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Mexico Used Private Israeli Spyware Pegasus to Surveil President’s Family & a Murdered Journalist

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Mexico appears to have submitted more phone numbers for potential surveillance to the Israeli cybersurveillance company NSO Group than any other client country, according to an investigation of the company by an international collaboration of media outlets called The Pegasus Project. The Guardian found the mobile phone number of Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto was selected as a possible target for surveillance by a Mexican NSO Group client just weeks before Pineda’s assassination in Guerrero in 2017. Nina Lakhani, senior reporter at The Guardian, says Mexico was NSO Group’s first client and authorities there have a long record of “dire human rights abuses.” She notes Mexico’s use of Pegasus proves the technology is not only used to go after criminality. “The line between good and bad in Mexico is blurred,” Lakhani says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at the findings of The Pegasus Project, a collaboration of more than 80 journalists and 17 media organizations that’s investigating the Israeli cybersurveillance company NSO Group.

Mexico appears to have submitted more phone numbers for potential surveillance to the NSO Group than any other client country — over 15,000 — including the numbers of teachers, journalists, judges, activists and politicians. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries for journalists and human rights defenders. As part of The Pegasus Project, The Guardian reports at least 50 people close to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, including his wife, children, aides and doctor, were included in the list for potential surveillance before AMLO’s election.

In their analysis of the Pegasus data leak, The Guardian also found the mobile phone number of Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, who had been selected as a possible target for surveillance by a Mexican NSO Group client in the weeks leading up to his assassination in Guerrero in 2017. He frequently posted Facebook videos denouncing corruption between drug cartels and local government officials. On March 2nd, 2017, he posted this video, was killed two hours later.

CECILIO PINEDA BIRTO: [translated] There seem to be very strong ties between the government and this gang leader. If they don’t react, more people will die. … There videos showing the deputy with El Tequilero. It’s pathetic. There are really many things that are impossible to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on what happened to Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birta and what the role of Pegasus Project [sic] could have played in his murder, we are also joined by Nina Lakhani, senior reporter at The Guardian.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Nina. Tell us what happened to him, and its link to the NSO Group.

NINA LAKHANI: Hi. Good morning.

Well, what we know is that in the weeks leading up to Cecilio’s murder, one of NSO’s Mexican clients identified the — selected his cellphone number as a candidate for surveillance. And that video that you just played, just a couple of hours after that, Cecilio Pineda had gone to wash his — to a car wash, and he was just resting in a hammock, making some calls. He called his mom. You know, he was just speaking to some colleagues, planning what he was going to do that evening. And a gunman arrived on a motorbike, went by foot to the hammock where he was lying, which was hidden from the road, and shot him at least six times, and he died of his injuries.

We were unable to confirm whether his phone was successfully infected with Pegasus, because the last time that the phone was seen was at the crime scene. It disappeared after that, so we were unable to do that. But what we do know is that the gunman knew where to find him. And we know that Cecilio had been receiving threats. He was worried. He had sought help from the federal government. There’s a protection mechanism that is meant to protect journalists and defenders who are facing threats linked to their work. They failed to do so.

But we also know — I managed to obtain the last interview that he had with the protective mechanism, in which they’re basically saying to him, “Look, unless you’re willing to get out of the state and do — you know, take this one offer that we’re making of relocating you, we can’t help you. We’re going to close your case,” which is what they did. And what he says to them, he says, “Look, I don’t think I need to move. I’ve changed where I’m sleeping. I don’t leave my car in the street. I don’t think — they don’t know where I am. The people who want to hurt me and who might send gunmen to kill me, they wouldn’t be able to find me because I’m just moving all the time.” Little did he know that there were certainly — that his numbers, phone numbers, were selected — was selected for potential surveillance, just weeks after that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nina Lakhani, why so many potential targets in Mexico, from what you’ve been able to tell? And, of course, the Israeli group continues to say that their software is used only to identify potential terrorists. Was there any indication that any of the phone numbers, of the 15,000 phone numbers as potentially targeted in Mexico, were connected to terrorists?

NINA LAKHANI: Well, they say terrorists and organized — serious organized crime, right? I mean, I think Mexico is a very particular case. You know, we found, in the leaked data, there’s more than 15,000 individuals in just two years, 2016 and 2017, just two years. We know that Mexico was NSO’s first client and that when the NSO Group started doing business with Mexico about around a decade ago, we were already five years into the, you know, complete fail of war on drugs. And by that time, we already knew that Mexican security forces and parts of the criminal justice system were implicated in dire human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances. So, when NSO Group starts doing business with Mexico, its first client, we already knew that the so-called good guys weren’t good guys. And I think the case in Mexico, what is so shocking for me, as well as the depth and the breadth of the sort of potential surveillance that has gone on, is just that, you know, this claim that we are — the NSO Group’s claim that “We are here fighting the good fight. You know, we are here targeting criminals.” Well, the line between good and bad in Mexico is blurred, right? We know that at a local level, from Cecilio Pineda and many other journalists’ reporting, and we that at a national level.

You know, we know that — a case that you guys have reported on, the Ayotzinapa case of the 43 disappeared trainee teachers. You know, we know, in that case, that people at the highest level, including Tomás Zerón, who is currently — he’s currently in hiding in Israel and was a key person in getting Pegasus into Mexico. He signed — he was promoting the software and signing contracts. And we know that he’s wanted for embezzlement and also for the torture and disappearance of those students, right? We now know, from this investigation, that at least three relatives of the 43 students were selected as potential candidates for surveillance. So were a lawyer and a human rights leader in a human rights center who are representing the families. So were at least two of the independent experts, who had diplomatic status at the time, who were sent to investigate the case. You know, I mean, what we see from Mexico is it’s a free-for-all. Anyone and everyone was potentially — was being identified as potential targets for surveillance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the surveillance of the family and campaign operatives of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that would seem to have been called for by someone in a very high position of power within Mexico itself, no?

NINA LAKHANI: I mean, it’s really astounding. I mean, you know, thinking back to the time, 2016, 2017, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government is absolutely tanking in the polls. You know, he has the worst ratings in history of a Mexican president, scandal after scandal after scandal. Meanwhile, AMLO’s is in ascendance, right? His political party, Morena, is starting to win elections at local levels. His popularity is growing, right? And so, this is 2016, and 2017 is the year before the general elections, the presidential elections. And we see — we see everybody close to him — you know, his three sons, three of his sons, three of his brothers, his wife, his political advisers, key candidates, Claudia Sheinbaum, who went on to be elected as Mexico City’s mayor, many people, many other local and national politicians in the Morena party. But the other thing is, it’s not just Morena. We found, you know, in the data, the numbers of politicians from every single political party, including the PRI, including Enrique Peña Nieto’s own party, were selected as candidates for potential surveillance. You know, this was far and wide. As one intelligence expert said to me, it’s the game of spies. You have to know what your political — you have to know who your political enemies are, and you have to know what they’re doing, because information is power. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Mexico.

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