The Mexican president admitted Tuesday that he had been informed that his top human rights official was being spied on, but said he told the official not to worry about it.
The admission comes a day after The New York Times revealed that Alejandro Encinas, the Mexican government’s under secretary for human rights, was hacked by the world’s most notorious spyware while he was investigating abuses by the country’s military.
“He told me about it and I told him not to give it any importance because there was no intention of spying on anybody,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said after being asked about The Times’s report in his regular morning news conference on Tuesday.
Mr. López Obrador, who took office in 2018, vowed to stop the “illegal” and “immoral” surveillance of the past and has said his government does not spy on anyone.
Mr. Encinas was targeted repeatedly by the spyware known as Pegasus, as recently as last year, The Times reported. The cyber attacks on Mr. Encinas were confirmed by four people who spoke with him about the spying and by an independent forensic analysis conducted by Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based out of the University of Toronto.
Pegasus can infiltrate cellphones without leaving any trace of an intrusion and extract every piece of data from them: every text message, every email, every photo. The system can even watch people through the phone’s camera and listen to them through its microphone.
The Israeli-made spy tool has infected thousands of cellphones across the world and is licensed to be sold only to government agencies.
There is no definitive proof of who was behind the hacks of Mr. Encinas’s phone, but in Mexico, the only entity that has access to Pegasus is the military, according to five people familiar with the contracts for the spyware.
Mr. Encinas leads the government’s truth commission into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history. He and his team have accused the military of playing a role in the mass abduction of the students.
This is the first time there has been a publicly confirmed case of Pegasus spying on such a senior member of an administration in Mexico, let alone someone so close to the president.
When asked whether the government would investigate the surveillance of Mr. Encinas, who has been Mr. López Obrador’s friend and ally for decades, the president said, “No, we do not spy.”
Several rights groups condemned Mr. López Obrador’s comments.
“We regret that the president minimizes the espionage his administration carries out,” tweeted the Centro Prodh, a human rights organization whose employees were spied on with Pegasus last year.
A group of independent experts conducting an inquiry into the 43 students’ disappearance called for the attorney general’s office to investigate the cyber attacks on Mr. Encinas, calling them “acts that violate the right to liberty, to privacy.”
Under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, there were several Pegasus machines in Mexico controlled by the attorney general’s office, the country’s spy agency and the military.
But by 2019, all Pegasus systems in the country had been disconnected except for the one operated by the military, according to four people familiar with the contracts signed in Mexico.
After the Biden administration blacklisted the spyware’s manufacturer, NSO Group, in 2021, the Israeli Ministry of Defense said it would take steps to prevent the system from being used for anything other than fighting serious crime and terrorism.
The defense ministry then ordered several countries to be disconnected from Pegasus, but did not cancel the Mexican army’s license and later extended it. A spokesman for the ministry declined to comment.
NSO Group has opened an investigation into the reported abuses of Pegasus in Mexico, according to a person familiar with the company’s compliance protocols.
It is unclear how such an inquiry would affect the fate of the spyware in Mexico, where Pegasus has been used against human rights defenders and journalists for years with almost no accountability.
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.