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'We don’t spy’: Mexico’s president says spying on top official was not carried out by the military

The New York Times this week reported that a top Mexican official had been spied on by the country’s military. Mexico’s president confirmed that he knew about the espionage allegations — but he denies the Mexican army is behind it.

Alejandro Encinas heads Mexico’s human rights commission. According to the New York Times, he was targeted with the Pegasus, spyware created by Israeli company NSO group which has become notorious for allowing governments to break into cell phones to access their content, microphones and cameras.

"It is very worrisome, but I guess to some extent it is not very surprising," said Cecilia Farfan, head of research at Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego.

There are well-documented cases of Mexico’s military using Pegasus to spy on journalists and human rights activists, she said, but Encinas is the first known target close to the president.

Encinas has been critical of the military, and has investigated human rights abuses, including the disappearance of 43 students from a teachers college in Ayotzinapa in 2014, which he said military police and other officials were involved in and helped cover up alongside criminal groups.

According to the New York Times, Mexico's military is the only entity in the country with access to Pegasus

However, while President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said when Encinas told him his cellphone had been spied on, he downplayed the issue.

"He told me about it and I told him not to give it any importance," he said during a press conference earlier this week.

The president suggested that no one knows who is responsible for the spying but that it could not Mexico's military and that his government would not investigate the case because "we do not spy."

Farfan said that response is a troubling sign for Mexico’s democracy.

"We do not see the government taking any action that would generate accountability," she said of this and other instances of spying uncovered on this administration and the one before it.

She is also concerned about the expansion of the military's role in Mexico in recent years.

Lopez Obrador has not only increased the military's budget and authority over public safety, she said, but has also brought in the army for infrastructure projects and put the operation of airports, ports and customs under its control.

"What we have seen is that the executive branch will go to great lengths to ensure that the military can continue to operate despite the human rights violations that have been documented, despite corruption that has been documented," she said. "We have not seen any sort of response trying to generate accountability from the army. If anything, we have seen they are increasing their power, their resources and not necessarily being responsive to citizens."

This most recent revelation of spying is also troubling, she added, because it shows that no one in Mexico is immune.

"This case in particular is very concerning for groups that are involved in group that are involved in justice around Mexico," she said, including citizens who are searching their missing loved ones across the country. "If they are seeing that Encinas is not safe, then I think that creates the question of, 'who is?'"

Freedom of speech and human rights organization also weighed in this week, expressing disappointment that the president is not doing more to address ongoing espionage that he had promised would end under his leadership.

The digital rights group R3D said on Twitter that there is ample evidence that Mexico's military has used Pegasus to target human rights defenders, journalists and now officials investigating human rights abuses by the military. "We condemn the governments complicit silence on espionage," the tweet said.

Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.