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Mexico says officials spent $61 million on Pegasus spyware

July 28, 2021 GMT
FILE- In this June 19, 2017, file photo, a person types on a laptop keyboard in North Andover, Mass.  A new report by a global media consortium that expands the known target list of the Israeli hacker-for-hire firm NSO Group’s military-grade spyware provoked alarm Monday, July 19, 2021,  among human rights and press freedom activists. They decried the near-complete absence of regulation of commercial surveillance tools.   (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
FILE- In this June 19, 2017, file photo, a person types on a laptop keyboard in North Andover, Mass. A new report by a global media consortium that expands the known target list of the Israeli hacker-for-hire firm NSO Group’s military-grade spyware provoked alarm Monday, July 19, 2021, among human rights and press freedom activists. They decried the near-complete absence of regulation of commercial surveillance tools. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)
FILE- In this June 19, 2017, file photo, a person types on a laptop keyboard in North Andover, Mass. A new report by a global media consortium that expands the known target list of the Israeli hacker-for-hire firm NSO Group’s military-grade spyware provoked alarm Monday, July 19, 2021, among human rights and press freedom activists. They decried the near-complete absence of regulation of commercial surveillance tools. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s top security official said Wednesday that two previous administrations spent $61 million to buy Pegasus spyware that has been implicated in government surveillance of opponents and journalists around the world.

Public Safety Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said records had been found of 31 contracts signed during the administrations of President Felipe Calderón in 2006-2012 and President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012-18. Some contracts may have been disguised as purchases of other equipment.

The government said many of the contracts with the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group were signed with front companies, which are often used in Mexico to facilitate kickbacks or avoid taxes.

Last week, the government’s top anti-money laundering investigator said officials from the two previous administrations had spent about $300 million in government money to purchase spyware. But that figure may reflect all spyware and surveillance purchases, or may include yet-unidentified contracts.

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Santiago Nieto, the head of Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit, said the bills for programs like the Pegasus spyware appear to have included excess payments that may have been channeled back to government officials as kickbacks.

Nieto said the amounts paid, and the way they were paid, suggested government corruption in an already questionable telephone tapping program that targeted journalists, activists and opposition figures, who at the time included now President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his inner circle.

“This implies or at least presumes the existence of acts of corruption, by selling (the spyware) at inflated prices to the government between the years 2012 and 2018,” Nieto said.

López Obrador took office on Dec. 1, 2018, and vowed never to use spyware. Nieto said no transactions had been detected in the current administration.

Mexico had the largest list — about 700 phone numbers — among the thousands reportedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance.