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Witness in Pegasus case accuses Peña Nieto of ordering spying operation on Carlos Slim

Investigative journalist Carmen Aristegui also appeared in court to testify about being targeted by the powerful spyware

Caso Pegasus
Rafael Cabrera and Carmen Aristegui, during a conference on the Pegasus case in Mexico City, in June 2017.Isaac Esquivel Monroy (CUARTOSCURO)
Pablo Ferri

The Pegasus case has finally gone to trial in Mexico. On Monday, the court heard testimony from Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was allegedly spied on during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Aristegui was the first witness called by the Prosecutor’s Office in a trial that could go on for months.

The Pegasus case is one of the biggest scandals to hit Mexico. It centers on the powerful spyware called Pegasus, which was developed by the Israeli company NSO Group and is only available to government agencies. Pegasus can take control of a cellphone without its owner noticing and, in addition to accessing all its contents, it can also turn it into a listening and image capture terminal.

The Pegasus case in Mexico involves potentially thousands of victims and various government administrations. Speaking in court on Monday, Aristegui demanded that those responsible be held accountable. “I hope that the Attorney General’s Office has enough elements to clarify the case,” she said, according to the Mexican newspaper Reforma.

The prosecutor’s star witness, a whistleblower with the code named Zeus, also appeared in court on Monday. They accused Peña Nieto and his direct subordinates of ordering the alleged spying operation against Aristegui, and other key figures such as business magnate Carlos Slim and mining mogul Germán Larrea.

The trial is just one part of the sprawling Pegaus case; the Prosecutor’s Office (FGR) is also investigating the alleged fraudulent purchase of the spyware during the last administration. But the probe has yet to reach court, which has angered the FGR. In May, the agency reported that it had requested the trial start three times, but with no success.

The scandal also goes beyond the Peña years. During the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, government agencies also acquired the spyware. According to an investigation by the Digital Rights Defense Network released at the end of last year, the armed forces acquired Pegasus in 2019, and spied on at least three people, including journalist Ricardo Raphael and human rights defender Raymundo Ramos.

But the case first broke out when Peña Nieto was still in office. It sparked widespread outrage, with the public questioning whether the country’s security agencies were being used to spy on journalists and activists.

Aristegui was one of the few to take the case to court. During Peña Nieto’s early years, the reporter and her investigative team had tracked corruption among the president and his entourage. At the end of 2014, the team published a report on the president’s relationship with one of his government’s favorite business conglomerates, Grupo Higa. Peña Nieto and his family owned a house in an upmarket neighborhood in the capital, which was actually registered in the name of Group Higa, and enjoyed the protection of the army.

It was a huge blow to Peña Nieto’s image, which was already floundering in the wake of the military executions of civilians in Tlatlaya and the disappearance of dozens of students from Ayotzinapa. It was at this time that Aristegui’s phone was targeted by Pegasus. The investigative journalist, who created her own news network, reported on the espionage. During this time, she received thousands of documents from a source about the surveillance carried out by the Peña Nieto administration. That source was Zeus, the star witness of the Pegasus case. The information provided by Zeus indicated that the espionage campaign had been carried out by a subsidiary of one of the suppliers of Pegasus in Mexico, the KBH business group.

Aristegui handed over this information to the FGR, which in 2021 arrested the alleged operator of the spyware, Juan Carlos García Rivera, a worker at a KBH subsidiary. His arrest raised a number of questions. If NSO Group only sold to governments, how was it possible that Aristegui had been spied on by a private firm? Is NSO Group lying? Or was the Mexican government outsourcing a compromising part of its operations? According to Zeus, the former is most likely to be true.

The FGR is calling for García Rivera to be sentenced to 16 years in prison for illegal phone tapping. Prosecutors offered him a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty, but he refused. It is not known how long the trial will last, but the number of witnesses and evidence that must be presented before the judge, in addition to the upcoming holiday season, may delay the process for months.

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