Pegasus’ new victim in Mexico: the president’s ally

He is an old friend of the president, a close political ally for decades and now the government’s top human rights official.

And he has been spied on many times.

Alejandro Encinas, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, was targeted by the notorious Pegasus spyware while investigating abuses by the national army, according to four people who spoke to him about the attack. An independent forensic analysis confirmed the hack.

Mexico has long been plagued by espionage scandals. But this is the first confirmed case of a top government official — and someone very close to the president — being monitored by Pegasus in more than ten years since the spying tool was used in the country.

The previously unannounced attacks on Encinas severely undermine President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s promise to end what he described as „illegal” spying practices in the past. And if even the president’s allies don’t seem safe, the attacks are a clear indication of the careless use of surveillance in Mexico.

The Pegasus license is only allowed to government agencies, and while there is no concrete evidence of who hacked Encinas’ cellphone, the military is the only agency in Mexico with access to the spyware, according to five people familiar with the deals. In fact, the Mexican military has infected more cell phones with this technology than any other government organization in the world.

For a long time, Encinas has been in tension with the armed forces. He and his team are accused of involvement in the disappearance of 43 students, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history.

His cell phone has been compromised several times — including last year, when he led the government’s truth commission into the disappearance — giving hackers unfettered access to his entire digital life, according to four people who spoke with him.

Now, in recent months, new cases have emerged confirming that spyware was used against human rights defenders and local journalists during the López Obrador government.

Even so, the attacks on Encinas stand out among the events seen in Mexico.

„When someone close to the president like Alejandro Encinas is being monitored, it’s clear that there is no democratic control over spyware,” said Eduardo Bojarquez, director of the Mexican chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International.

„There are no checks and balances,” he added. „The military has enormous power and no democratic oversight.”

Encinas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mexico’s president and defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Pegasus can infect a cell phone without showing signs of invasion and extract everything from it: every email, text message, photo, calendar appointment. Even if the phone appears to be turned off, you can see what’s being watched through the phone’s camera or hear through its microphone.

People who spoke to Encinas about the hacks said he learned about the infections through Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based watchdog group. The team conducted a forensic analysis of his phone, which has not been released.

The group also found the cellphones of two other government officials working with Encinas and evidence that they were involved in investigations into human rights abuses by the armed forces, according to three people with knowledge of the incidents.

Citizen Lab declined to comment.

NSO Group, the Israeli maker of Pegasus, has launched an investigation into cyberattacks on human rights defenders in Mexico, following recent New York Times reports about the military’s use of spyware, a person familiar with the investigations said. With NSO.

The agency began investigating the attacks on Encinas and two of his colleagues after The Times heard about the hacks, the person said.

In a statement, NSO pledged that it would not operate individual Pegasus systems, but would instead „investigate all credible allegations of misuse”: „NSO’s past investigations have resulted in the cancellation of several contracts related to improper use of our technologies.

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The cyber attack has put Encinas and the president in a difficult position. In early March, Encinas met with Lopez Obrador to discuss the spying and whether he should come forward, according to multiple people briefed on the conversation.

But since then, Encinas has remained silent about the Pegasus infection.

In the summer, Encinas and his team released an explosive report on the disappearance of 43 students, claiming the military played a role and describing the events as a „state crime.”

Doubts were raised about the evidence and Encinas came under intense scrutiny, especially after he admitted in an interview with The Times that key information from the investigation was „invalid”.

Lawyers representing the military involved in the case called for his resignation and sued him for perjury. From the beginning, López Obrador supported Encinas, saying he was „an exemplary public servant in whom we have complete confidence.”

The two men have been allies and political partners for more than two decades: Encinas was part of López Obrador’s cabinet in 2000, when he became Mexico City’s head of government.

„Andres is my friend, he is my partner”, Encinas reportedly said in 2011. „We are part of a team and a project.”

But since López Obrador took office, they have not always been aligned on the issue of the military’s growing power.

The country’s armed forces have vastly increased their powers under López Obrador, consolidating control over a range of other functions, including surveillance and construction of a 900-mile railway and airport, drug distribution and administration. Ports and Customs.

Encinas is one of the few within the government willing to criticize the military.

When soldiers killed five people in northern Mexico earlier this year, Encinas publicly said the disarmed men were „executed” by the military.

But the president has not moderated his support for the military. Despite mounting evidence of the military’s misuse of Pegasus, López Obrador continues to deny spying.

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„We are not spying on anyone,” López Obrador said in March. And he added: „This is dishonest and unprincipled.”

When the Israeli Defense Ministry grants licenses to sell Pegasus to government agencies, they must sign an agreement agreeing to use the surveillance tool exclusively to fight serious crime and terrorism, according to three Israeli defense officials.

NSO is now investigating whether Pegasus’ use in Mexico violated that agreement.

With two lawsuits from Apple and WhatsApp owner Meta in the US, the NSO is under more pressure than ever to demonstrate compliance with its own rules. The Joe Biden administration put the Israeli company on a blacklist in 2021 over concerns about how Pegasus is being used to „maliciously target” dissidents around the world.

The NSO appealed the decision, but as part of the process, the agency must show how it prevented misuse.

A senior NSO executive said the company has terminated 10 customers for violating the terms of their contracts. One of them, the Emir of Dubai, used Pegasus to spy on his ex-wife, court records have revealed.

If the NSO confirms that Encinas and others have been targeted without just cause, the agency can immediately cut off the Mexican military’s access to Pegasus.

In general, López Obrador’s position has not changed. After the Times revealed that the Mexican military had become the first and largest user of Pegasus, the president declared that the armed forces „respect human rights and do not spy as they did before.”

Emiliano Rodriguez Mega He contributed reporting from Mexico City.

Natalie Kittroff is The Times’ bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. @Natalikidro

Ronen Bergman is a journalist workers of the New York Times Magazine and lives in Tel Aviv. His latest book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted AssassinationsPublished by Random House.

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