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An Investigation on Pegasus: The Spyware that Threatens Mexican Freedom of Press and Human Rights

Pegasus is being used by the Mexican government to silence journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers to control the narrative.

On Apr. 18, The New York Times published an investigative report exposing the story and implications of how Mexico became Pegasus’ first and most prolific user.
According to ​​the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, [Mexico ranked as the most dangerous country for journalists, surpassing active war zones like Syria and Ukraine, in 2022. Ever since Pegasus came out, Mexico has been its major consumer, with multiple allegations of targeting journalists and human rights activists.
A highly controversial spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group in 2011, Pegasus is sold on a subscription basis to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world. The NSO Group is an Israeli technology company that “creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism.” It currently faces multiple lawsuits concerning the alleged targeting of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders by its spyware Pegasus.
A highly sophisticated and potent cyberweapon, Pegasus can watch through a phone’s camera or listen through microphone even when the phone is locked or appears to be turned off, or infiltrate a mobile device through a text message that the user clicks or through “zero-click attacks”. Pegasus has been used by intelligence services to capture criminals. For instance, it helped Mexican authorities capture the infamous drug lord “El Chapo.”
In 2017, a report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto stated that Pegasus in Mexico targeted prominent journalists, activists and lawyers investigating suspected human rights abuses by security forces, corruption, and the controversial and still unresolved case of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. In 2014, these students from an all-male teacher training college were traveling from Iguala, Guerrero, to Mexico City to protest against what they considered to be discriminatory practices against teachers. They were attacked by the local police who opened fire against their buses. After this attack, 43 of the students were reported missing. Multiple reports have been published about what happened that night, however, they have been widely discredited. As of today, families of the students have no answers as to where their sons are or what happened to them.
"The Government of the Republic categorically denies that any of its entities carries out actions of surveillance or intercepting communications from human rights defenders, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization," declared an official statement from the Mexican government.
However, according to The Washington Post, in 2021, more than 15,000 Mexican phone numbers were found in a list of 50,000 phone numbers affected by Pegasus. Included in those 15,000 phone numbers was that of former president Felipe Calderón, who was allegedly added to the list after his term ended.
The report also found the mobile phone number of journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, a journalist that often published videos on Facebook denouncing corruption between drug cartels and local government officials. He was assassinated on Mar. 2, 2022, two hours after posting a video denouncing corruption of a deputy and a drug gang. The victims of the spyware also included two journalists reporting on issues related to official corruption as well as prominent human right defenders.
The report also disclosed information about family and close associates of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was in the list of potential phones surveilled when he was running for the Presidency in 2018. According to The Guardian, human rights defender Raymundo Ramos was hacked using Pegasus at least three times between August and September 2020, after publishing a video showing extrajudicial killings of civilians by the Mexican army.
When López Obrador became president in 2018, he promised that the spyware would no longer be used. But in 2022, Ramos and journalist Ricardo Raphael were hacked again by Pegasus. López Obrador's response to these allegations last year was a denial of his administration spying on political opponents or reporters: “It’s not true that journalists or opponents are spied on,” declared López Obrador.
The NSO’s response regarding these findings was: “NSO does not operate Pegasus, has no visibility into its usage, and does not collect information about customers or who they monitor. NSO licenses Pegasus solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of sovereign states and government agencies following approval by the Israeli government. When we determine wrongdoing, we terminate contracts”. The Israeli Defense Ministry declined requests to comment about this issue.
According to The New York Times, the Mexican government originally acquired Pegasus when Calderón launched one of the deadliest wars in the history of the country, the War on Drugs, as people involved in drug trafficking would often change phones or turn them off, making it difficult to track them. Mexico bought a Pegasus subscription to have its own intelligence capabilities that would allow them to fight drug trafficking without being dependent on the U.S. intelligence capabilities, as was the case at the time.
The systematic violation of law with Pegasus subscriptions comes from the fact that according to article 16 of the Mexican Constitution, government entities need a judge’s authorization to spy on private communications, as it states that “No one can be disturbed in his person, family, address, documents or possessions unless there is an authorization provided by a competent authority that attests of the reasons and legal procedure for the intervention.” However, the Mexican military has publicly claimed not to have requested to use Pegasus or similar surveillance program in recent years.
The Pegasus project investigation caused demonstrations, political outrage and calls for industry regulation throughout the world as the spyware targets people from political activists to prominent political figures, such as heads of state. As concerns of security and privacy rose after the publication of these most recent investigation on Pegasus, in 2021, Apple announced that it would start sending warning notifications to users whose mobiles had been hacked with such spyware. In December 2022, Mexican human rights lawyer Santiaggo Aguirre received the following notification: “Apple believes you are being targeted by state-sponsored attackers who are trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID. These attackers are likely targeting you individually because of who you are or what you do.”
The use of Pegasus to spy on human rights activists and journalists comes as no surprise under the current government, as the president has governed with a discrediting and separationist rhetoric that discredits all of his critics such as feminists, environmental activists, and NGOs by calling them “conservatives.” López Obrador has used his daily morning press conferences called “La mañanera,” to single out and publicly harass journalists and human rights defenders who are critical of the government. There is a weekly segment of “La mañanera” exclusively dedicated to “refute” what the Mexican press has said during that week..
When confronted by a journalist about Pegasus used to spy on a human rights defender, the president evaded the question and went on to attack the press instead: [“There is no objectivity nor professionalism, is a biased press sellout and serving the corrupts.”]. In his almost five years in power, the president has used an array of negative adjectives to belittle the press, ranging from “defenders of the power’s mafia” (the power’s mafia: corruption in the country), liars, to “chayoteros” (corruptness) and “fifí” (superficiality, someone that follows trends). Such a political climate leaves little to no space for discussion about human rights in Mexico, accountability, or justice.
Scarlette Jimenez is News Editor. Email her at
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