Mexican Government Under Attack for Electronic Spying

By Fulton Armstrong

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Revelations of Mexico’s use of state-of-the-art software to spy on domestic critics and OAS human rights experts have dealt another devastating blow to the credibility of President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican government.  Targeted in the cyberattacks were dozens of individuals and nongovernmental groups from various backgrounds, including leaders of the opposition PAN party investigating corruption allegations; anti-obesity activists lobbying for a tax on sweet carbonated soft drinks that the government opposed; and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) sent by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala in 2014.

  • The software – known as Pegasus and estimated to cost between $32 million and $80 million – sent the targets personalized text messages with links that, when pressed, led to the total compromise of their smart phones. The messages falsely alerted victims to family emergencies, for example, and said further information was available at a link in the text.  Some purported to be from the U.S. Embassy, providing a link for updates on visa applications.  The link downloaded spyware that allowed the perpetrators full access to all voice and data communications and allowed remote control over the microphone and camera on the affected device.

Confronted with evidence developed by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and corroborated by the New York Times, Peña Nieto admitted in late June that his government purchased Pegasus but denied that it was used to target opponents and investigators.  He said that all of the government’s efforts have been “to maintain the internal security of the nation, fight organized crime, to generate security for all Mexicans.”  The Israeli company NSO Group, producer of Pegasus, claims it sells the software only to governments and only for specific anti-terrorism, anti-crime purposes.  The President threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” – a statement his spokesman retracted several hours later – but he did acknowledge the need for an investigation.  The office of the Attorney General (PGR), which was involved in the Pegasus program, was charged with looking into the matter, drawing cries of foul from critics.

  • Officials at the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights have called on Mexico to allow a full investigation by independent experts. For the same agency that bought Pegasus to investigate its use, they said, was not credible.  An OAS official has stated publicly that the allegations “should be investigated.”

The internal spying scandal is yet another blow to the credibility of the Mexican government on human rights – whether the spying and harassment was approved by Peña Nieto or was the work of rogue agencies.  The President’s credibility has been battered by scandals involving his family and administration, and corruption by state governors from his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has deepened perceptions of impunity at all levels.  Violence is also creeping back to levels experienced during the term of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón.  Among his most corrosive failures, however, has been the lack any progress investigating the brutal killing of the Iguala students.  The government’s claims that it was unable to bring anyone to justice for Iguala – while spending tens of millions of dollars to spy on and harass international experts investigating the incident – has deepened popular cynicism about the President.  Even if he accedes to an independent inquiry, the damage has been done, and he seems likely to limp, at best, toward general elections scheduled for mid-2018.  InSight Crime (a CLALS-sponsored foundation) has also called the scandal “a massive self-inflicted wound in [Mexico’s] fight against organized crime” because it compromised anti-crime operations and undermined the government’s credibility.

July 24, 2017

Mexico: Is Peña Nieto Missing the Point?

By Fulton Armstrong

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

The disappearance and apparent massacre of 43 students from a city in Mexico’s Guerrero state is a rude reminder to President Peña Nieto that economic reform and increased foreign investment aren’t enough to help the country overcome the scourge of narcotics-fueled violence.  Federal and State prosecutors agree that the police in Iguala – who, along with the city’s mayor, have strong ties to the Guerreros Unidos cartel – handed the students over to the narcos after a confrontation during a student protest turned violent, already leaving six students dead.  Residents on a nearby ridge noted an increase in police and truck traffic soon after the showdown, but the dozens of bodies uncovered by searchers at mass graves in the area so far have not been the students’.  The mayor and police chief are in hiding, but Federal authorities say three dozen police and accomplices have been arrested and many have confessed.  None apparently has identified where the bodies were dumped.

As the scope of the crime, which occurred three weeks ago, has become clearer, the President’s rhetoric has been increasingly forceful, committing to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice.  The Federal police have been directed to take control of security in the area and nearby municipalities.  The government announced last Friday, that the “supreme leader” of the Guerreros Unidos has been arrested, while another committed suicide after a standoff with police.  But critics point out the federal authorities’ own problems with corruption, and criticism of Peña Nieto’s efforts to stem the violence has been growing, especially in the wake of his administration’s many self-congratulatory statements about progress in the security area.  A new 5,000-strong national civilian gendarmerie he rolled out in August was ridiculed as too little, too late.  His continuation of his predecessor’s emphasis on arresting drug kingpins – resulting this year in the spectacular arrests of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (of the Sinaloa cartel), Héctor Beltrán-Leyva (of the Beltrán-Leyva Organization), Fernando Sánchez Arellano (of the Arellano Félix cartel), and others – has failed to eliminate the underlying systems of the drug trade.

During the presidential campaign in 2012, Peña Nieto promised to reduce violence, and his decision not to obsess over the problem – as his predecessor, President Calderón, had – may have given him a respite.  But his administration apparently ignored clear signals of trouble – such as indications that in Guerrero state and elsewhere the cartels’ were expanding and consolidating their influence over government – and the problem seems to be roaring back with a vengeance.  The President’s focus on reforming the economy and attracting foreign investment makes strategic sense, but its long timeline doesn’t help him fight the fires of violence that envelop parts of the country.  There’s also merit in creating something like the gendarmerie and other institutional tools, but that approach seems to ignore that the rot of corruption has deep roots at all levels – federal, state, and local – that must be dealt with and that an elite unit tied to a federal capital hundreds of kilometers away can do little in places like Guerrero.  Calderón had shown the challenge wouldn’t be easy, but Peña Nieto has not yet shown that he – and Mexican society – are up to it either.

October 21, 2014