How America Taught Mexico to Hack the Hell Out of Its Own People
Yes, the Mexican government has created a cesspool of digital espionage with no accountability. But the U.S. was its mentor.
Mexico has recently earned the sordid distinction of being the global leader in hacking its own citizens, after allegations surfaced earlier in July that authorities used the controversial spyware program Pegasus to tap the phones of at least 15,000 politicians, journalists, activists, and other influential citizens.
If you’re wondering where they learned that, it turns out a powerful northern neighbor has taught Mexico a thing or two about running a surveillance state.
“U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies applied constant pressure, for decades, on Mexico and its security forces to conduct electronic surveillance and eavesdropping,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations—who was stationed in Mexico for over a decade—told The Daily Beast. “Eventually, the Mexican government found it easy to turn its capabilities on its own citizens, and Pegasus was a natural consequence.”
The charges against Mexico were first levied on July 18 by the Pegasus Project, launched after a leak revealed the widespread nature of Pegasus abuses in 2020. Made up of digital sleuths from Amnesty International and the media group Forbidden Stories, the Project discovered that the notorious Israeli company NSO had sold Pegasus to more than 40 countries, including Mexico. The espionage victims ranged from the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his family, to a journalist murdered shortly after first being hacked, and the families of the 43 students who “disappeared” in 2014.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has played a massive role in spurring the recent spyware explosion in Mexico. And, like the Space Race, TV dinners, and Communist witch hunts, our obsession with Mexican espionage can be traced back to the Cold War era.
Mexico’s secret police, the Federal Security Directorate (known by its Spanish-language acronym FDS), was meant to be a kind of cross between the FBI and CIA. The U.S. had pressed Mexico to create the FDS in order to spy on “subversives”—leftist guerrillas, unionists, pesky intellectuals, journalists, etc—and report their activities to Washington. All of this was done with the approval of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1929 to 2000.
“[T]he CIA had a very close relationship with PRI leadership during the Cold War, including presidents who served as informants,” Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told The Daily Beast via email. That cozy partnership continued, even as growing cartel power in Mexico led to the FDS being compromised by ties to organized crime.
Not that U.S. spymasters ever worried about little things like intel leaked to capos, corruption, or drug money. “The Mexican government and U.S. intelligence agencies have looked the other way as long as subversives and certain social movements are targeted,” Vigil said.
The relationship between Mexico and the U.S. intelligence community remained cordial even after the PRI’s chokehold was broken, with Mexico transitioning to a putative democracy in 2000. “During the Calderón administration, with the creation of intelligence fusion centers, the use of U.S.-provided technology was a central part of the ‘high value targeting’ strategy against cartel leaders,” Isaacson said.
Adding to that, the explosion of the drug war in the 2000s saw more pressure than ever from U.S. officials for their Mexican counterparts to produce actionable intelligence, as the cartels and drug trafficking were increasingly seen as a national security threat by Washington.
Dr. Robert Bunker, director of research and analysis for the strategic consultancy C/O Futures, LLC, explained that U.S. agencies battling cartels in Mexico must navigate a “political minefield” to counter the flow of narcotics across the border. “To gain intelligence on cartel operations these agencies need to peer inside of their inner workings, which means that Mexican nationals linked to the cartels are going to be electronically spied upon,” he told The Daily Beast.
One of the main platforms intended for such anti-narco espionage was the shadowy Mexican Technical Surveillance System (MTSS), which the U.S. began funding in 2006—the same year Calderón launched the drug war by sending the army out to fight the cartels—and ran through at least 2013. As with Pegasus, the MTSS used Israeli techware, provided by a company called Verint. Both Verint and the State Department have been stingy with the details about the program, but Vigil referred to it as “a massive electronic surveillance program, which allowed the Mexican government to intercept, record, and analyze telephone calls.”
More recently, Mexico has aggressively adopted so-called “stingray” technologies—that is, fake cellphone antennas or “catchers,” which allow authorities to track citizens’ phones and access information from them like text messages. A 2020 report by Reuters indicated that Mexico City was home to some 20 stingray antennas—more than any urban center in the Americas save for Caracas.
Care to guess where all those stingrays came from? According to Reuters, activists have found the likely source for the sale of these catchers to the Mexican military: a U.S. company called L3Harris Technologies.
Programs like the MTSS, or the stingray catchers, or even Pegasus were originally designed to fight terrorism and organized crime, or so their manufacturers claim. But in Mexico, the decades-long lessons in spycraft passed along by the U.S. have been turned against the general population, largely for political gain. Critics say this has led to a kind of “normalization” of spying in Mexico, with both federal and state authorities to blame.
“The problem is the legal system in Mexico is weak and very corrupt, with the [surveillance] programs thus being twisted by domestic Mexican politics—which are still tainted by decades of authoritarian rule,” Bunker said. “Competing parties and factions [are] weaponizing them against each other and the populace.”
Senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza is one of the prominent Mexican politicians whose phone had been infiltrated by Pegasus. He referred to digital spying in general as an “authoritarian practice of both the U.S. and [Mexican] governments.” In Mexico, “such illegal wiretapping is a demonstration of the total absence of judicial control,” Icaza told The Daily Beast. “The worst part is that we are still not sure that this eavesdropping has stopped.”
Icaza is demanding justice, calling for the formation of a fact-finding commission to uncover precisely “who bought and manipulated [Pegasus],” “what was done with the information collected,” and seeking transparency about “current espionage practices” being carried out with public resources.
Though she too advocates for “proper controls” over surveillance in Mexico, WOLA Mexico Director Stephanie Brewer was skeptical about achieving accountability for the largest deployment of Pegasus among the dozens of countries that had purchased the technology. “The massive scale of spying on activists, journalists, and others in Mexico shows what happens when authorities know they can use their positions to engage in crimes and corruption with impunity,” she told The Daily Beast.
For the DEA’s Vigil, not even the dangers posed by powerful organized crime groups are sufficient to warrant the kind of widespread and indiscriminate spying now haunting Mexico.
“The Mexican cartels are a security threat to both Mexico and the U.S., and wire intercepts are an important tool against them,” said Vigil. “However, we can never circumvent one’s right to privacy.”