Prominent Mexican journalists, activists and lawyers who have been outspoken critics the Mexican government have been targets of a spyware that government agencies acquired under the guise of fighting terrorism, a new New York Times investigation published Monday revealed.
The report says at least three federal agencies have bought spyware from an Israeli company for a sum of US$80 million since 2011. One software, called Pegasus, is able to hack a smartphone and acquire calls, texts messages and emails, as well as control the device's microphone and camera.
Lawyers working on the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa students forcibly disappeared in 2014, who have accused the government of negligence and an attempted cover-up of the iconic incident, received fake messages with a link to a story related to the case. According to the report, such text messages functioned to open a phone up to the spyware.
“We have always suspected they spied on us and listened to us,” Mario Patron, one of the lawyers, told the New York Times.
“But to have evidence that we are victims of actual surveillance, it confirms that we are under threat. And that the government is willing to use illegal measures to try and stop us.”
Journalist Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico's most prominent journalists who is very critical of the government and has covered corruption schemes involving President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife in high-profile reports, also received hundreds of messages asking her to click on a link.
“It’s been about getting revenge for the piece,” Aristegui said, referring to her coverage of the government corruption case. “There’s really no other way to see it.”
She even received a message posing as the United States Embassy in Mexico and asked her to click on a link to solve a problem with her visa. She says her son, who was 16-years-old and living in the U.S. at the time, was also targeted.
“The only reason they could be going after my son is in the hopes of finding something against me, to damage me,” she said.
According to the report, NSO Group — the company that sold the software — says it sells it "exclusively to governments, with an explicit agreement that it be used only to battle terrorists or the drug cartels and criminal groups."
Juan Pardinas, the director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a key figure in writing anti-corruption legislation, and his wife were also part of the group of individuals targeted. Pardina's wife was sent a message offering proof her husband was having an affair.
“We are the new enemies of the state,” Pardinas said. “Ours is a society where democracy has been eroded.”
Other journalists activists working on issues of human rights violations, victims of sexual abuse by police in Mexico and their relatives were also targeted.
The Mexican government has said it “categorically denies that any of its members engages in surveillance or communications operations against defenders of human rights, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization.”