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World

International Investigators Targeted By Spyware Sold To Mexican Government

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a growing scandal in Mexico over allegations of government spying. In the latest twist, the government's accused of eavesdropping on international investigators who were brought in to look into one of the country's biggest human rights abuse cases. We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We've heard before that the government has spied on journalists, politicians, activists. What makes this new allegation different?

KAHN: These are a prestigious group of investigators and prosecutors that were brought in at the request of the Mexican government. They were brought in to do this independent investigation of the case of the 43 students who went missing more than three years ago. That case and the inability of the government to determine what happened to the students drew huge protests throughout Mexico, and it's still not solved. So these international investigators were brought in, and they were given unprecedented access to the attorney general's investigation.

But they soon ran into troubles with the government, especially when they declared that they disagreed with the official government's version of what happened to the students. They accused the authorities of stonewalling, and now they say that they started receiving suspicious texts containing spyware at about that same time. And if these allegations are true, it's a clear violation of the agreement they had with the government of Mexico and an egregious violation of international rules and norms.

SHAPIRO: International rules and norms violated because this spyware apparently is very hard to get. And when you get it you're supposed to promise that you're not going to use it in this particular way, right?

KAHN: Exactly. The spying is done with this software that's sold exclusively to governments for surveillance of only terrorists and criminals. And the software's called Pegasus. And what happens is it gets into your phone via text messages. You're prompted to click on a link, and it pretty much takes over your phone. It turns it into a monitoring device even of encrypted texts that you send. And like you said, a whole array of activists and journalists and political opponents have come forward saying they've gotten these texts.

SHAPIRO: So there are all these allegations. The government denies that it was involved. Who, if anyone, is going to get to the bottom of what really happened here?

KAHN: Well, there are calls for an international investigation. Those are growing louder now given that the targets of the spying were international investigators. Opposition lawmakers here in Mexico, they were also spied on. And they want a Mexican congressional investigation into that. The president here says he will ask the U.S. FBI to help in the investigation. I just spoke to someone at the U.S. embassy and was told, quote, "the U.S. is not involved in the investigation into the spying scandal."

But let me give you just one example of how hard it will be to get to the bottom of this scandal. There's this new anti-corruption committee that was just formed here. And they were asked by a citizens group to look into the spying, and they refused. They said that spying is not corruption and it's out of their mandate. And it may be no surprise that a key member of that committee is the former attorney general whose office, it has been determined, bought the software and used it while she headed the office.

SHAPIRO: Is there any kind of an independent judiciary in Mexico that might adjudicate this?

KAHN: No. And that is just a grave problem right now in Mexico. Investigations are called, but nothing ever comes of it. And you can look at the recent scandal over allegations of influence peddling involving the first lady. The president appointed an investigator for that case. The investigator turned out to be a close political ally of the president. And a few months later, he actually cleared the president and the first lady of any wrongdoing. So it's - there's a lot of pessimism that anything will come of these investigations that are being called for now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking with us from Mexico City. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.