Mexican journalists, activists accuse govt of spying on them

MEXICO CITY, Mexico – A group of prominent journalists and activists in Mexico accused the government Monday, June 19, of spying on them, saying their phones had been hacked with Israeli spyware sold exclusively to the state.

The group said at a press conference that it has pressed charges with the attorney general's office, accusing the government of illegally accessing private communications and other offenses.

The 9 plaintiffs at the news event included journalists who have published embarrassing exposes on government corruption and activists who have investigated human rights violations by the state.

"This is an operation by the Mexican state, in which state agents – far from doing what they should legally do – have used our resources, our taxes, our money to commit serious abuses," said journalist Carmen Aristegui.

Aristegui, a veteran reporter, is known in Mexico for a 2014 expose revealing that President Enrique Peña Nieto's wife had bought a $7 million Mexico City mansion from a government contractor.

She said members of her staff and her 16-year-old son were also targeted.

She is among the 76 cases the plaintiffs say they have documented of high-tech spyware being installed on their phones and those of their families and associates.

The accusation were first published in a New York Times report detailing how Pegasus was used against top human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists in Mexico.

"What does the Mexican president have to say today about this treacherous, illegal spying?" Aristegui said.

Peña Nieto's office responded with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

"There is no proof whatsoever that Mexican government agencies are responsible for the alleged spying," wrote spokesman Daniel Millan Valencia.

'Your husband's having an affair'

Victims said they received text messages with eye-catching news headlines, social media posts or even communications from the United States embassy – all of which were fake.

The messages would prompt users to click on a link that would secretly install the spyware on their phones.

The software in question, known as Pegasus, effectively turns a target's cell phone into a pocket spy, accessing the user's communications, camera and microphone to enable a highly detailed level of surveillance.

The spyware is made by a secretive Israeli firm called NSO Group, owned by US private equity firm Francisco Partners Management.

According to the New York Times report, at least 3 Mexican federal agencies have purchased some $80 million of spyware from NSO Group since 2011.

The company, which claims it only sells Pegasus to governments, says it has an agreement with clients that the software be used only to target terrorists and criminals.

In Mexico, alleged targets say the spying went far beyond that.

The group includes lawyers who investigated the disappearance and suspected massacre of 43 students in 2014 and transparency advocate Juan Pardinas, sponsor of a tough new anti-corruption bill.

Pardinas, the head of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, told the Times his wife had received a text message on her iPhone saying that he was having an affair and inviting her to click on a link to see proof.

"We are the new enemies of the state," he said.

Ana Cristina Ruelas, head of media rights group Article 19 in Mexico, called the alleged spying an attempt to muzzle government critics.

Espionage "has become an effective tool to intimidate human rights advocates, activists and journalists," she said. –