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Research paper, Human rights & justice, Technology & society, Citizen Lab, Munk School

New Pegasus Spyware Abuses Identified in Mexico

Background

In 2017, the Citizen Lab, along with partners R3D, SocialTic and Article19, released a series of eight reports on widespread Pegasus targeting in Mexico. Many sectors of Mexican civil society were targeted, including investigative journalists and lawyers for cartel victims’ familiesanti-corruption groupsprominent lawmakersinternational investigators examining enforced disappearances, and even the spouse of a journalist killed in a cartel slaying.

A public scandal ensued when the Pegasus targeting was first revealed, resulting in extensive scrutiny into the surveillance practices of Mexican authorities, and especially prosecutors. A still-ongoing criminal investigation was also opened in Mexico.

In 2021, as part of the Pegasus Project revelations (a collaboration between Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International’s Security Lab, and a coalition of media organizations), it was reported that at least 50 people in the circle of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s current president, were among individuals potentially selected for surveillance with Pegasus between 2016-2017. The targets included the now-President’s children and spouse. The same report indicated that at least 45 Mexican governors and former governors may have been similarly selected for surveillance.

The Pegasus Project also found that a wide swath of Mexican civil society, from teachers to journalists, lawyers and international investigators examining enforced disappearances, may have been selected for surveillance.

In 2019, after taking power, López Obrador assured Mexicans in a televised press conference that there would be no more Pegasus abuses in Mexico:

We are not involved with that. Here we decided that there would not be any persecution against anyone. When we were in the opposition we were spied on (…) now that is prohibited. We have not purchased systems for interceptions, among other things because of the corruption that was involved in the purchase of all of this equipment at very elevated prices, to foreign companies, spy systems, a lot of money was spent, there is still unused equipment purchased in the previous government. We don’t do that. And we don’t do it because it is a matter of principle”. [informal translation]

In 2021, Mexico’s president reiterated his claim that the Mexican government was not spying with Pegasus, saying in response to a question: “This does not happen.The government does not spy on anyone.” [informal translation]

The latest findings by R3D indicate that Pegasus abuses continued in Mexico. Their report also highlights evidence of recent contracts between Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA), and companies linked to prior sales of Pegasus to the Mexican government.