning into a force unto itself, with little oversight or transparency.