Mar 8, 2023, 9:39am EST
North America

Mexico’s army spied on journalists and an activist, hacked classified documents show

REUTERS/Jasiel Rubio

Sign up for Semafor Flagship: The daily global news briefing you can trust. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

Mexico’s armed forces spied on journalists and a human rights activist, according to documents hacked from a military database.

Title icon

Know More

Mexico’s Ministry of Defense used Pegasus, the powerful spying software, at least five times to gain access to mobile phone data and conversations between Raymundo Ramos, a human rights activist investigating a 2020 massacre at the hands of troops, and three journalists, Aristegui Noticias reported.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s had asserted that such surveillance would be “illegal” during his administration.

Despite being a critic of the previous government’s reliance on the military for policing duties, the role — and budget — of Mexico’s armed forces has surged during Lopez Obrador’s presidency.

Military personnel are now assigned tasks that range from building airport runways and train tracks, to running the country’s ports and delivering welfare programs.

Title icon

Step Back

Lopez Obrador swept to power in 2018 under the promise to pacify the country — among the most dangerous in the world since a war on drug cartels was unleashed in 2006 — with a new strategy: “hugs, not bullets.

This is no longer a war. It is no longer about force, confrontation, annihilation, extermination, or killing in the heat of the moment,” Lopez Obrador said early into his six-year term. “This is about thinking how to save lives and achieve peace and tranquility in the country using other methods.”

However, in practice his security strategy has relied on expanding the role of the armed forces in policing duties, seen by experts as at least partially the cause for soaring murder rates.

For journalists, last year was the deadliest on record in Mexico. The country's number of murdered journalists, 15, was only surpassed by Ukraine, an active war zone.

Critics point to Lopez Obrador’s stigmatizing rhetoric towards reporters — the president holds a weekly press conference called Who’s Who in Lies where he riles against journalists who publish unflattering texts — as contributing to the climate of hostility against the press.

Title icon

The Numbers

  • Nine of the 10 cities with the highest murder rate in 2022 are in Mexico, according to a report published by the Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a think tank.
  • More than 30,000 Mexican were murdered last year, making its murder rate of 25.2 per 100,000. The equivalent rate for the U.S. is 7.8.
  • Mexico recorded more than 1,000 femicides in 2021, second only to Brazil, according to a report by the U.N.’s Gender Equality Observatory
    for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Title icon


“Taking into account the enormous economic power it has and all the state functions it controls,” Catalina Pérez Correa, an expert on the military at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, told The New York Times, “you could say that Mexico has the building blocks for a military state.”