Pegasus spyware reaches into Mexican president’s inner circle

MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s security forces have been among the world’s most aggressive in using sophisticated surveillance technology to eavesdrop on the phones of opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists.

Now, the latest Pegasus spyware has been turned on members of the president’s own team as it investigates alleged abuses by the military.

Found on cell phones of Pegasus. Alejandro Encinas, Undersecretary for Human Rights Three people have been briefed on the case, according to a Mexican government ministry and at least two others in his office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

CitizenLab, a digital research center at the University of Toronto, confirmed the presence of malware on Encinas’ phone through 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 Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Encinas had informed him that his phone had been bugged. But at his daily news conference on Tuesday, the president dismissed the high-tech attack, saying he did not believe the military was at fault.

The oversight is particularly surprising because Encinas and López Obrador have been close allies for decades after coming to prominence together as members of Mexico’s leftist opposition. When López Obrador became president in 2018, he tasked Encinas with investigating one of Mexico’s most notorious scandals: the 2014 disappearance of 43 teenagers studying at a teacher’s college in Ayutthayapa. Last August’s reportEncinas blamed the police, armed forces and civilian authorities, as well as drug traffickers, for the disappearances and called it a cover-up.

The Encinas office has also led investigations into hundreds of disappearances during the 1960s and 1970s. Army’s “Dirty War” Against the left-wing insurgency.

López Obrador promised to investigate and eventually reveal the truth about these dark episodes in Mexico’s history. “There will be no immunity,” he said in December 2018 when he set up a truth commission on the Ayodzinappa case. But he has come fast Trust the military For many high-priority tasks, from fighting drug traffickers to building airports New tourist train in Yucatán.

“This seems to be the most dangerous chapter in the story of Pegasus in Mexico,” said Kate DoyleA senior analyst at the National Security Archive. “If the Mexican military is spying on a top aide to the president without his knowledge, then the Mexican military is operating outside of civilian control.”

Angela Buitrago, a member of an international organization of experts who have spent eight years investigating what happened to the missing Ayotzinapa students, said the surveillance of Encinas and his team “symbolizes the erosion of democratic freedoms and guarantees.” “

How Mexico’s traditional political espionage went high-tech

López Obrador said on Tuesday that he had assured Encanas that he was not a government target. “I told them not to worry, because there was no intention to spy on anyone,” the president told reporters. Pressed on whether the military was behind the surveillance, López Obrador said no. He noted that the Ministry of Defense was targeted last year by a mysterious hacker group calling itself Guacamaya.

In a message sent to The Washington Post, the Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Mexico has a A long history of political espionageFederal and state officials are listening to their rivals, opposition parties and others. But the use of Pegasus has become particularly discredited in recent years.

Amnesty International, Citizen Lab and Mexican NGOs found traces of spyware on the phones of 26 Mexican journalists, activists and politicians between 2015 and 2017. In 2021, The Pegasus ProjectA consortium of 17 news organizations around the world, including The Post, discovered more abuses.

The US Commerce Department last year blacklisted Israel-based NSO Group, which licenses Pegasus.

López Obrador has pledged to end political espionage. His administration has said that the Attorney General’s Office and the domestic spy agency CISEN no longer use Pegasus. But revelations by a coalition of Mexican digital rights groups show the military continues to use the technology.

22 journalists hit by Pegasus hack on Salvadoran news site

Last year, the coalition published The documents — some hacked from the Defense Ministry, others obtained through Freedom of Information requests — show the military obtained a “remote monitoring service” in 2019 from a company that has Mexico. had the sole authority to supply the Pegasus to the military.

This year, the coalition Made public More hacked documents show the military was spying on the phone of a human rights activist in the border city of Nuevo Laredo who was allegedly investigating military abuses. Activist Raymondo Ramos’ phone was later surveilled with Pegasus. Unity Reported that Two human rights lawyers representing the parents of some of the Ayutzinapa students discovered their phones had been infected by Pegasus last year. (This finding was first published by The New York Times).

Another document hacked from the Defense Ministry and reviewed by The Post says that as of last August, the military had a team of analysts tasked with monitoring “interception of private communications.” There was a document. Reported earlier By local news outlet El Sur.

Mexico’s Digital Rights Group said there is “substantial evidence that the military has used Pegasus against human rights defenders, journalists and now officials investigating human rights abuses by the armed forces.” are doing.” R3D said in a tweet on Tuesday. “We condemn the government’s silence on military espionage.”

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

NSO Group says it restricts Pegasus licensing to governments and does not operate spyware. It says its technologies have helped prevent terrorist attacks and drug and sex trafficking.

Encinas told The Post in 2021 that he had been the target of government spying for decades, dating back to the 20th century, when Mexico was an authoritarian one-party state. To monitor phones, he noted, security forces need a judge’s order — something they often fail to obtain.

“In every case in which we learn about espionage, no one has been punished,” he said. “I think we have a sufficient lack of investigation in terms of removing the impunity associated with these types of practices.”

There was no indication that this latest case would be any different. Asked Tuesday if 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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