Since at least 2013, there has been evidence that the Mexican government possesses sophisticated surveillance technology.
But it was not until 2016, with the case dubbed #GobiernoEspía (#SpyGovernment), that Mexico found itself in an uproar over government surveillance at both the national and international levels. The case was made public in the middle of 2016 thanks to the investigation, documentation, and publication of jointly prepared report from non-profit civil and digital rights organizations Article 19, Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D, Network in Defense of Digital Rights), SocialTIC, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
The investigation uncovered the government’s use of a surveillance software product called Pegasus to spy on reporters, activists and civil rights advocates under critical circumstances involving their work. The software was manufactured and sold to the Mexican government by the Israeli company NSO Group.
Since then, dozens of civil society organizations, national and international public figures and the victims of technical surveillance have united to speak out against indiscriminate and arbitrary surveillance practices.
A joint general statement signed and published on June 19, 2017 read:
We demand fiscal accountability from the Mexican government regarding the use of malware to conduct espionage, thorough and transparent independent investigations, and sanctions against those responsible who, through the abuse of power, have decided to infringe upon the privacy of these advocates for social change. Additionally, we demand the legal reforms that are necessary to control state surveillance practices so that they comply with human rights parameters and guarantee fiscal accountability.
Exigimos rendición de cuentas por parte del gobierno mexicano sobre el uso de malware para realizar espionaje, la apertura de investigaciones independientes, exhaustivas y transparentes, así como sanciones contra los responsables que, mediante el abuso del poder, han decidido vulnerar ilegalmente la privacidad de estos actores sociales. Asimismo, exigimos las reformas legales necesarias para regular las facultades de vigilancia del Estado de conformidad con los parámetros de derechos humanos y garantizando la rendición de cuentas.
Unfortunately, eight months after this happened, and despite the fact that the authorities announced that they would initiate an investigation to establish who should be held responsible, no results or substantial advances in this regard have been seen.
Sketch on Sunday because the #gobiernoespia issue is serious and we need to talk about it
— Eréndira Derbez (@erederbez) February 25, 2018
Translation of sketch:
In 2017 the New York Times published a report —>
—> the Mexican government purchased a spying software —> for almost 80 million dollars —> PEGASUS —> That can only be used to spy on organized crime
—> But they used it to spy on journalists and NGOs ([journalists] Aristegui, Loret, [organizations] ProDH, Mexicans Against Corruption, etc
—>That’s illegal! —> The victims reported the crime
—> 8 months after the beginning of the investigation there’s no serious progress —> It’s a bureaucratic labyrinth —> The Attorney General’s Office is not going to investigate itself
—> To have a proper investigation, we need an autonomous (and independent) Attorney General’s Office —> So governmental abuses can be punished.
A difficult investigation
On February 20, 2018, a new report from The New York Times announced that, among other things, United States government officials had rejected requests from the Mexican government to aid in the investigations. The reason given was that they didn’t want to legitimize an investigation which, from the beginning, was thought to be corrupt.
Indeed, the Office of the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, commonly referred to as PGR) — the agency in charge of leading the investigation — is one of the federal government agencies that appeared to have bought and used this surveillance software.
The FBI didn’t want to get involved with the PGR and authenticate its hoax. https://t.co/R6IJZrlvT5
— Pepe Flores 👁🗨 (@padaguan) February 20, 2018
In this new article from The New York Times, ex-assistant attorney general to the PGR Mario Ignacio Álvarez even stated:
Most likely, the politicians who used this software are slowing down the investigation so that it doesn’t move forward.
This is a country where it is still better to pray to the Virgin Mary for justice than it is to go to the authorities.
The advocacy organizations that have been pressing for answers since the case was first uncovered recently called for the formation of a panel of independent experts that can, in contrast with the PGR, carry out an investigation that is reliable, impartial, and thorough to establish who is responsible and hold them accountable.
In the statement, which was published on the same day as the last report from the NYT, the signatory organizations highlighted evidence of the federal government’s lack of intention to clarify the facts. They enumerated various actions that have not been taken to sanction those who were guilty of using this kind of illegal surveillance.
- In the dossier, the Criminal Investigation Agency of the PGR accepted that licenses to use Pegasus were obtained and that the equipment on which said software was used was found in its offices in Mexico City. However, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of Speech (FEADLE), which is in charge of the case, hasn’t taken any action regarding the Criminal Investigation Agency despite these elements along with repeated requests to do so from the accusers and recommendations by qualified experts in the investigation, such as Citizen Lab.
- The agents who were trained to operate Pegasus have not been identified or interviewed.
- No visits to the facilities in which the software was used have been made.
- The surveillance cameras, records, logs, and security measures involved with system usage have not been reviewed.
- No formal request for the contract and technical appendix through which they acquired Pegasus has been made, despite the fact that this has already been called for by the press.
Media, citizens, and artists demand answers
All of the above has been summarized in the episode “Cyberwar, the Pegasus case” from the documentary series “Cyberwar” by VICE media, which its producers describe as being dedicated to exposing the cyber espionage networks that exist in different parts of the world.
In the face of #GobiernoEspía and the lack of investigation, R3Dmx, @CentroProdh and @article19mex demand an independent investigation, since there haven’t been any advances in 8 months.
The documentary “Cyberwar” by @VICE reveals the use of Pegasus by the Mexican government. pic.twitter.com/Lg62dLIpdQ
— Centro Prodh (@CentroProdh) February 28, 2018
The Mexican government hasn’t made any announcements up to now, although the demands for accountability continue. As recently as 25 February, the artistic community, civil society organizations, activists and journalists joined together not only to celebrate that the play “Privacidad” (“Privacy,” starring Diego Luna and Luis Gerardo Méndez) had completed 100 performances, but also to publicly condemn the fact that the crimes continue to go unpunished.
Some of the people who were targets of the surveillance by Pegasus participated in the celebration, as well as Edward Snowden.
Last night, Diego Luna and Luis Gerardo Méndez celebrated the 100th presentation of the play “Privacy” (Privacidad) with human rights defenders, activists and journalists that were spied on using Pegasus by the Spy Government.
Edward Snowden highlighted the brave exposure made by those targeted by the Spy Government and congratulated the team behind the play “Privacy” for amplifying the importance of that right. pic.twitter.com/NRk6hBd2aW
— R3D (@R3Dmx) February 27, 2018
Thanks to Kim Woo of Global Voices for her translation.