Thursday, July 18, 2024

Attorney General charges 4 former officials in Pegasus spyware probe

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.

Tómas Zerón, former head of the now-defunct Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC), will face charges of torture and tampering with evidence if he is successfully extradited from Israel.
Tómas Zerón, former head of the now-defunct Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC), will face charges of torture and tampering with evidence if he is successfully extradited from Israel.

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.

Former President Felipe Calderón and then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto at a 2012 meeting.
Former President Felipe Calderón and then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto at a 2012 meeting. (Ariel Gutiérrez)

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.

AMLO showing contract between Mexican government and NSO spying company
In July 2021, AMLO showed reporters a contract between the former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s government and the NSO Group to buy Pegasus spyware. He said that his government wouldn’t spy on citizens. (Gob MX)

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.

In October 2022, a group of journalists denounced the current administration for employing the same spyware to gather intelligence illegally. (Victoria Valtierra/Cuartoscuro)

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.

His administration has been asking Israel to extradite Zerón to Mexico, where he faces charges related to the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014.

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.

With reports from Proceso, Animal Político and Aristegui Noticias 

Have something to say? Paid Subscribers get all access to make & read comments.
Man with red umbrella crosses street in the Mexico City historic center amid heavy rains.

Torrential rains cause flooding in Mexico City, Puebla and México state

There was flooding and downed trees in parts of Mexico City and Puebla on Wednesday, affecting roadways, public transport and even flights.
Members of the National Guard on patrol

Gulf Cartel leader ‘El Escorpión 17’ and others arrested in Tamaulipas

Security forces carried out raids in Matamoros after the arrest of Antonio Guadalupe Peréz Domínguez in Ciudad Madero on Tuesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden walking with US Border Patrol officers along the U.S. border wall with a border patrol SUV parked in the background.

CBP reports migrant encounters at Mexico-US border down 50%

U.S. border officials say they've seen 50% fewer illegal crossings by migrants since President Joe Biden signed an executive order in June.