The presidents of Panama and Mexico are caught up in alleged abuses of a sophisticated government wiretapping program.

Growing scandal in Latin America over 'Pegasus' spy-hacking program

Growing scandal in Latin America over 'Pegasus' spy-hacking program

First it was Panama, now Mexico. The spyware Pegasus is at the center of allegations of government spying in both countries. Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, is in jail in Miami for allegedly using Pegasus to spy on enemies, journalists, union leaders and his own mistress, according to a federal indictment.

The presidents of Panama and Mexico are caught up in alleged abuses of a...
The presidents of Panama and Mexico are caught up in alleged abuses of a sophisticated government wiretapping program.

New evidence of possible illegal government hacking of cellphones in Mexico is the latest allegation of sophisticated - and often salacious - hacking of political opponents in Latin America, and it's worthy of a spy novel.

The latest allegations come on top of a long-running spy saga in Panama, which led to the arrest last week in Miami of the country's former president, Ricardo Martinelli, on charges that he wiretapped politicians, legislators, journalists and even a mistress.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that advanced 'Pegasus' spyware bought by the Mexican government was used to target Mexico’s most prominent human rights defenders, journalists and anti-corruption activists.

Lea este articulo en español

Evidence indicates that the spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms maker, NSO Group, was also used to monitor lawyers investigating the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers' college in the town of Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state.

Among the targets were investigative journalists Carmen Aristegui and Carlos Loret de Mola, the director of the human rights group Centro PRODh, and the director of the think tank IMCO, the report found.

A report released in Mexico City yesterday by the press freedom group Article 19 and open internet researchers R3D and the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab documented the attempts.

The Mexican government has denied it authorized the use of Pegasus for political purposes.

NSO Group says it sells the tool exclusively to governments, under the terms that it may only be used against terrorists, drug cartels and criminal groups.


"The surveillance of journalists threatens press freedom in Mexico, and potentially the safety of their sources for sensitive stories," said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "The Mexican government should credibly investigate this intrusion and make the results of that investigation public."

Martinelli, who was arrested by U.S. Marshals on an extradition request by the government of Panama, is accused of allegedly abusing the Pegasus system while he was president from 2009 until 2014, as well as the disappearance of the spy equipment after he left office. Some of the tapes including politicians engaged in sex, were released on YouTube.

Martinelli "created and oversaw a sophisticated program that involved illegal wiretapping and other forms of surveillance through which he violated the privacy of his 'targets,' learning intimate details of their personal and professional lives without their knowledge or consent," according to a detailed extradition complaint by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Martinelli complaint

In a Tuesday hearing in federal court in Miami, Martinelli's lawyers denied the charges, saying the former president was a victim of political persecution by the new government of President Juan Carlos Varela. A former ally of Martinelli, Varela met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

A lawyer for Martinelli, Marcos Jiménez, told the court that his client had not been formally accused in Panama of any crime related to the acquisition of the Pegasus phone tapping system and said he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the equipment.

The defense is seeking to have Martinelli,a billionaire supermarket mogul, released on $5 million bond.

Martinelli "created a special, covert unit" within the country's National Security Council known as 'Special Services,' according to the federal complaint.

"The unit reported directly to, and all of its activities were govemed by, Martinelli," it stated.

Martinelli provided a list of people to be monitored. Each officer was given specific tasks and had to deliver written reports on the results of the eavesdropping. The reports were delivered personally to Martinelli "in a sealed manila envelope every morning," according to the complaint. When Martinelli was especially pleased by the results of the wiretapping he sent $2,000 cash bonuses to the two officials in charge of the program.

The document states that after the elections in May 2014, when Martinelli was finishing his presidential term, the National Security Council intelligence chief, Ronny Rodríguez, and another official, William Pitti, removed the eavesdropping equipment from the building where it was housed.

"William poured acid over the printer to destroy it out of concern that it could contain backup copies of all the information printed on the device," the complaint states.

They were sloppy apparently, as investigators later forensically retrieved all the information from a laptop that was left behind. A metal rack that housed the computer server was also recovered from the offices of Super 99, the supermarket chain owned by Martinelli, according to the complaint.

Martinelli, 65, moved to South Florida shortly after his presidency ended and requested political asylum after the spying allegations emerged.

Among the Panamanian victims was Yassir Purcait, a former opposition congressman and fervent critic of Martinelli's government, who is now a witness against Martinelli in Panama's extradition request.


In an interview with Univision Investiga, Purcait described his shock when he saw dozens of boxes with transcripts of telephone conversations and emails that sit in a prosecutor's office in Panama. Purcait had been summoned to declare as plaintiff.

Yassir Purcait alleges that he was a victim of abuse of the Pegasus spyw...
Yassir Purcait alleges that he was a victim of abuse of the Pegasus spyware system in Panama.

"The truth was that it was creepy. I can not describe it any other way. Especially when you find yourself there with private conversations between you and your wife, and between your children. It was tough for our pride, as a couple, as a husband,'' he said.

The extradition complaint says that the Pegasus system was used without prior court order to scrutinize the life and movements of political enemies as well as allies of Martinelli, including members of the Supreme Court, the Electoral Tribunal, judges, journalists and businessmen. The list of "targets" included trade union leaders, business rivals and even the president's mistress.

Under the orders of Martinelli, when the clandestine cell phone surveillance resulted in compromising videos, as happened in one case of a political rival engaged in sex, they were uploaded to YouTube, according to the complaint. Rodriguez, the intelligence chief, reported to his subordinates on one occasion: "The boss is happy with our work and he sent you this bond." The communication was accompanied by a payment of $ 2,000.


Martinelli's lawyer in Panama, Sidney Sitton, told Univision that there is no evidence that the government used the Pegasus system. Instead, he said Panamanian prosecutors had confused Pegasus with an entirely separate Israeli company named MLM.

Sidney Sitton, abogado de Ricardo Martinelli en Panamá
Sidney Sitton, one of the lawyers for former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli.

The eavesdropping system was allegedly purchased by the Martinelli government for $13.4 million with funds diverted from a Social Investment Fund that was supposed to be used for raising living standards of low income families.

The revelations in Panama have raised alarm bells in Mexico after reports this week that Pegasus may also have been used to intercept the phones of political activists there.

The arrest and possible extradition of Martinelli provided "some hope that this impunity cannot prevail," Luis Fernando García, director of R3D, Network in Defense of the Digital Rights of Mexico, told Univision.

Garcia explained how the hacking was performed using a virus-like malicious software, or malware, inserted in text messages and designed to infiltrate cellphones. Once the phone is infected with malware "the attacker can read the messages, emails, contacts, real-time location, know where it is located, can activate the camera and activate the microphone," he said.


The software is manufactured by an Israeli company, NSO Group, and was designed by former Israeli military personnel. The company has been linked to President Donald Trump's disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who received thousands of dollars as a consultant for the company.

Additional reporting by Peniley Ramírez in Mexico City and David Adams in Miami

The Colombian soldier Mauricio Calvo shares his experience as part of a burgeoning industry of men who travel the world to fight in other people's wars.
They grew up in Chicago and their husbands, the Flores twins (aka ‘Los Mellizos’), worked for the Sinaloa cartel. The twins later became DEA informants in Mexico who helped bring down El Chapo Guzman. They have written a book, Cartel Wives, telling their story as a lesson to others not to fall for the narco life, and they regret what they put their families through. "Our fathers put on their suit of armor and their badge, and they are going out there on the streets of Chicago,” Mia confesses. “It’s the very same streets that our husbands were flooding with drugs.”
Nelson Denis, author of 'War Against All Puerto Ricans,' details how the commonwealth's 119-year-long association with the U.S. has produced total economic and governing dependence. With over $70 billion in crushing debt, Puerto Rico's governor turned to the courts on Wednesday to put certain debts before a federal bankruptcy court.
We traveled to Ciudad Juárez to see if hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Mexican maquiladora industry would return to the United States if Trump were to modify or abandon the NAFTA free trade agreement, as his government is considering. A border tax would have serious consequences in Mexican cities.
A wave of demonstrations in Venezuela has left several dead and hundreds more detained in the last two weeks. Univision reporter Tamoa Calzadilla explains how a democratic crisis, inflation and shortages of food and medicine have sent Venezuelans into the streets.
As the legend goes, a UFO landed in Capilla del Monte in 1986, leaving a mark on the side of the Pajarillo mountains. Since then, this Argentinian village has lived off UFO tourism. It's currently hosting its annual Alien Festival.
The announcement to scrap the benefits came as a bucket of cold water for the Cuban migrants who just arrived in the United States. As this group waits for their papers, the uncertainty grows on whether they will ever be reunited with the relatives they left on the island.
It is estimated that the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and its rival Barrio 18 gang together have about 40,000 members in the United States. And at least another 100,000 in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Italy. How did the gangs come to be among the world's best known criminal organizations?
A group of Argentines diagnosed with mental illness set up a radio station from where they broadcast their experiences
How Fidel Castro's plan to save Cuban baseball unraveled. The once mighty amateur baseball champions have lost much of their talent in recent years to U.S. Major League Baseball. Now the Cuban government is in discussions with MLB to stop the desertions. But will a Trump presidency make that more difficult?
A half-century of armed conflict has left behind 8 million victims in Colombia. It has also affected the country's unique natural resources. We explore the war’s impact on Colombia’s environment.
Forty three students in Mexico were abducted two years ago, and to this day, none have ever been found. When his son Jorge disappeared, New York City plumber Antonio Tizapa began to run marathons, not to win, but to send a message at the end of each race: he won’t stop until he finds his son or the truth about what really happened on that shameful day. On Sunday, Antonio and 20 friends will be running the New York City Marathon.
The evidence against El Chapo: undercover recordings, intercepted communications, protected witnesses’ declarations, drug seizures, and a confession. As U.S. prosecutors prepare their case against the world's most feared drug trafficker, this is what the government's case is built around.
Six months after the U.S. president visited the island, Cubans are divided over his impact. A government reform program is on hold as anxious residents pray for a tourist invasion.
Cubans seeking to flee the island are taking to rustic, homemade boats in increasing numbers since the U.S. and Cuba agreed to normalize relations 18 months ago.
La Tropical beer was popular in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution, but the factory was nationalized and the brewery later closed.
Flores: la tendencia de moda favorita de Francisca Lachapel
Inspírate en los 'looks' de nuestra conductora y diviértete creando estilos como ella.
Lo más visto de la semana: Francisca recibe una propuesta por presentar a su novio y Ana Patricia escuchó el corazón de su bebé
Además: Chiquis Rivera confiesa lo que sufrió al ser víctima de una traición, Ninel Conde se realiza otra prueba toxicológica y Kylie Jenner muestra su impresionante clóset de bolsas. Revive aquí los videos más vistos de la semana.
Giulietta y Ana Patricia son puro amor: mira sus fotos más encantadoras
Entre risas y divertidas ocurrencias, la conductora de Despierta América disfruta de sus días con su princesa. No te quedes sin ver sus fotos más encantadoras.
Dormir con tu perro en la cama no te quita el sueño
Un estudio de un hospital de Arizona encontró que permitir que los perros duerman en la cama con sus dueños no altera el sueño, ni de los humanos, ni del animal.
Andrew McCabe, exsubdirector del FBI despedido, guardó memos de sus interacciones con Trump
Los memos, similares a los de James Comey, revelan algunas interacciones del ex funcionario con el presidente de EEUU.
¿Por qué colapsó el puente recién construido?: las claves de la investigación del accidente en Miami
¿Qué es un puente instantáneo, quién lo construyó y cuáles son las posibles causas y responsables del colapso? Tratamos de responder algunas de las preguntas surgidas tras la tragedia.
Extraen otros tres cuerpos de los escombros del puente de Miami; la cifra de muertos se mantiene en seis
Las autoridades informaron de la recuperación de estas víctimas en dos autos removidos de debajo de los escombros, siguen las operaciones para sacar más cadáveres atrapados.
Defensa de DC United se duerme y el colombiano Mauro Manotas los castiga con el 2-0 para el Dynamo
Sólo frente al portero, sin ninguna marca dentro del área, el delantero consigue el segundo para el equipo texano.
La decisiva Jornada 12 de la Liga MX
El fin de semana, Cruz Azul, Chivas, América, Pumas, Veracruz, Lobos y Atlas se juegan más que los tres puntos.
¡Muchas Gracias! Alberth ‘panterita’ Elis, aprovecha un regalo y marca el primero para Houston
El delantero hondureño se quita la marca y ante un error del defensa rival, marca de ‘sombrerito’ el 1-0 sobre DC United.
¡Vuelve Buffon! Fue convocado por Italia para amistosos frente Argentina e Inglaterra
El legendario arquero nuevamente vestirá la camiseta "azzurra" tras la eliminación sufrida en noviembre de 2017 contra Suecia.