Mexico: spyware turned on rights investigators

The horrific case of 43 college students from the Mexican village of Ayotzinapa who disappeared in September 2014—allegedly murdered by a local narco-gang—made deeply embarrassing international headlines again this week. The New York Times reports July 10 that sophisticated spyware supplied to Mexico officially to track narco-traffickers and terrorists was instead used against human rights investigators looking into the Ayotzinapa case.

The spying took place during what the investigators called a "broad campaign of harassment and interference" that prevented them from solving the haunting case, the Times reports. This was also just before the group issued its final, damning report in April 2016.

Further details are provided by Forbes. The revelation was made by a digital forensics team at University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which found that text-messages sent to the Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) contained the spyware.

Produced by a secretive Israeli firm known as the NSO Group and costing tens of millions of dollars, the "Pegasus" spyware has been used against Mexican politicians, activists and journalists. Generally, the target would be sent a message or e-mail containing a link that would infect their device with the spyware. The main contact person for the GIEI was apparently sent such a message, although it is not clear if the link was clicked on.

"We speculate that the operators behind these attempts may have sought to learn the theories, sources, and substance of the investigation as the final report was being prepared," Citizen Lab wrote.

The Mexican government has now promised an investigation into the spyware scandal, which means that investigations are heaping on investigations. The Ayotzinapa families meanwhile still wait for justice. There have been no convictions in the case, and the remains of only two of the missing students identified.

  1. UN sees rights violations in course of Ayotzinapa investigation

    A United Nations report says 34 people were tortured in connection with the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014. Entitled Double Injustice: Human Rights Violations in the Investigation of the Ayotzinapa Case (PDF), the report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that there are "solid grounds to believe that torture was committed against" 33 men and one woman who were arrested in the case. The 34 individuals presented "numerous physical injuries" that were medically certified and consistent with injuries resulting from torture, the report said.

    In total, the OHCHR said it examined information relating to 63 people out of a total of 129 who were detained and it identified 51 cases "indicating possible acts of torture." The types of torture identified included "beatings, kicks, electric shocks, blindfolding, attempted asphyxia, sexual assault and various forms of psychological torture."

    The OHCHR identified a "consistent pattern of human rights violations and an almost uniform modus operandi" in the 34 certified cases. Among other violations it detected were the arbitrary detention of suspects by federal authorities and significant delays before the suspects were presented before a prosecutor. 

    Torture mainly occurred in the first 48 hours after arrest, and some cases occurred at the offices of the Special Prosecutor for the Investigation of Organized Crime (SEIDO), a division of the federal Attorney General’s office (PGR).

    "Some of the self-incriminating statements obtained under torture were used as the basis for the accusation against the detainees, as well as in indictments against other individuals," the report said. (Mexico News Daily, March 15)