In the last few months, human rights and internet monitoring organizations have uncovered evidence that the Mexican government uses sophisticated spyware made by an Israeli company to monitor journalists, dissidents, and even political opponents, as reported in a series of articles in The New York Times.
Now, a former Mexican spy alleges that years ago, a Mexican governor used a different sort of spyware—this one made by the infamous Italian company, Hacking Team—to surveil other government employees and politicians, including journalists and even the President of Mexico himself.
On Monday, Rodolfo Raúl González Vázquez, a former agent of the Mexican intelligence agency CISEN, announced he was filing a suit against the former governor of the southern state of Puebla, Rafel Moreno Valle. González Vázquez accuses Moreno Valle of monitoring Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, plus an additional 24 others, including politicians and journalists, according to local news reports.
During a press conference, González Vázquez said this was a “clandestine espionage department,” that should be considered “a criminal group.”
Thanks to leaked internal documents from Hacking Team, we know Mexico was the company’s largest customer. In the last few years, it appears that its competitor from Israel, NSO Group, has taken over the local market. The dissidents, journalists, and investigators targeted with spyware that have been exposed recently were all targeted with NSO’s malware.
A New York Times Magazine article from January of this year detailed some of Puebla’s government abuses using Hacking Team’s spyware, also known as RCS or Galileo. The company has long held that it had no knowledge of how customers used its tools. But that wasn’t always true. Former employees, who have left the company on ethical grounds, said they were aware of some abuses, and tried warning the company of them.
Early on, Puebla appeared to be a place where something could go wrong. When the company was discussing its contract with the local government, a Hacking Team employee who traveled to Mexico warned the management that there was something fishy about the people who were trying to purchase RCS on behalf of Puebla, according to a former employee who was aware of this warning, and spoke to Motherboard on condition of anonymity.
Hacking Team did not respond to a request for comment.
According to a Mexican source who works in the surveillance industry, and who also asked to speak only on condition of anonymity, this is just yet another incident that shows how spyware has become a central tool for Mexican politicians.
“There are corrupt characters who use spyware for personal goals,” the source said in a phone call. “They use it to maintain power and control.”