Human Rights and Civil Society · Transparency & accountability

AMLO Admits to Monitoring Phone of Human Rights Activist

Source: The Wire

04/05/2023 (written by abrizuela) – On March 10, 2023, Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO),  admitted for the first time that his government monitored the phone of a human rights activist, claiming it was part of a lawful probe into a suspected gang member. (Reuters) Prior to beginning his presidency in 2018, AMLO promised he would not not spy on Mexican citizens, claiming he had been a victim of government spying himself. (Reuters) However, documents released by a coalition of non-profit groups indicate that AMLO has continued a campaign of vigilance that took place under his predecessor, former president Enrique Peña Nieto. (New York Times)

Ejército Espía

In October 2022, an investigation called Ejército Espía, or “Spy Army”, was released to the public, revealing that two journalists and one defender of human rights were spied on by the government through a spyware called Pegasus. The investigation was launched by R3D, Artículo 19, SocialTic, and the news outlets Animal Político, Aristegui Noticias, and Proceso. The investigation revealed how the Mexican Army spied on journalist activists through a secretive structure within the army: the Military Intelligence Center (CMI). Moreover, the findings revealed that the surveillance activities were endorsed by Mexico’s current Secretary of Defense, Luis Crescencio Sandoval. (LatAm Journalism Review)

Raymundo Ramos Vázquez is one of the high profile human rights activists who was reportedly spied upon by the government. Ramos specializes in reporting human rights abuses committed by the armed forces in the state of Tamaulipas. (The Wire) According to an analysis by the Citizens Lab at the University of Toronto, Ramos’ phone was infiltrated by Pegasus multiple times between August 16 and September 3 of 2020. This time frame coincides with the period in which Ramos was investigating the deaths of 12 passengers who were killed in a car chase in Nuevo Laredo. (New York Times). The government claimed their soldiers were pursuing members of a local criminal organization, but Ramos’s interviews with the families of victims revealed that three of the people killed during the chase were not affiliated with any criminal organization. As Ramos was researching the case and publicly criticizing the government for these extrajudicial killings, the government began monitoring his phone with Pegasus. (New York Times) A leaked 2020 Defense Ministry report contends that Ramos was attempting to “discredit the armed forces” by publicly sharing his allegations of unlawful killings carried out by the military. (New York Times) The report recommended that the military gather information from Ramos’s private conversations and omit the data from official case files, indicating an attempt to keep their spying secret. (The New York Times)

Pegasus Spyware

According to the New York Times, Pegasus is a powerful spyware tool that is capable of extracting large quantities of information from digital devices such as calls, texts, photos, contacts, and even location, without any warning to the owner. Pegasus is able to bypass the encryptions of Meta and Apple that are supposed to protect the data of their users. The manufacturer of the spyware, NSO, Group Technologies, is based in Israel and introduced Pegasus to the global market in 2011. Mexico was one of the first countries to buy Pegasus as it was used by Mexican authorities to capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord commonly referred to as El Chapo. Pegasus’s owners claim that all of their clients must agree to only using the spyware to combat terrorism or serious crime. Nonetheless, many reporters have revealed that governments use it to spy on their own citizens, targeting journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. In 2021, Biden’s government included the NSO Group on a blacklist for knowingly supplying the spyware to foreign governments that use it to “maliciously target” the phones of activists.

In an interview with the New York Times Ramos commented on the government’s use of Pegasus: “We’re talking about the military monitoring you, knowing your personal information, your friendships, everything.” Ramos believes the messages and calls he sent through Telegram, an encrypted application, were intercepted by the government. AMLO is adamant that the military was investigating Ramos due to his alleged connection to a suspected drug trafficker. (Reuters) Moreover, AMLO confirmed Mexico’s National Intelligence Center was involved in Ramos’s case, adding that the entity can only tap the phone’s of suspected criminals with the authorization of a judge. (Reuters) Nonetheless, a criminal inquiry into Ramos’s case confirmed that the federal judiciary did not receive any request to intercept his communications. (New York Times)

Public Reaction to Mexico’s Use of Pegasus

While Joe Biden’s administration has blacklisted Pegasus, they have not publicly criticized Mexico for their use of the spyware to avoid destabilizing their cooperation on migration. (New York Times) According to LatAM Journalism Review, non-governmental organizations in Mexico are outraged by the impunity that surrounds the government even after repeated allegations of using Pegasus to spy on journalists and activists. The first time the Mexican government was accused of using Pegasus to spy on citizens was six years ago in an article published by the New York Times in 2017. Despite the abundance of evidence pointing towards the government’s unlawful surveillance of civilians, there have been no open judicial investigations to identify or investigate the public officials involved in the illegal surveillance.  Leopoldo Maldonado, director of Mexico and Central America Article 19 spoke at a press conference in Mexico city on March 7: “Having exhausted the State’s own institutions, which are not acting with due diligence, we are reasonably asking for the intervention of international investigative mechanisms.” The second round of allegations against the Mexican government for their use of Pegasus marks a turning point for many activists who are calling on international protection bodies to investigate Mexico’s use of Pegasus. Six years without any significant progress in holding public officials accountable has led many to believe that the Mexican State is incapable of investigating and sanctioning these illegal activities.


Bergman, Mazzetti. “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon.” The New York Times. January 31, 2022.

“Facing spying claims, Mexico recorded phone call of prominent activist.” Reuters. March 23, 2023.

Jackson, Lauren. “Cuando el ejército de un país espía los celulares de los ciudadanos” The New York Times. n.d.

Kitroeff, Bergman. “El espionaje del ejército mexicano genera temores de un ‘Estado militar’ The New York Times. March 7, 2023.

López Linares, César. “Espionaje a periodistas y activista mexicanos se dio en una unidad militar secreta, revela investigación “Ejército Espía”; ONGs piden apoyo internacional.” LatAM Journalism Review. March 10, 2023.
Nalvarte, Paola. “Periodistas y activistas mexicanos denuncian al Gobierno por supuesto espionaje a través de un malware.” LatAM Journalism Review. June 19, 2017.

“Pegasus Was Used Against Mexican Journalists, Activist After President Said ‘No More Abuse.” The Wire. October 3, 2022.

Ramos, Raymundo. “Opinión: Las agresiones de las fuerzas armadas en Tamaulipas deben parar.” The Washington Post. August 24, 2020.

Sanger, Perlroth, Swanson, Bergman. “U.S. Blacklists Israeli Firm NSO Group Over Spyware.” The New York Times. November 3, 2021.

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