The Mexico City attorney general’s office ordered the phone records of politicians and officials, court filings show. Many of the people targeted say they were singled out for political reasons.
A leading presidential candidate. The head of the country’s customs agency. At least three borough mayors in the capital. It’s a list that includes powerful members of Mexico’s government.
And, court records show, they were all recently under surveillance by the Mexico City attorney general’s office.
At least 14 written orders reviewed by The New York Times show that the attorney general directed Mexico’s largest telecommunications company to hand over the phone and text records, as well as location data, of more than a dozen prominent Mexican officials and politicians.
Telcel, the telecommunications company, acknowledged in a court filing reviewed by The Times that it had received the orders and handed over the records, which spanned from 2021 until earlier this year. The surveillance included both opponents of the governing Morena party and its allies.
The orders from the Mexico City attorney general’s office say the information was being sought in connection with investigations into kidnappings and disappearances.
Yet the attorney general’s office says it has no such criminal investigations on file, and it “categorically denies” demanding the phone records of the officials and politicians named in the orders.
“This institution does not spy on political figures or any person,” the attorney general’s office said. “On the contrary, it investigates exclusively for legal purposes.”
Despite the denials, a federal judge said this year that the Mexico City attorney general’s office had indeed requested that Telcel hand over the records. The judge’s assessment came in a lawsuit against the attorney general brought by a Mexico City borough mayor who had been named in all 14 written orders.
Many of the people named in the orders say the real reason they were singled out was because they are political targets — victims of a larger, systemic abuse of power.
Mexico has been repeatedly jolted by surveillance scandals, and when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, he promised to end any unlawful surveillance of Mexicans, having criticized his predecessors for such actions.
But his administration has employed some of the same tactics it condemned. Under Mr. López Obrador’s tenure, the country’s military has repeatedly used the notorious spyware known as Pegasus to spy on journalists, human rights advocates and even senior members of his own administration.
“The justice system is being used to target politicians,” said Santiago Taboada Cortina, the borough mayor who filed the lawsuit. A member of the political opposition, Mr. Taboada has announced plans to run for mayor in elections next year.
“What is not normal is that these things happen, that as a result of your aspirations, you have the government breathing down your neck,” he said.
In emergency cases where a life is endangered — such as kidnappings — Mexican law allows investigators to immediately obtain phone records without a warrant.
However, prosecutors are still required to get a warrant from a federal judge within 48 hours of approaching telecommunications companies, which the attorney general’s office did not do. In the court filings, lawyers for Telcel said they never received a warrant from a federal judge for any of the requested phone records.
Telcel did not respond to requests for comment.
“The president pledged that no one would be spied upon in this government,” said Higinio Martínez Miranda, a senior senator from the governing Morena party who represents Mexico State. His cellphone data from October 2021 to January 2022 was obtained by the Mexico City attorney general’s office, according to Telcel’s court filings.
“It is regrettable, condemnable,” he said. Mr. Martínez denied any wrongdoing and said he had no idea he was under investigation until he was informed by journalists for The Times.
Mr. Taboada, the borough mayor, was monitored in 2021, but it was more than a year later when he was first tipped off to the surveillance after a friend in the Mexico City attorney general’s office told him that they were investigating him, he said.
Alarmed by the news, Mr. Taboada filed a lawsuit to force the Mexico City’s attorney general and Telcel to respond to the accusation.
In court filings related to the lawsuit, Telcel acknowledged that it had provided Mr. Taboada’s phone records to the Mexico City attorney general in response to 14 orders tied to kidnappings, and to the attorney general in Colima state for one order.
Tens of other phone numbers were also listed in the orders, Telcel said, including those for powerful figures within Morena, the governing party, and some of its opponents.
In court filings, Colima’s attorney general said it had requested Mr. Taboada’s phone records from Telcel after an anonymous person submitted his phone number, and others, in connection to a local kidnapping case. The Colima prosecutors said that line of inquiry had not turned up anything relevant and they had since destroyed the phone records.
In the same lawsuit, the Mexico City attorney general denied that it had requested Mr. Taboada’s phone records.
Mr. Taboada denied any involvement in the kidnappings.
The actions of the Mexico City attorney general’s office were illegal, according to two legal scholars. Another expert said they may not necessarily be illegal but were a clear abuse of power.
“The system is easily gamed. Prosecutors can either invent investigative files or they can use open investigative files to obtain data from anyone they want without any judicial oversight,” said Luis Fernando García Muñoz, the executive director of R3D, a Mexican digital rights group.
“It’s definitely a system that is designed for abuse and that is being abused.”
Telecommunications companies are legally expected to collaborate with the authorities, “but they also have the ability to push back on abusive requests,” said Mr. García. But these companies rely on licenses from the government and often comply more than they should, perhaps fearing repercussions, he said.
It is not the first time the an attorney general’s office may have misused its power. In 2016, Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office secretly requested the phone records for a human rights lawyer, an investigative journalist and a forensic anthropologist while they were investigating the massacre of 193 people, arguing that the women were linked to a kidnapping probe.
The monitoring ordered by prosecutors “sends the message that they can use the criminal justice system against defenders, against journalists, against independent experts, against opponents,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, the lawyer who was targeted in 2016. “It sends the message that they can do it — and nothing is going to happen to them.”
In the more recent case, Telcel also handed over the phone data of Horacio Duarte, a Morena ally who led Mexico’s customs agency at the time in 2022.
The conservative senator Lilly Téllez, until recently a leading presidential candidate for the opposition, and Alessandra Rojo de la Vega, a former congresswoman and a vocal opponent of Claudia Sheinbaum, a former mayor of Mexico City and the governing party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election, were also monitored, according to the written orders and court filings reviewed by The Times.
The Mexico City attorney general accused Ms. Rojo de la Vega of electoral crimes last year, which Ms. Rojo de la Vega said was political retaliation for opposing Ms. Sheinbaum’s policies. A judge later dismissed the case.
A spokesman for Ms. Sheinbaum, who was mayor during the time that the phone records were requested, declined to comment.
Ms. Rojo de la Vega, angered about the monitoring, said such surveillance should instead be used to investigate real criminals. “That should be the job of the prosecutor’s office, but they are busy persecuting people who make them uncomfortable,” she said.
Ms. Téllez and Ms. Rojo de la Vega, whose cellphone data was requested seven times each in 2021 and 2022, denied any involvement in any kidnapping cases.
Prosecutors also ordered the phone data of Dolores Igareda, a senior official within the Supreme Court, and Ricardo Amezcua, a member of Mexico City’s judicial council, the court filings and orders show. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Ernestina Godoy Ramos, the Mexico City attorney general, is expected to be reappointed sometime later this year.