Mexico’s president admitted Tuesday that he was informed that his top human rights official was being spied on, but said he told the official not to worry about it.
The claim 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 while he was investigating the abuse of the country’s military.
“He told me about it and I told him not to give it any importance because there is no intention to spy on anyone,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said after being asked about The Times’ report at his regular conference on the morning news on Tuesday.
Mr. López Obrador, who took office in 2018, pledged to end “illegal” and “immoral” surveillance in the past and said his government was not spying on anyone.
Mr. Encinas has been repeatedly targeted by spyware known as Pegasus, as recently as last year, The Times reported. The cyber attacks on Mr. Encinas was corroborated by four people who spoke to him about the surveillance and an independent forensic analysis conducted by Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto.
Pegasus can infiltrate cellphones without leaving any trace of entry and extract every piece of data from them: every text message, every email, every photo. The system can even view people through the phone’s camera and listen to them through its microphone.
The Israeli-made spy tool has infected thousands of cellphones worldwide and is licensed for sale only to government agencies.
There is no definitive evidence as to who was behind the hacks on Mr. Encinas, but in Mexico, the only entity that has access to Pegasus is the military, according to five people familiar with the contracts for the spyware.
Mr. Encinas led the government’s truth commission on the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history. He and his group accused the military of playing a role in the mass abduction of students.
This is the first time there has been a publicly confirmed case of Pegasus spying on a senior member of a Mexican administration, especially one so close to the president.
When asked if the government will investigate the surveillance of Mr. Encinas, who has been a friend and ally of Mr. López Obrador for decades, the president said, “No, we are not spies.”
Several rights groups condemned Mr. López Obrador’s comments.
“We regret that the president minimized the spying carried out by his administration,” tweeted Centro Prodh, a human rights organization whose employees were spied on by Pegasus last year.
A group of independent experts conducting an investigation into the disappearance of 43 students called on 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 in 2019, all Pegasus systems in the country were disconnected except for one operated by the military, according to four people familiar with the contracts signed in Mexico.
After the Biden administration blacklisted the spyware maker, the NSO Group, in 2021, Israel’s Defense Ministry said it would take steps to prevent the system from being used for anything other than combating extremes. crime and terrorism.
The defense ministry then ordered several countries to disconnect from Pegasus, but did not cancel the license of the Mexican army and later extended it. A ministry spokesman declined to comment.
NSO Group has opened an investigation into reported abuses at Pegasus in Mexico, according to a person familiar with the company’s compliance protocols.
It is unclear how such an inquiry will affect the fate of spyware in Mexico, where Pegasus has been used against human rights defenders and journalists for years with near impunity.
Emiliano Rodriguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.