While looking into abuses by the armed forces, the country’s top human rights official was targeted with Pegasus, the world’s most notorious spyware, The Times found.
He is a longtime friend of the president, a close political ally for decades who is now the government’s top human rights official.
And he has been spied on, repeatedly.
Alejandro Encinas, Mexico’s under secretary for human rights, was targeted with Pegasus, the world’s most notorious spyware, while investigating abuses by the nation’s military, according to four people who spoke with him about the hack and an independent forensic analysis that confirmed it.
Mexico has long been shaken by spying scandals. But this is the first confirmed case of such a senior member of an administration — let alone someone so close to the president — being surveilled by Pegasus in more than a decade of the spy tool’s use in the country.
The attacks on Mr. Encinas, which have not been reported previously, seriously undercut President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pledge to end what he has called the “illegal” spying of the past. They’re also a clear sign of how freewheeling the surveillance in Mexico has become, when no one, not even the president’s allies, appears to be off limits.
Pegasus is licensed only to government agencies, and while there’s no definitive proof which one carried out the hack of Mr. Encinas’s phone, the military is the only entity in Mexico that has access to the spyware, according to five people familiar with the contracts. In fact, the Mexican military has targeted more cellphones with the technology than any government agency in the world.
Mr. Encinas has long been at odds with the armed forces. He and his team have accused them of being involved in the mass disappearance of 43 students, one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history.
His cellphone has been infected multiple times — as recently as last year while he was leading a government truth commission into the abductions — giving the hackers unfettered access to his entire digital life, according to the four people who have discussed it with him.
Pegasus was wielded against some of Mexico’s most prominent journalists and democracy advocates several years ago, igniting an international scandal that stained the previous administration.
Now, new cases have emerged in recent months, confirming that the spyware has targeted human rights defenders and local journalists during Mr. López Obrador’s tenure as well.
Still, the attacks on Mr. Encinas are unlike anything Mexico has witnessed.
“If someone as close to the president as Alejandro Encinas is targeted, it’s clear there’s no democratic control over the spy tool,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, the director of the Mexican chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group.
“There’s no checks and balances,” he added. “The military is a superpower with zero democratic oversight.”
Mr. Encinas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Mexican president and the Mexican defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment, either.
Pegasus can infect your phone without any sign of intrusion and extract everything on it — every email, text message, photo, calendar appointment. It can watch through your phone’s camera or listen through its microphone, even if your phone appears to be turned off.
People who spoke with Mr. Encinas about the hacks said he learned the details of the infections after they were confirmed by Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based out of the University of Toronto. It conducted a forensic analysis of his phone that has not been made public.
The group also found evidence that Pegasus had infiltrated the phones of two other government officials who work with Mr. Encinas and have been involved in inquiries into rights violations by the armed forces, three people with knowledge of the hacks said.
Citizen Lab declined to comment.
The Israeli manufacturer of Pegasus, NSO Group, opened an investigation into cyberattacks on human rights defenders in Mexico after recent reports by The New York Times about the military’s use of the spyware, according to a person familiar with the NSO compliance investigations.
The company also began looking into the attacks on Mr. Encinas and his two colleagues after The Times asked about those hacks, the person said.
In a statement, NSO said that it does not operate individual Pegasus systems but “investigates all credible allegations of misuse,” adding: “Past NSO investigations have resulted in the termination of multiple contracts regarding the improper use of our technologies.”
The hacking has put Mr. Encinas and the president in a tough position. In early March, Mr. Encinas met with Mr. López Obrador to talk about the spying and whether to go public with it, according to several people briefed on the conversation.
But Mr. Encinas has kept quiet about his Pegasus infection since, they said.
Over the summer, he and his team published an explosive report about the 43 students’ disappearance that accused the military of playing a role, calling the events “a crime of the state.”
Then, questions emerged about the evidence, and Mr. Encinas came under intense scrutiny — especially after he admitted in an interview with The Times that key pieces of the inquiry had been “invalidated.”
Lawyers representing military officials implicated in the case called for his resignation and sued him for falsifying evidence. Throughout, Mr. López Obrador has stood by Mr. Encinas, calling him “an exemplary public servant in whom we have all our confidence.”
The two men have been political partners for more than two decades; Mr. Encinas served in Mr. López Obrador’s cabinet when he became mayor of Mexico City in 2000.
“Andrés is my friend, he is my partner,” Mr. Encinas was quoted as saying in 2011. “We are part of a team and a project.”
But since Mr. López Obrador took office, the two men have not always been aligned on the growing power of the military.
The nation’s armed forces have vastly expanded their authority under Mr. López Obrador, accumulating broad control over policing as well as a formidable slate of other activities, including building much of a 1,000-mile railway and an airport, distributing medicine and managing ports and customs.
Mr. Encinas has been one of the few people willing to criticize the military from inside the administration.
When soldiers killed five people in northern Mexico this year, Mr. Encinas said publicly that the unarmed men were “executed” by the army.
The president hasn’t tamped down his support of the armed forces. Despite mounting evidence of the army misusing Pegasus, Mr. López Obrador has continued to deny that any spying is happening.
“We do not spy on anyone,” Mr. López Obrador said in March. He added: “It is an act of dishonesty and lack of principles to be spying.”
When the Israeli Ministry of Defense licenses the sale of Pegasus to government agencies, they must sign agreements to use the surveillance tool solely for fighting severe crime or terrorism, according to three Israeli defense officials.
NSO is now looking into whether the use of Pegasus in Mexico violated that agreement.
Facing two lawsuits in the United States by Apple and Meta, WhatsApp’s parent company, NSO is under more pressure than ever to demonstrate that it’s enforcing its own rules. The Biden administration also blacklisted the Israeli company in 2021, concerned about how Pegasus was used to “maliciously target” dissidents across the world.
NSO appealed the decision, but as part of the process, the company is hoping to show that it is preventing abuse.
A senior executive at NSO said that the company had disconnected 10 clients after they broke the terms of their contracts. One of them, the emir of Dubai, used Pegasus to spy on his ex-wife, according to public court records.
If NSO confirms that Mr. Encinas and others were targeted for no legitimate reason by the Mexican military, the company could immediately shut down the institution’s access to Pegasus.
Publicly, Mr. López Obrador’s stance has not changed. After The Times revealed how the Mexican military became the world’s first — and most prolific — user of Pegasus, the president said the armed forces “are respectful of human rights and don’t do spying like before.”
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.