Mexico: Pegasus Spyware used on Journalists and Citizens

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March 10, 2023: On  March 7, 2023, a joint investigation published by The New York Times and Aristegui Noticias reported that the Mexican Armed Forces used NSO’s Pegasus surveillance software to spy on the communications between journalists at the newspaper El Universal, and human rights defender Raymundo Ramos. 

According to the investigation, an intelligence unit at the Ministry of National Defence (SEDENA) hacked Ramos’ phone on numerous occasions between 2019 and 2020 and eavesdropped on conversations with journalists at El Universal with the aim of accessing data and interfering in investigations into extrajudicial executions in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, with the full knowledge of the military High Command.

The investigation has revealed shocking evidence of the illegal use of surveillance tools by the military to spy on its own people. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who pledged to never spy on his opponents, must immediately cease such practices which amount to serious breaches of human rights and clearly hinder the work of journalists and independent media, said Romana Cacchioli, Executive Director of PEN International.

According to analysis by Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto, forensic tests show that Ramos’ mobile phone had been infected with Pegasus spyware on several occasions. The investigation also reveals that the spying on Ramos stemmed from his reporting on a manhunt in the city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, in July 2020. Soldiers chasing several pickup trucks ultimately killed a dozen passengers whom the military said had been part of a local criminal group. Ramos publicized the allegations and a local newspaper published images that compromised the army.

The Mexican authorities, in particular the President and the army, must convince the international community that they will immediately end the persecution of journalists and human rights defenders. The only way to reduce the current high levels of impunity is to punish those responsible and deliver transparent justice for the victims. No journalist, writer or human rights defender should face threats or harassment of any kind for simply doing their job, said Grace Westcott, President of PEN Canada.

For years, the Mexican government has been implicated in scandals involving the use of spyware against a wide range of citizens, including journalists. PEN International and PEN Canada call on the Mexican authorities to stop their surveillance of journalists, researchers, authors and human rights defenders, a practice that hinders work that is vital to the development of healthy democracies.

PEN International and PEN Canada also support calls by organisations such as ARTICLE 19, for the army not to obstruct investigations by the Attorney General’s Office, and to publicly disclose details of all SEDENA contracts related to spyware.