The Mexican president acknowledged on Tuesday that he had been informed that his government’s top human rights official was being spied on, but said he had told the official not to worry.
The admission comes a day after The New York Times revealed that Alejandro Encinas, the Mexican government’s undersecretary for human rights, was attacked with the world’s best known spyware while investigating abuses by the country’s military.
“He told me about it and I told him not to give it any importance because there was no intention to spy on anyone,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said, after being asked about the Times article at his regular Tuesday morning press conference. .
López Obrador, who became president in 2018, has vowed to end the “illegal” and “immoral” surveillance of the past and has declared that his government does not spy on anyone.
He holm oak cell phone he was targeted by the spyware known as Pegasus repeatedly, including last year, the Times reported. The cyberattacks against Encinas were confirmed by four people who spoke to him about the spying and by an independent forensic analysis conducted by Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto.
Pegasus can infect cell phones without leaving a trace of intrusion and extract all the data from them: every text message, every email, every photo. The system can even watch people through the phone’s camera and listen to them through its microphone.
The Israeli-made spy tool has infected thousands of cell phones around the world and its license is only authorized to be sold to government agencies.
There is no definitive proof of who was behind the hacks into Encinas’ phone, but the only entity in Mexico that has access to Pegasus is the military, according to five people familiar with the spyware contracts.
Encinas directs the government’s truth commission on the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history. Encinas and her team have accused the army of participating in the mass kidnapping of the students.
It is the first time that a case of Pegasus spying on such an important member of a government in Mexico has been publicly confirmed, and even more so on someone so close to the president.
Asked if the government would investigate the surveillance of Encinas, who has been a friend and ally of López Obrador for decades, the president said: “No, it’s that we don’t spy.”
Several rights groups condemned López Obrador’s comments.
“We regret that the President minimizes the espionage that his administration carries out,” tweeted the Prodh Center, a human rights organization whose employees were spied on with Pegasus last year.
A group of independent experts who are conducting an investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students requested that the attorney general’s office investigate the cyberattacks on Encinas and described them as “acts that violate rights to freedom, privacy.”
During the government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, there were several Pegasus machines in Mexico, controlled by the attorney general’s office, the country’s spy agency and the military.
But for 2019, all Pegasus systems in the country had been taken offlineexcept for the one operated by the military, according to four people familiar with the contracts signed in Mexico.
After the Joe Biden administration banned spyware maker NSO Group in 2021, the Israeli Defense Ministry said it would take steps to prevent the system from being used for purposes other than fighting serious crime and terrorism. .
The Ministry of Defense then ordered several countries to disconnect from Pegasus, but did not cancel the license of the Mexican army and subsequently extended it. A ministry spokesman declined to comment.
NSO Group has opened an investigation into allegations of abuse by Pegasus in Mexico, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s compliance protocols.
It is unclear how such an investigation would affect the fate of spyware in Mexico, where it has been used against human rights defenders and journalists for years with virtually no accountability.
Emiliano Rodriguez Mega collaborated with reporting from Mexico City.
Natalie Kitroeff is the Times’ bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. @Nataliekitro
Ronen Bergman is a reporter for the staff of The New York Times Magazine and lives in Tel Aviv. His most recent book is Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinationspublished by Random House.