Politics

Investigations open for the use of spyware Pegasus by Mexico, but not on the current government despite recent accusations

Mexico was a big client of the spyware Pegasus and two investigations are open for its use in the previous government. But there is no investigation against the current administration, despite recent reports Pegasus is still being used.

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Illustration © Kevin Ku

Attorney General’s Office of Mexico says it has two investigations open related to the purchase and use of the spyware software Pegasus, which took place during the previous government.

A first investigation focuses on the purchase of the Israeli software for 457 million pesos (23 million dollars), by the attorney general’s office itself ,without justification, which would consist in irregular use of public fund and a breach to public procurement and tender procedures.

The investigation revealed “the existence of a concurrence of crimes consisting of embezzlement, fraud and criminal association,” according to the information note published the attorney general on October 16. The purchase would have been made during the presidential mandate of Peña Nieto between 2012 and 2018.

One of the alleged perpetrators is Tomás Zerón, the former chief of the agency of criminal investigation that was part of the attorney general’s office. Tomás Zerón is now living in Israel. Mexico has been requesting his extradition as he is also accused of having forged evidence in the infamous kidnapping of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014.

Investigation is also open for espionage of personal communications of journalists and human rights activists. This led to the arrestation and preventive detention of a businessman, Juan Carlos García Rivera, since November 2021 for having helped selling NSO Group’s software in Mexico.

More officials are involved but names have not been communicated and not been arrested, yet. Mexico is known to be a country that fails to prosecute people when it comes to the killings of journalists and human rights activists.

The attorney’s office was one of the first entities in Mexico that bought the Israeli spyware. First revelations of the widespread use of Pegasus in Mexico were published in 2017 by Citizen Lab, a research team from the University of Toronto.

The current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and some family members were some of the thousands of targets. Elected in 2019, AMLO has repeatedly assured his government doesn’t use Pegasus or spy on anyone.

But reports in early October have also accused the current administration of tracking journalists and human rights activists with Pegasus.

Mexican digital rights organization R3D (Red en los Defensa de los Derechos Digitales) has identified Pegasus infections against two journalists and one human rights defender that took place between 2019-2021, after the first revelations of Pegasus abuses in Mexico and AMLO’s elections. The Citizen Lab provided technical support for R3D’s analysis and validated the infections.

Mobile phones targeted by Pegasus where owned by Ricardo Raphael, a journalist who accused Tomas Zerón of hiding what truly happened to the 43 students, a journalist from Animal Político, and Raymundo Ramos Vázquez, head of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo in the State of Tamaulipas.

R3D, along with news media Proceso, Animal Político and Aristegui Noticias also report that the Secretariat of National Defense, NSO Group’s first client in the world, was behind these attacks. But the government rejected such allegations.

The communication of the attorney general’s office comes two days after AMLO was questioned during a press conference on Friday about the progress of the investigations and recent accusations of espionage. He answered that he “didn’t have much information” and that the best thing was to ask to the prosecutor’s office. He remained evasive and mentioned that “it was a common practice to spy on opponents and journalists during previous governments.”

Raymundo Ramos reacted to AMLO’s answer and told radio broadcast MVS Noticias that “only a blind man could not see the evidence that has been publicly presented.”

And between the lines of the attorney’s note, one should read that no investigation has been opened for current’s administration alleged illegal use of Pegasus, so far.

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