Cyberattack against Encinas Proves Espionage Persists in Mexico
By KELIN DILLON
According to a new report released by New York Times (NYT) journalists Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman on Monday, May 22, Mexico’s Undersecretary for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas – a close friend of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) – has been repeatedly spied on while leading the nation’s Truth Commission via the notorious Pegasus spyware, marking the first known case of a high-ranking Mexican official’s monitoring by Pegasus in its decade-plus long use in the country.
The licensing rights for Pegasus are only made available to government agencies, and in Mexico, that right remains exclusively with the Mexican Secretariat of Defense (Sedena) and its armed forces, sources with knowledge of the corresponding contracts told the NYT.
A previous report authored by Kitroeff and Bergman went on to allege that the Mexican military is the largest user of Pegasus espionage spyware in the entire world, and while there is no definitive proof released surrounding who was behind the hack of Encinas’ cellphone as of yet, the military’s exclusive rights to the technology seem to place the blame for the surveillance directly on the shoulders of the armed forces.
The allegations of the hack’s source are only bolstered by Encinas’ ongoing tensions with the Mexican military; the undersecretary for human rights has been leading the charge of Mexico’s Truth Commission, as created underneath the AMLO administration with the aim of finding those responsible in the infamous 2014 case of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students, the very same commission that has purported that the Armed Forces are the culpable party behind Mexico’s most prolific human rights tragedy and labeled the 2014 disappearance as a “state crime.”
Two other officials close to Encinas and tied to the human rights investigation of the armed forces were likewise shown to be hacked, according to a forensic analysis conducted by Canadian watchdog group Citizen Lab.
While López Obrador has previously touted his government’s intentions to end espionage practices in Mexico and characterizing the practice as “illegal,” the forensically proven hacking of Encinas’ cell phone – which reputedly gave hackers access to all aspects of the device, including the microphone and camera, even when the phone was switched off – reveals a very different reality about ongoing cyber intelligence in the country.
Encinas purportedly met with AMLO in March to discuss the hacking of his cell phone, the very same month López Obrador stated that “we do not spy on anyone” and that espionage “is an act of dishonesty and lack of principles.” The undersecretary for human rights subsequently kept the cyberattack against him quiet after consulting with the federal executive, with the information only coming to public light following Monday’s publication of the NYT exposé.
“If someone as close to the president as Alejandro Encinas is being watched, it is clear that there is no democratic control of the spyware,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, director of anti-corruption group Transparency International’s Mexican division.
Now, as Pegasus manufacturer NSO Group continues its investigation into violations of human rights through the use of its technology in Mexico and decides if it will ultimately revoke the nation’s access to the cyber espionage software, it remains to be seen if the López Obrador administration or the armed forces will take accountability for the proven misuse of spyware in Mexico.