The Federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) announced Monday that it is prosecuting the former head of the now-defunct Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC) and three other ex-officials in connection with an “illegal” purchase of the Pegasus spyware system in 2014.
The FGR said in a statement that ex-AIC head Tomás Zerón, who the federal government is attempting to extradite from Israel, former Federal Ministerial Police chief Vidal Díazleal, and two other former senior law enforcement officials, Judith Araceli Gómez Molano and Rigoberto García Campos, were responsible for a 460 million peso (US $26 million) purchase of the spyware by the PGR, as the Attorney General’s Office was formerly called.
The Pegasus suite of spyware, which can infiltrate and extract information from cellphones, is made by the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group.
The FGR said the four ex-officials are accused of embezzlement, fraud, abuse of power and criminal association in connection with the purchase.
“The operation amount was 460 million pesos for a system that this new administration doesn’t have, that the [current] Federal Attorney General’s Office has never used and which was purchased illegally,” it said.
The FGR said it has requested on three occasions that an initial hearing be held at a Mexico City federal court and is awaiting a response.
The federal government said in July 2021 that the administrations led by former presidents Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) spent approximately US $300 million between 2012 and 2018 to purchase spyware from NSO Group.
Santiago Nieto, who was head of the government’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) at the time, spoke about an alleged kickback scheme in which some of the money paid to NSO Group was apparently funneled back to officials.
Among the government departments that bought and/or operated Pegasus during the previous two governments were the Defense Ministry (Sedena), the federal Attorney General’s Office (when it was known as the PGR) and the now-defunct Center for Investigation and National Security.
The New York Times reported in April on an initial deal between the Mexican military and NSO Group in 2011, in which the military became “the first client ever” to purchase Pegasus.
Journalists, activists, opposition figures and others, including at least 50 people close to President López Obrador, were potentially targeted with Pegasus by the Peña Nieto government, according to a 2021 report by The Guardian newspaper.
The Times said it had “found that Mexico has continued to use Pegasus to spy on people who defend human rights, even in recent months.” Meanwhile, civil society organizations and media outlets published an investigation late last year entitled Ejército Espía (The Spy Army), finding that Sedena illegally used Pegasus spyware against journalists and human rights defenders in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Luis Fernando García, executive director of Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights Defense Network), one of the organizations that contributed to the Ejército Espía investigation, said in a radio interview Monday that the FGR’s prosecution of Zerón and three other former officials “in no way satisfies the need for justice” in cases related to the use of Pegasus during the current government and previous ones.
The FGR noted in its statement that the investigation into the PGR’s 2014 purchase of Pegasus is “independent” of another case related to “several illegal interventions” carried out with the spyware during the Peña Nieto administration.
Despite evidence to the contrary, López Obrador asserts that his government does not spy on anyone and only performs “intelligence work” to combat organized crime.
The former AIC chief had led the investigation into the disappearance of students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. He now faces charges in connection with the case, including torture and tampering with evidence.
“I say to the authorities of Israel, how can … [you] protect torturers,” López Obrador said Monday after calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow through on the “commitment” to extradite Zerón.