Sedena Refuses to Release Info on Pegasus Spy Tool

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Despite a resolution issued by Mexico’s National Institute for Transparency Access to Information and Personal Data Protection (INAI) on Jan. 29 of this year ordering the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) to release to the public information on the contracts it entered with the company Comercializadora Antsua, provider of the Pegasus spyware program, the Sedena refused outright to release the information, citing “national security issues,” and even moved to “freeze” the information for five years.

“The plenary session of this Sedena Transparency Committee confirms and formally declares the contractual instruments entered into with the company Comercializadora Antsua as reserved information, remaining as such for a period of five years from this resolution, and may be declassified when the causes that gave rise to the request (for information) are extinguished or when the corresponding period has elapsed,” said a statement from the Sedena, in response to a transparency request by Mexican daily newspaper El Universal.

On Jan. 29, the INAI ordered the Sedena to deliver the documents related to the contracts that it entered into with Antsua, for “the service of remote information monitoring.”

According to a New York Times report on Tuesday, April 18, “Mexico became the first and most prolific user of Pegasus,” which the article describes as “the word’s most notorious spy tool.”

The report by writers Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman details how Mexico came to adopt the Israeli spyware way back in 2011, where “the most powerful cyberweapon in existence got its start.”

“The spyware, known as Pegasus, has since become a global byword for the chilling reach of state surveillance, a tool used by governments from Europe to the Middle East to hack into thousands of cellphones. No place has had more experience with the promise and the peril of the technology than Mexico, the country that inaugurated its spread around the globe,” wrote Kitroeff and Bergman.

“A New York Times investigation based on interviews, documents and forensic tests of hacked phones shows the secret dealings that led Mexico to become Pegasus’ first client, and reveals that the country grew into the most prolific user of the world’s most infamous spyware. Mexico went on to wield the surveillance tool against civilians who stand up to the state — abuses the country insists it has stopped. But The Times found that Mexico has continued to use Pegasus to spy on people who defend human rights, even in recent months.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) on Tuesday, during his daily morning press conference, said that the Sedena does not spy on anyone, but does carry out “intelligence activities.”

He also said that he already made the decision not to disclose national security information, and accused the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Pentagon of spying on the Mexican Army and Navy.

“Regarding intelligence — not espionage, because we also have to take care of our information, for national security — I have already made this decision. We are going to take care of the information from the Secretariat of the Navy and the Secretariat of Defense,” López Obrador said. “Because we are being spied on by the Pentagon, and many media outlets in Mexico are leaking information provided by the DEA. What we want is not to make it easier for those who are spying.”

López Obrador went even further and said that U.S. agencies “want to violate the sovereignty of Mexico,” and vowed that he “will not sit idly by.”

“I’m talking about U.S. agencies that want to rule, violate our sovereignty, so they start to leak information to the press, supposedly to weaken us politically,” said AMLO. “We feel that they are trying to violate our sovereignty in an interventionist plan, using the press as an instrument. We are not going to sit idly by.”

Still according to the New York Times story by Kitroeff and Bergman, the Pegasus spy tool “continues to be deployed in Mexico, not just to combat crime.”

“After the revelations that Pegasus had been wielded against government critics tarred his predecessor, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who came to office in 2018, promised to stop what he called the ‘illegal’ spying of the past,” said the article, but that AMLO “did not stop.”

“Previously undisclosed tests show that, as recently as the second half of 2022, Pegasus infiltrated the cellphones of two of the country’s leading human rights defenders, who provide legal representation to the victims of one of the most notorious mass disappearances in Mexican history,” referring to case of the Iguala mass kidnapping case, where on Sept. 26, 2014, 43 male students disappeared from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College after being forcibly abducted in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.

The human rights defenders alluded to in the New York Times article are two directors of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro ProDH), which has monitored cases of serious human rights violations, including the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students.

According to a Tuesday article by Mexico City-based political magazine Proceso, “the two directors were victims of spying with the Pegasus spy tool during the six-year term of López Obrador,” and that “one of them had already been the victim of illegal intervention with the system developed by the Israeli company during the administration of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.”

As part of the statement it released to El Universal denying the newspaper access to information on the contracts it entered with the provider of the Pegasus spy tool, the Sedena has asserted that “it is important to have technology that favors the fulfillment of the general missions of the Army, due to the current conditions of insecurity and public interest, as well as a priority of the Mexican government and the armed forces.”

It remains to be seen, however, what the Sedena meant about “public interest,” “fulfillment of the general missions of the Army” and “priority of the Mexican government and the armed forces” because according to the New York Times article, “within a few years (of its deployment), the (Pegasus) spyware began infiltrating the phones of some of Mexico’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists — surveillance that strayed far from the agreement with the Israelis to target serious crime and terrorism.”

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