Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
David Agren
David AgrenApril 25, 2023
People with missing relatives and victims of violence walk in a procession in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 28, 2022, in memory of their loved ones as part of the Praying Days for Peace called by the Catholic Church due to the ongoing violence in Mexico. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)People with missing relatives and victims of violence walk in a procession in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 28, 2022, in memory of their loved ones as part of the Praying Days for Peace called by the Catholic Church due to the ongoing violence in Mexico. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Santiago Aguirre winced upon seeing the email from Apple last December, warning of a possible targeting by “state-sponsored attackers.” A colleague at the Jesuit-supported Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico City, María Luisa Aguilar, received the same ominous email.

The emails, first reported by The New York Times, prompted suspicions of spying via the infamous Pegasus spyware, which infiltrates smartphones and surreptitiously hoovers up reams of sensitive information.

Mexico’s military has been one of the most prolific users of Pegasus spyware since 2011, having “targeted more cell phones with spyware than any other government agency in the world.”

They also provoked an eerie sense of déjà vu: Three staff members at Centro Pro, including Mr. Aguirre, were targeted with the same spyware in 2017.

“Five years later we’re waiting for justice and with these new espionage cases, it provokes enormous desperation and sadness,” Mr. Aguirre, Centro Pro’s director, told America. “It’s a demonstration of how the promises of change in Mexico have not been kept and how the army is out of control and represents a threat to human rights as always.”

Subsequent investigations by Citizen Lab, an academic research lab focused on the study of digital threats to civil society and high-level policy engagement located at the University of Toronto, confirmed the phones were in fact infiltrated by Pegasus spyware—made by Israel’s cyberintelligence company NSO Group, ostensibly to eavesdrop on terrorists and criminals. But governments around the globe—including many with questionable human rights records—have liberally deployed it against opponents, journalists, dissidents and their defenders.

Mexico’s military, The Times reported, was NSO’s first customer and has been one of the most prolific users of Pegasus spyware since 2011, having “targeted more cell phones with spyware than any other government agency in the world.”

The Times also cited four sources who confirmed the National Defense Secretariat is the only entity using the spyware in Mexico, suggesting it was the agency behind the targeting of Centro Pro, according to Mr. Aguirre.

The country’s military continues to target journalists and human rights and ecological defenders, focusing on critics of the army’s increased role in Mexican public security and accusations of human rights violations committed by soldiers, according to Aguirre.

Mexico’s military continues to target journalists and human rights defenders, focusing on critics of the army’s increased role in Mexican public security and human rights violations committed by soldiers.

“We have no doubts of the origins of these attacks,” Mr. Aguirre said. “Centro Pro has been a public voice criticizing militarization. And we believe [the spying] is also because we do it based on specific, concrete cases, in which we have not stopped working with victims.

“We do traditional human rights work. We’re not only on social networks or only in the public debate. Our criticism of militarization is because we accompany victims and we think that this specific work, what motivates these risks, is part of the Jesuits’ identity and part of the Centro Pro’s identity, too.”

Accusations of spying are nothing new in Mexico, where all levels of government have a history of eavesdropping on political opponents and information suspiciously obtained from taped telephone conversations routinely creates scandalous headlines.

Mexico was quick to embrace Pegasus at a time when the army was being called upon to crack down on drug cartels and criminal gangs. But the spyware has been used to target journalists, human rights advocates, environmentalists, opposition politicians and even activists proposing a soda tax to combat obesity.

“We all know everyone, including governors and mayors, has their systems for intervening in telephone calls,” said Javier Garza, a journalist and commentator in the northern city of Torreón. “That the Mexican state would take advantage of increasingly sophisticated espionage, too, shouldn’t be surprising.”

“Centro Pro has been a public voice criticizing militarization. And we believe [the spying] is also because we do it based on specific, concrete cases, in which we have not stopped working with victims.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to end such spying. But the spying on the Centro Pro shows it continuing—even as he publicly denies such practices exist.

“Our consciences are clear, to say that human rights are not going to be violated nor will anyone be spied upon. We’ve never done it,” he said at his morning press conference on April 18.

Mr. López Obrador has previously insisted the people being spied upon were involved in illicit activities—without offering proof. He has also insisted the country gathers intelligence but does not spy on its citizens.

He portrayed the military as a victim of spying—apparently referring to a Washington Post story on documents in the recent leads from the social media platform Discord showing poor relations between Mexico’s army and navy. He also voiced displeasure with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration infiltration of a drug cartel known as Los Chapitos, led by the sons of imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

“Nothing is going to happen because [Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense] and the Navy Secretariat and the federal government are respectful of human rights and don’t spy like before,” he said. “What we want is not to make it easier for those who are spying.”

The revelations of spying by the military against the Centro Pro come at a critical time for Mr. López Obrador, who has turned to the army and navy to shoulder a broad suite of security and civic activities, ranging from public security tasks to building and operating airports to managing protected areas.

The president’s plans for militarizing public security suffered a setback last week when Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled his plans for placing the National Guard under army command unconstitutional.

Mexican President López Obrador promised to end such spying. But the spying on the Centro Pro shows it continuing—even as he publicly denies such practices exist.

The president responded with a blistering attack on the court—a reflection of his increasing dependence on the military, which analysts say has a long history of resisting civilian oversight and a deep culture of secrecy. That lack of accountability has continued as the army accumulates increasing responsibilities with the country’s security crisis.

“What started to happen in 2006 is that as the army was used in the war on drugs, its power increased as well,” Mr. Aguirre said. During the López Obrador administration, “it has deepened even more and it is [the use of] power without accountability.”

The spying on Centro Pro has also put Mexico’s Jesuits in conflict with the federal government once again after recent criticism by the Jesuits in Mexico of federal strategy against the growing power of narco-traffickers. Jesuit priests Javier Campos Morales and Joaquín César Mora Salazar were murdered 10 months ago while sheltering a person seeking protection in their parish from an organized crime leader in the rugged Sierra Tarahumara region of Chihuahua state.

The Jesuits and Mexico’s church hierarchy called for Mr. López Obrador to reconsider his state security strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” drawing enormous derision from the president.

“López Obrador is already heavily surrounded by the army,” said Ilán Semo, history professor at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. “One of his fundamental pillars of support is precisely those who are violating human rights.”

Citizen Lab found the phones at Centro Pro were infiltrated just as a group of independent experts was preparing a report on the Ayotzinapa attack.

Centro Pro has long waded into Mexico’s most controversial human rights atrocities. Founded in 1968 by the Society of Jesus, the center has consistently confronted the Mexican military. In the words of Mr. Aguirre, Centro Pro “has always been characterized by walking with victims.”

It has also drawn the ire of the authorities. A former interior minister branded the center “useful idiots [for] criminals,” while leaked army emails referred to the Centro Pro as a “pressure group.” The leak also revealed that the Mexican army was monitoring statements from priests in the region where Fathers Campos and Mora were murdered.

Centro Pro lawyers represented families of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college. The army has resisted all attempts at investigating its role in the events of Sept. 26, 2014, when the students “were disappeared,” after being attacked by police allegedly acting in cahoots with a drug cartel.

Citizen Lab found the phones at Centro Pro were infiltrated just as a group of independent experts was preparing a report on the Ayotzinapa attack. That analysis questioned the authenticity of evidence used in a government report on the crime and accused the military of non-cooperation.

Other observers have noted that some of the people and institutions being spied on had expressed optimism for Mr. López Obrador’s administration before it reversed previous calls for the army to return to its barracks and doubled down on the militarization of Mexican society.

Mr. Aguirre said Centro Pro filed a criminal complaint after the spying in 2017 “with few expectations.” But the center did so “with the hope that under a new government promising to control the army, not to spy [on citizens] and to be democratic, things were going to be different.”

Five years later, and again the target of espionage, that hope in the López Obrador administration appears to have been misplaced.

The latest from america

Children cheer as they celebrate the first World Children's Day at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, May 25, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
Pope Francis decided to hold a World Children’s Day to draw global attention to the plight and suffering of so many of the world’s 2.3 billion children from poverty, war and the effects of climate change.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 26, 2024
This week on “Jesuitical,” Zac and Ashley are live at Xavier University in Cincinnati with their spiritual director, Eric Sundrup, S.J., sharing their own experiences discerning their paths as young adults and offering insights from Jesuit spirituality to young people navigating big life questions.
JesuiticalMay 24, 2024
China's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican
Marking the centenary of the first plenary council of the Catholic Church in China, the Vatican hosted a conference earlier this week on challenges and opportunities for Chinese Catholics.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 24, 2024
Jesuit Jacques Monet sitting at a table in a restaurant, smiling and toasting with a glass of white wine. He is wearing a dark suit and a tie with a pin on his lapel.
Jacques Monet, S.J., passed away peacefully on May 14 at the age of 94, leaving behind a great legacy to his church and nation.
John Meehan, S.J.May 24, 2024