Spying on Mexican journalists and activist took place in a secret military unit, reveals 'Spy Army' investigation; NGOs call for international support

Given the impunity that prevails around the allegations of spying with Pegasus spyware on journalists and activists in Mexico, non-governmental organizations are calling for the intervention of international mechanisms to force Mexican military and civilian authorities to account for such cases.

Representatives of the NGOs Article 19, the Network in Defense of Digital Rights (R3D) and SocialTIC said that almost six years after the first reports of spying on journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico, open judicial investigations have not been directed at identifying the intellectual authors or investigating the responsibility of public officials in this illegal surveillance.

On the contrary, civilian and military authorities have been evasive and have denied the evidence of their participation in spying with Pegasus that organizations and media have managed to collect.

Screenshot of the "Spy Army" investigation.

"Ejército Espía" is an investigation by the NGOs R3D, Artículo 19 and SocialTic, in alliance with journalistic media outlets Animal Político, Aristegui Noticias and Proceso. (Photo: Screenshot of ejercitoespia.r3d.mx)



"Having exhausted the State's own institutions, which are not acting with due diligence, we are reasonably asking for the intervention of international investigative mechanisms," said Leopoldo Maldonado, director for Mexico and Central America of Article 19, at a press conference in Mexico City on March 7. "We are not asking for it in a vacuum, it is not a fad. It’s something that comes from the systematic and systemic impunity this country suffers from."

The organizations do not rule out taking the cases of spying on journalists and activists to authorities in the United States, as did employees of the Salvadoran digital media El Faro, who filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court against the manufacturer of Pegasus, the Israeli company NSO Group, after being spied on with the spyware.

"All international avenues are open, from international protection bodies such as these civil lawsuits in the United States against NSO Group," said Luis Fernando García, director of R3D. "I think it’s been beyond demonstrated that the Mexican State is not capable of investigating and sanctioning these conducts, as the case of [spying on journalists in] 2017 demonstrates: [it’s been] More than six years have passed and we’ve seen no significant progress in the investigation regarding the responsibility of public officials."

The organizations met to unveil advances in "Ejército Espía [Spy Army]," an investigation by R3D, Artículo 19, SocialTic and the news outlets Animal Político, Aristegui Noticias and Proceso, and published in October 2022. It shows evidence of spying with Pegasus on journalist Ricardo Raphael, a journalist from Animal Político who remains anonymous and human rights defender Raymundo Ramos by the Mexican Army.

Among the new findings of the investigation is that the spying on the journalists and the activist was carried out from an alleged secret structure within the Mexican Army: the Military Intelligence Center (CMI, by its Spanish acronym). It was also revealed that the surveillance activities were carried out with the knowledge and endorsement of the Secretary of Defense of the current administration, Luis Crescencio Sandoval.

The above was found thanks to official documents that are part of the mega leak by the hacker group Guacamaya, which was released in September 2022, and a forensic analysis work by the organizations that authored "Ejército Espía," in alliance with the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto.

During the last six years, at least 16 cases of spying on journalists through Pegasus have been documented, and at least 11 cases of surveillance of human rights defenders, García said. Only one person has been prosecuted for the cases reported in 2017. This is a low-level employee of one of the intermediary companies linked to Pegasus, who is awaiting trial.

Despite the fact that the evidence that keeps this person linked to judicial proceedings shows that he participated in the espionage at the request and for the benefit of high-ranking officials of the government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Attorney General's Office has not investigated any of the high-ranking officials of the agencies involved.

"The [current] Attorney General's Office has had this file open longer than the last government without any results," García said. "That is why since we filed the complaint in October 2022 about the cases of Raymundo [Ramos], Ricardo Raphael and a journalist from the Animal Político news outlet, we warned about our skepticism that the investigation would move forward. Unfortunately, more than five months after the complaint was filed, history repeats itself. Not only the history of espionage, but also the history of impunity.”

The director of R3D said that the Attorney General's Office has asked the Ministry of National Defense (Sedena) for information about its alleged contracts with Comercializadora Antsua, the company in Mexico authorized by NSO Group to sell Pegasus. The military agency has responded with oblique answers or denied the existence of such contracts, despite the fact that documents revealed in "Ejército Espía" prove that such contracts did exist.

Representatives of NGOs Article 19 Mexico and R3D with Mexican human rights defender Raymundo Ramos speak during a press conference.

Luis Fernando García, from R3D (left); Raymundo Ramos (center) and Leopoldo Maldonado, from Artículo 19 (right) presented the new findings of "Ejército Espía" in Mexico City. (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

In addition to obstructing the investigation into the espionage cases, Sedena has also blocked access to information in this case of public interest under the excuse of national security.

When questioned about the findings of "Ejército Espía" last October, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assured that his government does not spy on journalists or activists and asked the Army to make transparent the use they have made of the Pegasus program. Sedena not only blocked several requests for information regarding the "Ejército Espía" team, but also denied the existence of documents linking it to the NSO Group’s intermediary company.

However, "Ejército Espía" found that Sedena reported to the Superior Audit Office of the Federation - Mexico's government watchdog - that it had entered into contracts with Comercializadora Antsua in 2019 and had paid about 140 million pesos (about $7.7 million USD) for "remote monitoring service licenses."

Mexico's National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data (INAI) ordered on Jan. 25 of this year that Sedena look for the information on the contracts with Comercializadora Antsua. Days later, the military agency responded that such information was to be kept confidential for five years because it was related to "national security" matters.

"We hope that INAI will determine that this classification of confidentiality is illegal, inasmuch as it is information about illegal actions," Garcia said. "How are you going to make confidential information about your own crimes? How is the public interest of guaranteeing you impunity going to be superior to the public interest of knowing the illegal acts being carried out by the Army?"

Conversations with journalists were the target of espionage

The Mexican Army had access to private conversations between human rights defender Raymundo Ramos and at least three journalists about alleged extrajudicial executions at the hands of the Army that took place on July 3, 2020.

According to documents revealed in "Ejército Espía," military personnel detailed to a higher authority the talks that Ramos had with a journalist from the newspaper El Universal, another from the Televisa network and another from the newspaper El País between July and August of that year. The document states that Ramos had shared with the journalists information and audiovisual material about the actions of the Army in the executions.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ramos said that the intercepted communications had been text messages and calls on encrypted platforms such as Telegram. According to the "Ejército Espía" team, the only way the Army could have intercepted those conversations is through spyware such as Pegasus. Moreover, the chats with journalists happened exactly between the dates when Citizen Lab's analysis concluded that Ramos' phone had been tapped.

"This espionage has no limits. This espionage has unlimited resources to be carried out and the most serious thing about this is that we do not know what they are going to do with that information or to whom they are going to share it," Ramos said at the press conference. “I regret that any journalist or relatives of victims are being put at risk precisely because of an act of espionage.”

Under Mexican law, the Army is not empowered to intercept private conversations, the investigation stated. In addition, Sedena is used to not collaborating with civilian law enforcement authorities as an autonomous and unaccountable institution, Maldonado said. For this reason, the cases of spying on journalists, activists and opponents at the hands of the Army do not make any progress in the Mexican justice system.

Mexican journalist Ricardo Raphael

One of the Mexican journalists whose phone was infected by Pegasus was Ricardo Raphael, columnist for The Washington Post and Milenio and presenter at ADN40 TV channel. (Photo: Courtesy)

In light of this, R3D, Article 19 and SocialTIC jointly demanded the immediate halt to military espionage, that the Mexican Congress enforce the subordination of military authorities to civilian authorities and a halt to the obstruction of open judicial investigations into espionage, such as those of Ramos, Raphael and the journalist from Animal Político.

"What we are sure of is that these are not the only cases. There must be many, many more cases and that is why it’ extremely important that there be an opening of the military and also of the civilian intelligence files, and not only of this government, but also of previous governments," García said. "It is necessary to open those files and be able to share the truth with all the victims."

The organizations also demanded from the authorities guarantees of justice, truth and reparation for the victims of espionage, as well as the guarantee of non-repetition of these cases. They also demanded the regulation of the purchase and sale of spyware-type programs.

"Espionage in Mexico is not an anecdote, it’s not normal and it’s not something we can normalize," Maldonado said. "This is serious because it entails of course a violation of the right to privacy, the right to intimacy [...] but it also has an inhibiting effect on freedom of expression."

Banner photo: Tomas Castelazo via Wikimedia Commons, Nevarpp and Hailshadow via Canva