Mexico’s military used Pegasus to spy on human rights activists: #EjércitoEspía

Gibrán Aquino
  • Two people from Centro Prodh were spied on with Pegasus by the Mexican Army between June and September 2022 in the context of human rights defense.
  • Centro Prodh has been attacked with Pegasus under the last two governments in Mexico and the cases remain in impunity.
  • The organizations responsible for the #EjércitoEspía investigation demand an end to illegal spying, an independent and international investigation, and legal and institutional reform to prevent the abuse of intelligence systems.

Mexico City, April 18, 2022 – A forensic analysis conducted by the Citizen Lab —an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, who researches the intersection of technology, human rights, and global security—has revealed that two members of the human rights organization Centro Prodh—AKA Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, a non-profit founded in 1988 by the Society of Jesus which mission is to promote human rights and structural changes in society—were subjected to surveillance by the Mexican Armed Forces between June and September 2022.

Technical evidence provided by the Citizen Lab confirms that Centro Prodh has been targeted for attacks under both recent Mexican governments.

The analysis discovered that the mobile devices—iPhones—of the director and coordinator of the International Area of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) were infected with Pegasus malware—a powerful surveillance software developed by the NSO Group that can secretly collect information from mobile devices.

A report published by the organizations responsible for the #EjércitoEspía investigation—Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D), a Mexican organization dedicated to defending human rights in the digital environment; ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organization that defends freedom of expression and information; and SocialTIC, a non-profit organization dedicated to research, training, support and promotion of digital technology and information for social purposes—in collaboration with Centro Prodh, details the attacks discovered by Citizen Lab.

The report is titled “Centro Prodh again attacked with Pegasus: How Impunity and Militarization propitiated the repetition of espionage.”

On December 15, 2022, Centro Prodh received an email from Apple sent to their iCloud account. The company informed them that their devices had been subject to an illegal intrusion by “state-sponsored aggressors.” During President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s term in office, at least five people have been subject to illegal Pegasus surveillance, allegedly by the Mexican Army. According to data provided by the media, the only one currently in possession of Pegasus is the military institution in Mexico. The espionage cases revealed in 2022 are still in impunity.

The results of a forensic analysis showed that the infections occurred between June and September 2022.

The first documented infection occurred on Wednesday, June 22 and affected the phone of the director of Centro Prodh, Santiago Aguirre Espinosa. This date coincides with an event held in Military Camp No. 1, as part of the activities of the Commission for Truth and Justice for the 1965-1990 events, known as the Dirty War period.

On Thursday, June 23, 2022, the army infected the device of the coordinator of the international area of the Center, María Luisa Aguilar Rodríguez. On that same date, a public hearing was held at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress where cases such as Ayotzinapa, the murder of Jesuit priests in Cerocahui, Chihuahua and the Barajas family of Guanajuato were discussed.

On July 13, 2022, the director of Centro Prodh was the victim of another Pegasus infection. This occurred two days before the hacktivist collective Guacamaya leaked an internal document from the Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA). The content of this document showed the interest of the armed forces in monitoring statements by religious authorities related to the homicide of the Jesuit priests in Cerocahui. 

Another attack took place on September 24, 2022, one day after normalistas and relatives of the disappeared students from Ayotzinapa held a protest in front of Military Camp No. 1.

In this context, there were also several events related to the human rights advocacy work and legal advice offered by Centro Prodh, such as the dissemination of verified information from the report of the Presidency of the Mexican Commission for Access to Truth and Justice, the revocation of arrest warrants against military personnel implicated in the case, and the resignation of the Special Prosecutor due to the interference of the Attorney General.

On September 29, 2022, the Mexican Army again infected the phone of one of Centro Prodh’s defenders with Pegasus, coinciding with the presentation of the IV Report of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts on the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students. Representatives of the organization were invited to the presentation as part of the affected families.

During the period between June and September 2022, Centro Prodh highlighted several public denunciations of the failure of the security policy, with special attention to the dangers of militarization. According to Citizen Lab’s analysis, members of Centro Prodh have been victims of attacks with the Pegasus malware in two different presidential terms: that of Enrique Peña Nieto and the current term of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

On June 19, 2017, the investigation Gobierno Espía revealed spying with Pegasus against 12 journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico, including three members of Centro Prodh. Although complaints have been filed with the FGR, the cases have not been clarified, showing the effects of impunity in the repetition of the facts.

In response to the deplorable events of illegal spying on human rights defenders and journalists by the Army, the “Ejercito Espía” group demands that the Army immediately stop such actions. They also demand that the safety and well-being of those under surveillance with Pegasus and their families be guaranteed. They call for an independent investigation into the recent spying on two human rights defenders from Centro Prodh and full clarification of cases reported since June 2017. They also demand the establishment of an independent and international investigation structure on illegal espionage in Mexico and a legal and institutional reform agenda to prevent abuse of the country’s intelligence systems.