Edgardo Ayala

Newspaper La Jornada
Wednesday, January 19, 2022, p. 23

San Salvador., A Salvadoran and a Mexican journalist were cyber spied on while they were in Mexico, and everything indicates that their cell phones were hacked from El Salvador, which would represent a violation of the sovereignty of Mexican territory.

The two communicators are part of a list of 22 journalists from the digital newspaper El Faro, from El Salvador, who have been spied on in their country since at least June 2020 through the Pegasus software, owned by the Israeli company NSO Group, as revealed that media outlet on January 12.

They are Carlos Dada, director of El Faro, and Daniel Lizárraga, a renowned Mexican journalist who had come to work for that medium, but was expelled from the country on July 7 by the Nayib Bukele government.

Local authorities alleged that the Mexican failed to verify his work as editor, although in reality it was a crude ruse to kick him out, as part of the constant harassment that Bukele maintains against that newspaper, specialized in investigative work, and against the independent press. in general.

During his stay in Mexico, Dada’s cell phone was spied on between May and June 2021, detailed the Salvadoran media.

Lizárraga was also the victim of eight cyber attacks on his cell phone, including one time when he was already in Mexico after the expulsion, but was still working on a report on the third wave of covid in El Salvador.

If it is proven that their cell phones were hacked from San Salvador, it would imply a case of extraterritorial espionage and would merit, at least, a diplomatic note from the Mexican government, according to the political analyst and former ambassador of El Salvador to the United Nations and in Washington, Ruben Zamora.

It is something that in diplomatic terms is condemned, although all countries do it, especially those in the first world, but yes, there should be at least one diplomatic note, if it were found that the origin of the hack is San Salvador, Zamora declared to La Jornada.

He clarified, however, that the international community has not established any rules on how to proceed in cases of extraterritorial espionage.

In addition, there is no technical certainty that the intervention took place from the Salvadoran capital, he added.

However, when connecting the dots of the entire espionage operation, everything indicates that it was the Salvadoran government.

The Bukele administration has denied that it was behind this and other confirmed attacks in the Central American country.

It is difficult for Mexico to issue a diplomatic note because the problem is that it would have to be proven that the espionage was carried out from San Salvador, added the Salvadoran politician.

La Jornada tried unsuccessfully to obtain a statement on the subject from the Mexican embassy.

Pegasus caused global outrage in July 2021, after an international journalistic investigation promoted by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories revealed that there was massive espionage in 2016 of journalists, human rights activists and politicians in several countries, including Mexico.

The software is capable not only of listening to conversations, as has traditionally been done, but it can also steal all kinds of information from the mobile device.

The cell phones of the Salvadoran media newsroom, as well as the administrative staff, all of the iPhone brand, were analyzed by Citizen Lab, specialized in cybersecurity, of the University of Toronto.

In this process, from September to December 2021, the organization Access Now, dedicated to the protection of digital rights, also participated.

In November of that year, Apple, the owner of the iPhone brand, sent warnings to journalists from other Salvadoran media outlets, as well as human rights activists and opposition politicians, that they might be being spied on by the government.

This means that the number of affected could be much higher, although the figure is unknown.

In addition, the Citizen Lab and Access Now expertise was carried out on iPhone devices, whose technology makes it easier to identify the hack, but many other people who use the Android system could have been compromised as well.

They infected my personal phone, and it’s scary to think about why the State does it, it’s scary because colleagues in the union have been harassed in their homes and their families, Gloria Flores, a journalist from La Prensa Gráfica, assured La Jornada.

Three more journalists from that local outlet were affected, he said.

Although in general the expertise on cyber espionage fails to detect the origin, the analysis made of the devices of El Faro staff found an unusual detail, which gave certainty that, at least in one case, that of journalist Carlos Martínez, the attack of Pegasus came from a local operator.

That finding was made when Citizen Lab and Access Now detected a live intervention to Martínez, that is, that the hack was happening at that precise moment, on November 15, 2021.

That operator, researchers have called Torogoz, the name of the national bird of El Salvador.

El Faro detected, after crossing information of dates, that the attacks on its journalists coincided with investigations into possible acts of corruption by the Bukele government, or with important news events in the country.

Martínez is among the journalists who have investigated the gangs in El Salvador the most. El Faro has revealed how the last three governments, including Bukele’s, have made dark pacts with these groups to reduce the number of homicides in the country.

For this reason, Martínez has been the most spied on in the newspaper by Pegasus.