“Anybody with resources in Mexico spies. It has always been done by the federal and state governments, civilian institutions, and the military. Also police agencies and businesses, not to mention the U.S. services, including the Pentagon, which (ex-president) Felipe Calderon let into his government,” writes Proceso magazine’s Jorge Carrasco Araizaga.
The columnist’s words provide the deep context to a new spying scandal that erupted south of the border following The New York Times’ June 19 report on the illegal use of Pegasus, a spyware program sold by the Israeli-owned NSO Group that targeted journalists and family members, lawyers, consumer advocates and human rights defenders.
Based on an investigation by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Mexican digital rights organizations, The Times reported that victims were “lured” by texted messages to their smartphones into opening a link that allowed the senders to gain control of the device and monitor victims’ communications, movements and personal lives. Several Mexican federal government agencies were implicated in the spying.
The persons identified as spying targets so far include prominent Mexican journalists Carmen Aristegui (and her teenage son), Carlos Loret de Mola and Raymundo Riva Palacio. Making the list was consumer advocate Alejandro Calvillo, whose Consumer Power organization has led campaigns for public transportation and against the Mexican junk food industry, in addition to attorney Mario Patron and Stephanie Brewer (a U.S. citizen) of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Prodh) in Mexico City.
An internationally respected non-governmental organization, the Prodh represents clients in sensitive and controversial matters such as the case of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teacher college in Guerrero forcibly disappeared by security forces.
“We are indignant here at the Prodh Center at the illegal spying of which we are the target because our work has always been public and we have nothing to hide. We have shown this over 20 years,” reads a message posted on the organization’s website. “The defense of our cases, besides benefiting vulnerable persons, has contributed to generating more democratic norms and standards in the imparting of justice.”
In an interview, Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S. advocacy group that promotes human rights and democracy in the Americas, voiced concerns that Pegasus, as a product sold exclusively to governments with a restricted use condition of investigating terrorists and criminals and “certainly not against journalists, advocates and human rights defenders,” was employed against targets like the Prodh, notably at key moments like the time when an independent commission appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate Ayotzinapa was preparing a final report that challenged the Mexican government’s version of the affair.
Although suspicions of government spying on dissidents and civil society activists aren’t anything new, “this case clearly show that is happening,” Meyer said.
A curious and disturbing trend in the Pegasus scandal, Meyer continued, was the expansion of the espionage net to swoop in consumer advocacy and even centrist-oriented organizations. In this vein, she cited an incident when the offices of Causa en Comun, a public safety and anti-corruption citizen organization, were ransacked last April in Mexico City and computer equipment stolen.
The U.S.-based human rights advocate was perturbed by Pegasus’ tactics, including the sending of bait texts impersonating U.S. embassy personnel, a false warning that the recipient of the message was being watched by a suspicious person outside, and an insinuation that an individual’s spouse was unfaithful. The inclusion of Carmen Aristegui’s son as an espionage objective likewise troubled Meyer.
“He’s a minor. It’s very concerning they are targeting not only (certain) people but their families,” she told this reporter.
Worse than Russiagate?
Touching off a political firestorm, the Pegasus exposé drew the swift condemnation of Amnesty International; scores of human rights, journalist and digital rights organizations; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Jesuit order in Latin America and the Caribbean; and even the country’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
In response to a complaint filed by journalists and human rights defenders, the CNDH issued protective measures directed at four government divisions possibly connected to the espionage: the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR), Mexican Navy, Mexican Army, and Interior Ministry, which oversees the CIA-like CISEN intelligence agency and the Federal Police.
The CNDH requested that the four institutions — if in fact they had the espionage program in question — not spy on journalists, civil society organizations, human rights defenders or “any other persons” in violation of constitutional law and refrain from using any information they might possess.
Additionally, the CNDH requested that the PGR, among the agencies reportedly involved in the spying, launch a “professional, exhaustive, objective and diligent investigation” of the illegal spying.
By week’s end, La Jornada daily reported that the Interior Ministry was studying the CNDH’S pronouncement.
Eduardo Sanchez H., Peña Nieto Administration spokesman, said via Twitter that ” no proof exists that Mexican government agencies are responsible for the alleged espionage.” Sanchez urged any person who might be a spying victim to pursue a complaint with the PGR.
In Mexico, legal electronic spying requires authorization from a judge. Interviewed by Carmen Aristegui on her live Internet show, Cuitlahuac Salinas, a former head of the PGR’S special anti-organized crime unit, said electronic spying requests are granted by judges if the PGR has solid information of possible law breaking, which usually is the result of a lengthy, well-rounded investigation.
Salinas, who resigned from his job in 2012 and subsequently denounced death threats against his family, considered the use of Pegasus against non-criminal actors a grave matter.
“If the (story) is true, it would be unfortunate for the current administration because it would be a huge violation of the human rights of people with respect to their private communications,” he said.
Salinas told Aristegui that the PGR did not have Pegasus when he was with the federal law enforcement agency, because it had other electronic devices capable of penetrating phone lines, e-mail and other communications systems.
Aristegui News investigative journalist Sebastian Barragan, another identified target of Pegasus, reported that legal requests for electronic spying from just one agency, CISEN, soared from 319 over the course of the Felipe Calderon administration (2006-2012) to 2,739 during the first four years of the Peña Nieto administration, which leaves office at the end of next year.
In a separate appearance on Aristegui, Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope maintained that “irrefutable” proof traced the Pegasus spying back to the government.
With the multi-million dollar Pegasus program now effectively “burned” as an effective tool, Hope called for institutional accountability and a probe to determine whether the expensive spyware had wound up the hands of parties outside the federal government. Hope was struck by the “stupidity” of efforts he described as bearing more of a resemblance to “attempts at intimidation” than intelligence gathering.
In a June 24 op-ed published in El Universal daily, Causa en Comun’s Maria Elena Morera wrote that she did not know if she was a Pegasus target, but sharply criticized the reported spying on citizen activists and journalists. Morera questioned the Mexican federal government’s overall spending of an estimated $80 million on different spyware programs since 2011, contending the money “could have paid the monthly salaries of 138,000 police, at the current rate of exchange.”
Burning questions remain over the ultimate purpose and destination of Pegasus, the role of Mexican and foreign middlemen in negotiating an expensive software sale, and the disposition of public resources. Mexico’s national auditor informed the press he would investigate the deal. Because many if not all of Pegasus’ targets maintain contacts and communications with individuals and organizations outside of Mexico, the spying has international ramifications.
A June 25 Proceso story named two men, Israeli citizen Asaf Zanzuri and Rodrigo Ruiz Trevino, as instrumental in the sale of spyware to the Mexican government. A 35-year-old with a background in the restaurant and bar industry, Ruiz is reportedly related to Guillermo Ruiz de Teresa, currently a Peña Nieto Administration port official with the Secretariat of Communciations and Transportation and a longtime political figure associated with the PRI.
Ruiz is the founder of Balam Private Security, an intermediary in the Pegasus deal, according to Proceso. The magazine tracked down three properties ostensibly linked to the company, one in Mexico City and two in San Luis Potosi. However, none of the addresses showed visible signs of the firm. In Mexico City a woman — who was apparently waiting for a bank employee and first answered in the affirmative that Balam Private Security was indeed behind a door — changed her tune when she was informed that the inquiring person outside was a journalist.
“No, we aren’t that company,” she said from behind the closed door. “I got confused.”
In a San Luis Potosi wild goose chase, instead of Balam Private Security offices reporters variously encountered an empty warehouse, an auto parts store, a car alarm shop, and a supermarket and chicken outlet next to a gas station.
The fire that Pegasus started
As the third week of June progressed, the spying scandal widened, with daily revelations of additional or attempted acts of espionage at both the federal and state levels. Conservative National Action Party (PAN) President Ricardo Anaya told the Mexican press that his party had detected at least four attempts at Pegasus-related electronic intervention.
“We aren’t going to rest until the responsible parties resign their posts, are (legally) processed and jailed,” Anaya, who’s widely regarded as a 2018 presidential contender, was quoted as saying. “…There can’t be impunity. We want the highest ranking responsible parties, not their operators. We will go to the ultimate consequences.”
Additionally, PAN Congresswoman Brenda Velazquez filed a complaint with the Washington-D.C. based IACHR seeking protective measures from government spying operations aimed at journalists, activists and opposition politicians.
Leaders of other political parties joined in the fray. Jesus Zambrano, vice-coordinator of the Party of the Democratic Revolution fraction in the lower house of the Mexican Congress, requested that Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong and CISEN chief Eugenio Imaz render testimony before the lawmaking body’s permanent committee.
A member of Peña Nieto’s own PRI party, Ivonne Ortega, former governor of Yucatan state and an ex-secretary general of the PRI, also claimed she had been an espionage target, telling Aristegui she would file a legal complaint with the PGR.
From the floor of the Mexican Congress, lively scenes were transmitted into cyberspace by Aristegui News. PRI Senator Graciela Ortiz lashed out at international media, presumably The New York Times, for allegedly making claims it could not back up.
Lia Limon of the PRI allied Mexican Green Party demanded that any investigation adhere to constitutional principles of a presumption of innocence. Vidal Llerenas, representative for 2018 presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez’s Morena party, declared, “It’s interesting to see how The New York Times has a new detractor that’s not only Donald Trump but the PRI.”
Outside the halls of Congress, Lopez Obrador promised to end illegal spying if he is elected president next year. On another front, two of the official losers in the June 4 gubernatorial election in the northern border state of Coahuila, the PAN’s Guillermo Anaya and Morena’s Armando Guadiana, publicly complained they had been targets of electronic eavesdropping and the recording of private conversations. Both men are contesting election results that favored the PRI’s candidates.
What’s more, the Pegasus spying scandal revived a 2015 story growing out of WikiLeaks that focused on the Italian-owned Hacking Team company, a firm that sold software similar to Pegasus to federal agencies and state governments in Mexico, including current and past administrations tainted by corruption scandals like the one headed by Cesar Duarte, the fugitive ex-governor of Chihuahua who is wanted on embezzlement charges by the new Chihuahua state government and faces federal accusations of election law violations.
On June 22, Enrique Alfaro, mayor of Guadalajara, resigned from a government commission, saying he was uncomfortable with the Jalisco state administration of Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval having Hacking Team spyware.
In Guerrero state, meanwhile, Proceso quoted unidentified “official” sources contradicting an earlier statement made by Gov. Hector Astudillo to the magazine that spyware obtained by a predecessor, Angel Aguirre, was missing.
Aguirre resigned the governorship amid the 2014 political turmoil swirling around the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. According to Proceso, the sources maintained the spy program known as “The Dog” was used to trace cell phone calls made while the Ayotzinapa students were under attack by state security forces in the city of Iguala nearly three years ago.
Ayotzinapa parents have long insisted that cell phone calls made during and even after the so-called Night of Iguala could shed light on what really happened to their still-missing children.
Broadening the spying scandal’s scope, La Jornada daily ran a June 22 story contending that 729 people had been the object of espionage facilitated by software programs including IBIS, Data Suite and others during the late summer of 2015. The targets included Lopez Obrador’s son, media figures and the INAI, Mexico’s government agency that processes freedom of information requests.
Observing the Mexican spying scandal unfold, the British independent newspaper headlined an article, “Trump’s Russian scandal pales in comparison to what just happened in Mexico.”
If the initial Pegasus revelation wasn’t enough to scorch the political landscape, comments made by President Enrique Peña Nieto last week only heated up the scene. Speaking at a June 22 event in Jalisco, Peña Nieto said many people in Mexico had been espionage targets, himself included. The Mexican president wrapped up his comments by declaring that persons who had made “false” accusations in the Pegasus affair should be investigated by the PGR.
In a statement released by his office, Peña Nieto later affirmed that he had given the PGR instructions to address “in the most accelerated way possible the legal complaints that were presented over alleged (electronic) interventions.”
Yet the president made an important qualifier, hinting at how far the investigative trail will go — or not go. He added that the PGR should determine whether there were individuals “outside of any public entity and in an illegal manner who were intervening in the private life of any persons.”
Assuring that his administration upheld democratic values, Peña Nieto said, “We are a government that respects freedom of expression, respects feelings, respects the way each citizen thinks, whether or not he or she is on the side of the government, but we have always been respectful.”
Not missing a beat, Mexican non-governmental organizations issued a response to the president’s Jalisco remarks within hours. In a communique, the Prodh, the R3D digital rights network, Consumer Power and other civil society organizations charged that the president’s words “normalized” spying, set up any governmental investigation of Pegasus for failure and held the messenger responsible for the crime.
“Consequently, we reiterate that the only way of ensuring a profound and real investigation is by the formation of an independent panel of experts that, in any event, would scrutinize the action or inaction of the PGR in the spying ‘investigation,'” the communique stated. “At the same time, given that the president affirmed that his government has spying technology, let there be transparency and publish the signed contracts with espionage companies.”
WOLA’s Maureen Meyer vowed spying would not stop the work of either her organization or her colleagues in Mexico. “I think the Mexican government needs to provide answers to the victims and international society about what’s going on,” Meyer said.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.