Mexico's Spy Government
by Mari A. Gomez
A Mexican journalist who worked exposing organized crime in Sinaloa is shot down in broad daylight. It's a tragedy, but somehow in Mexico, not all that unusual. The story in America is a mere whisper in the backdrop of a million competing murmurs; it quickly fades into the perpetual hum of countless other news stories, memes, gossip. It is particularly interesting how little impact these stories have when we have been made to believe, given this last election, that our media and everyone else actually gives a hoot about Mexico and its people.
For I remember how lit up the media and my news feed were that day Trump announced his candidacy in that very unique way. What he said about Mexicans became and incessant echo, repeated, and repeated and thereafter used to craft this narrative that Trump was racist and hated all Mexicans and all immigrants. I remember just how riled up people were, coming to the defense of Mexico, taking to the streets during protests waving Mexican flags and shoving them in the faces of Trump supporters, writing Facebook updates expressing indignation that Trump was a vile bigoted pig insulting our beloved Southern neighbors, and what a Nazi to suggest a wall that, doesn’t he know, represents hate?
A story surfaced recently, which has dominated the news cycle in Mexico and was a front page spread on the New York Times, yet hasn't produced as much outrage among people I know. The story is regarding espionage against journalists, lawyers, and activists leading anti corruption legislation in Mexico.
The New York Times piece, which cited investigations by Article 19 and Citizen Lab in Toronto, details an Israeli based software company called NGO Group that creates a very sophisticated type of spyware. It penetrates a smart phone or mobile device through a link that when clicked reveals any and all information on that device, including passwords, email, texts, and photos. The hacker then has all access including the capacity to activate microphones and cameras on said device for the purpose of recording video or audio. This software is called Pegasus and is sold only and exclusively to governments. As a safeguard the company requires the purchaser to sign a contract stating the use of this software will be limited to criminal activity. It is built in a way that the hacker is untraceable, the company itself admits that there is really no way of tracing the source.
The Mexican government denies allegations that they were behind the spying, but the fact that only governments can purchase the software, that it is tremendously costly per target, and that the persons who reported being targeted where all involved in some critique of the President, makes most Mexicans, given their government’s track record, have no issue believing that it was, in fact, a targeted espionage program by the feds.
Peña Nieto’s reactions and public statements on the matter have not exactly been very comforting. In one of his public addresses he talks about how the people targeted were not harmed by such espionage, that it is a common thing,and the he too is often the victim of strange text messages from unknown sources. All that to suggest, what’s the big deal? Nothing actually happened to these people right? He goes as far as to suggest that the targets of these spy attempts, who have now submitted a formal complaint to the Mexican Attorney General’s office or PGR, are subject to legal retribution, given these preposterous and slanderous accusations. This part of his address, he retracted later.
Some of the targets of the spyware included Carmen Aristegui, who has been quite the nuisance to the federal government since Calderon, Juan E. Pardinas, who worked on anti corruption legislation and Mario E Patrón, executive director of Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center and part of the investigation on the 43 disappeared students. The cyber attack also included the sixteen year old son of Carmen Aristegui who was living in the United States. Another target was an American citizen, Stephanie Brewer, a lawyer working for a human rights group. One American and on our soil? At the very least that should make the story that much more relevant.
Mexican politicians are made of steel, they have super powers when it comes to slipping away from their own corruption, negligence, and scandal. This news comes just a few weeks after the murder of Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a respected investigative journalist who had done extensive work on Mexico’s darkest realities in Sinaloa and before the dead body of Salvador Adame, who had been missing, turned up. In 2017 already seven journalists have been killed in Mexico, at least 4 of them whose motive has been confirmed by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
At the center of this story is not only the continued corruption of the Mexican government, their impunity, their overreach, their human rights violations and arrogance against the face of serious allegations, not only another illustration of just how difficult the whole situation is in Mexico, how the government has created a difficult to penetrate wall of lies and corruption, but it is also a reminder of the fragility and necessity to protect civil liberties, which is the truest safeguard against police states and tyranny.
With one tweet, President Donald Trump could at least call attention or stir up some public outrage on the story and put pressure on the Mexican government. The FBI is already involved in the investigation, latest reports say.
Locally, it’s odd that this story doesn’t gain a lot of traction. I wonder how many of these open border people in El Paso who proclaim, “build bridges not walls” actually mean that?” Presumably, once you build that bridge and get rid of the border anything can travel back and forth freely? Perhaps they want to take on Mexico's complex cartel turf wars, deeply embedded corruption, and violence.
It had never occurred to me that many of these open border ‘hugs/bridges not walls’ activists and many of La Raza poets, academics, bumbling about at art shows and universities claiming to represent the voiceless, who adopt an identity as fashion, are actually simply in love with a Mexican folklore. Perhaps with the archetype of the migrant worker, the impoverished worker, the cholo mythology, the Mexican revolutionary, and so on. They’ve romanticized the illegal immigrant crossing the desert, encourage it even, at a complete disregard for the actual root of the problem and its long term consequences.
The real Mexico, the failing state, with poverty and violence, with a generation of young people denied prosperity, with impunity for government, negligence, criminality, human rights violations, a neglect for protecting journalists, and now a full blown scandal of government spying on citizens, that is the Mexico that needs help and outrage. I get the sense sometimes that that Mexico doesn’t really register here, nor does it really register to the mainstream media who saw Mexico, during the election, simply as an emotional trigger they could use to rally hatred against Donald Trump.
Yet somehow, after so much anger sparked up in defense of Mexico at the mention of a wall, that same indignation is lacking at the helm of a story with monumental implications for civil liberties in the technological age. Isn’t it worrisome that this type of software is out there, available only to governments? Does anyone really trust government’s not to overstep their power?
Just the other day I saw an interview with journalist Anabel Hernandez who has done some very in depth work regarding cartels and its ties to the Mexican state. She was talking to Jorge Ramos about her new book titled La Verdadera Noche de Iguala. She outlines her investigative work on the case of the 43 and how the buses carried a shipment of heroin worth up to 2 million dollars. The Mexican military along with Municipal police knew this and were on the ground that night attempting to recover it. So the investigation reveals what most people already assumed, that the authorities worked together with organized crime and willing to disappear innocent citizens to keep that quiet. Not only that, but that the State was willing to torture police officers to extract false confessions in an attempt to advance their official narrative.
The government's official narrative being that a few rogue local police gave the 43 students to a drug gang that then incinerated them. That's the narrative the government thought was acceptable and used to cover up the bigger picture.
Ramos asks her what this book might been for her own personal safety. And you see a subtle but immediate change in her facial expression, a look of true defiance laced in fear. Clearly, there is a very conscious awareness that her work might one day lead her to a violent death, as has been the fate of so many of her colleagues. In the introduction to the book, she writes about how when the story broke she was living in the United States, having been forced out of her own country due to death threats and a lack of proper protection from the government. The outrage of the 43 story was enough to send her back on an investigative journey into the country that almost got her killed.You’re talking about a lady whose had beheaded animals left on her doorstep, countless death threats, had her father murdered and her house broken into.
Perhaps in the United States the press has taken their freedom for granted, which has caused its own downward spiral of problems.
Where is the red line here?
What did Obama do when these 43 students disappeared? The first U.S acknowledgment of the incident took about 11 days. When his spokesperson was asked about it, they replied: the Mexican government is doing an investigation. Some time after that, he denounced it and he casually ‘offered’ help to Peña Nieto. Even after people protested on both sides and a group of senators sent a letter to Obama expressing their concerns on the issue, Obama didn't really address whether it was cause enough to reconsider the billion dollars in aid. Even after everything suggested, especially after the independent report came out, that the authorities were involved in some capacity and that it might have very well involved a shipment of heroin headed for the United States.
The story of the #SpyGovernment, should really be the death knell to Peña Nieto’s administration as it compounds with all the other scandals, like that of the 43. Because only if a country is free and operate without fear, is the country allowed to be itself, only then can the citizens truly police the government, and isn’t that what we want for all nations?