“Is it a surprise that the Mexican government spies on you?”
I did not exaggerate when I responded to the foreign correspondent’s question about the latest scandal rocking the Mexican government: “No. We have always known that.”
At least a decade ago, journalists began to have meetings we considered “sensitive” so we did what we saw human rights defenders doing: place a cardboard box outside the meeting room and ask attendees to put their cellphones in it. When we didn’t have a box and a patio we put the cell phones in the refrigerator.
The spying does not surprise anybody. We take digital security trainings, and they teach us that our cell phone battery can be a microphone and that our laptop camera can be a peephole.
When the emergency over journalists’ murders began during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, Periodistas de a Pie—a network I helped establish with several colleagues a decade ago—added itself to a wave of organizations providing digital security courses. Digital security would soon become a required subject for every journalist who really wanted to investigate.
Nervous laughter sometimes erupted during these workshops—more like panic attacks really—when we discovered how weak our flanks were.
With Calderón’s so-called “war on drugs”—and as news about Mexico stopped focusing on tourist destinations, instead becoming bathed in blood—the country also became one of the top 10 deadliest countries in the world for journalists. Reporters turned themselves into war correspondents in our own country.
Journalist trainings became comparable to those of petrochemical companies operating in war zones: what security protocols to establish when entering a zone of enforced silence, how to send information to an editor without leaving a trace, how to communicate with the person checking up on you, how to protect information when you are ready to leave, the mechanisms to be activated if checking in does not happen.
Possible aggressors weren’t only members of organized crime but also public officials. The statistics indicate that half of all attacks against the press come from public servants.
When colleagues chat with each other usually we speak about encryption programs, secure platforms for virtual meetings, or cell phone applications for group conversations that are less prone to be hacked.
Precaution sometimes turns to paranoia, and it has always been with us. About 18 years ago I became a journalist and, half-jokingly, colleagues always asked each other, “What does my CISEN file say?”, referring to Mexico’s intelligence service.
For being close to freedom of expression organizations I have received messages from colleagues who send me photos of men with a military bearing standing watch outside their homes. In one course about drug trafficking I attended, we found out that one of the participants was an infiltrator who passed himself off as a reporter. On more than one occasion we have discovered that when we cover meetings somebody is taking photos of us. Some colleagues have retired their smartphones turning to old-fashioned phones without the Internet, allowing them peaceful sleep.
Speaking of paranoia: When a telephone call cuts out a lot, or when you can hear your echo in a conversation or the sounds of interference, there is an old joke that still makes us laugh: “Hello to the man listening in from the Interior Ministry,” said in the same way that radio presenters speak to their listeners.
Collective trauma has a lengthy background.
But Pegasus is something else. The evidence is that the Mexican government bought licenses for this malware developed to spy on “terrorists” and “criminals” and instead used it to spy on human rights defenders and journalists, according to the Canadian organization Citizen Lab. The revelations confirmed our nightmares, making them more powerful.
The spying mechanism is simple: Your cell phone receives a personalized text message that asks you to click on a link to keep on reading. When you do that your phone is infected and becomes an enemy that relays all of your information—it can read your messages, it has access to your contacts and their telephones, it knows your appointments, listens to your conversations, and can even look at you.
Pegasus expels from the collective imagination all those agents listening in to boring phone calls or standing outside your house. Your cell phone becomes your personalized Big Brother.
The Pegasus scandal offers only the most recent proof the Mexican state continues to be a “perfect dictatorship,” in Mario Vargas Llosa’s phrase. The government has become sophisticated and pays up to $77,000 for each person it spies on. It commits criminal acts at it attempts to control those it considers its opponents.
At a press conference held on June 19th,“Articulo 19, SocialTic, Citizen Lab and the Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales” (“Digital Rights Defense Network”) denounced the spying as perverse. We saw 10 lawyers, activists, and journalists with proof they had been spied on. The famous journalist Carmen Aristegui was among them but because the government did not want to bring her into this game they spied on her using her adolescent son’s phone. The day’s trending topic was #GobiernoEspía. The next day a group of activists voluntarily turned themselves into the Attorney General’s office as suspects conspiring against the state. It was a way to rub the government’s nose in the scandal.
Daniel Lizárraga was one of the affected journalists. He had coordinated the team that discovered the untoward real estate transactions behind the Casa Blanca, a mansion belonging to the president’s family. On his wall Lizárraga wrote in outrage: “In Mexico the state is behind this strategy of spying on reporters and activists. It’s not just about intimidating us or making us feel afraid. There is something deeper going on: an attempt to dry you out, like a plant. When they have your contacts, it is relatively easy for them to find your sources, the people who have given you information, your Deep Throat. So, intimidating us comes second, threatening us so we shut up. The journalist becomes isolated, looking for new ways to obtain information. The old sources have dried up. And you have to erase them from your mind so as not to put them at risk. It’s a perverse strategy.”
This issue, although it is as old as Mexico’s intelligence services, keeps surprising those who follow the script: in the Mexican Watergate, nobody knows who spies on whom.
This malware was not just bought by federal agencies like the CISEN, the Attorney General, the Army, or the Federal Police. Soon it turned out that state governments—from Puebla and Guerrero—bought this program and did not specifically use it on drug traffickers or criminals.
In his hapless response that came so late it might be read as a threat (“I hope, under the law, it can be applied against those that have raised false accusations against the government,” he said), even President Enrique Peña Nieto said that surely he, too, was spied on.
“It’s not like there isn’t somebody who hasn’t already broadcast one of my conversations,” the president said. “It has occurred, it has happened, and yet there is nothing more false nor easy than to blame the government.”
Mexico’s authorities have since then been performing a version of Pedro Infante’s song “Yo te lo juro que yo no fui” (“I swear to you it wasn’t me”). They point fingers at each other and, like everything else that occurs in this country, it is unlikely the crime will be punished.
The Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will visit Mexico in November and have received information about these illegal acts. A guilty party cannot investigate itself. So those whom the Mexican government spied on with Pegasus have requested international intervention so that independent international experts might find the culprits.