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