The Mexican president admitted on Tuesday he was told his senior human rights official was being spied on, but said he told the official not to worry.
The admission comes a day after The New York Times revealed that Alejandro Encinas, the Mexican government’s undersecretary for human rights, was hacked by the world’s most notorious spyware as he was investigating abuses by the country’s military.
« He told me about it and I told him not to give it any importance because there was no intention of spying on anyone, » President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said after being asked about the Times report at its regular Tuesday morning press conference.
Mr López Obrador, who took office in 2018, has vowed to stop past « illegal » and « immoral » surveillance and said his government does not spy on anyone.
Mr. Encinas has been repeatedly targeted by spyware known as Pegasus, up until last year, the Times reported. The cyberattacks on Mr. Encinas were confirmed by four people who spoke to him about the spying and an independent forensic analysis conducted by Citizen Lab, a surveillance group based at the University of Toronto.
Pegasus can infiltrate mobile phones without leaving a trace of intrusion and extract all data: every text message, every email, every photo. The system can even watch people through the phone’s camera and listen to them through the microphone.
The Israeli-made spy tool has infected thousands of cell phones worldwide and is licensed to be sold only to government agencies.
There’s no definitive proof of who was behind Mr. Encinas’ phone hacks, but the only entity in Mexico that has access to Pegasus is the military, according to five people familiar with the spyware contracts.
Mr. Encinas leads the government’s truth commission in the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history. He and his team have accused the military of having a role in the mass abduction of the students.
This is the first time there has been a publicly confirmed case of Pegasus spying on such a senior member of an administration in Mexico, let alone someone so close to the president.
When asked if the government would investigate the surveillance of Mr. Encinas, who has been a friend and ally of Mr. López Obrador for decades, the president said: « No, we don’t spy. »
Several rights groups condemned López Obrador’s comments.
“We are sorry the president is downplaying the spying his administration carries out,” tweeted the Prodh Center, a human rights organization whose employees were spied on with Pegasus last year.
A panel of independent experts conducting an investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students has asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the cyber attacks on Mr. Encinas, calling them « acts that violate the right to freedom, to privacy ».
Under former president Enrique Peña Nieto, there were several Pegasus machines in Mexico controlled by the attorney general’s office, the country’s spy agency, and the military.
But by 2019, all Pegasus systems in the country had been shut down except for the one operated by the military, according to four people familiar with the contracts signed in Mexico.
After the Biden administration blacklisted the maker of the spyware, NSO Group, in 2021, the Israeli Defense Ministry said it would take steps to prevent the system from being used for purposes other than fighting serious crime and terrorism.
The Defense Ministry then ordered several countries to be disconnected from Pegasus, but did not cancel the Mexican military’s license and subsequently extended it. A ministry spokesman declined to comment.
NSO Group has opened an investigation into reported abuse of Pegasus in Mexico, according to a person familiar with the company’s compliance protocols.
It is unclear how such an investigation would affect the fate of spyware in Mexico, where Pegasus has been used against human rights defenders and journalists for years with almost no accountability.
Emiliano Rodriguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.