A leading presidential candidate. The head of the country’s customs agency. At least three neighborhood mayors in the capital. It’s a list that includes powerful members of the Mexican government.
And, as court documents show, they were all recently under surveillance by the Mexico City attorney general’s office.
At least 14 written orders reviewed by The New York Times show the attorney general ordered Mexico’s largest telecommunications company to turn over phone and text records, as well as location data, of more than a dozen prominent Mexican officials and politicians .
Telcel, the telecommunications company, acknowledged in a court filing reviewed by The Times that it had received the orders and turned over the logs, which ran from 2021 to early this year. The surveillance included both opponents of the ruling Morena party and its allies.
According to orders from the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office, the information would be sought as part of investigations into kidnappings and disappearances.
Yet the attorney general’s office says it has no such criminal investigations on file and “categorically denies” having requested the phone records of officials and politicians named in the orders.
“This institution does not spy on political figures or other people,” the attorney general’s office said. “On the contrary, it investigates exclusively for legal purposes.”
Despite the denials, a federal judge said this year that the Mexico City attorney general’s office had indeed required Telcel to turn over the documents. The judge’s assessment came as part of a lawsuit against the attorney general brought by a mayor of a Mexico City district who was named in all 14 written orders.
Many of the people named in the orders say the real reason they were singled out is because they are political targets, victims of a broader, systemic abuse of power.
Mexico has repeatedly been roiled by surveillance scandals, and when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, he vowed to end any illegal surveillance of Mexicans, after criticizing his predecessors for such actions.
But his administration has adopted some of the same tactics he had condemned. Under López Obrador’s tenure, the country’s military has repeatedly used the infamous spyware known as Pegasus to spy on journalists, human rights defenders and even senior members of its own administration.
“The justice system is being used to target politicians,” said Santiago Taboada Cortina, the mayor of the district who filed the lawsuit. A member of the political opposition, Taboada has announced his intention to run for mayor in next year’s elections.
“What is not normal is that these things happen, that because of your aspirations, you have the government breathing down your neck,” he said.
In emergency cases where a life is in danger, such as kidnappings, Mexican law allows investigators to immediately obtain phone records without a warrant.
However, prosecutors are still required to obtain a warrant from a federal judge within 48 hours of approaching telecommunications companies, which the attorney general’s office has not done. In court filings, Telcel’s lawyers said they never received a subpoena from a federal judge for any of the requested phone records.
Telcel did not respond to requests for comment.
“The president promised that no one will be spied on in this government,” said Higinio Martínez Miranda, a senior senator from the ruling Morena party and representative of the state of Mexico. According to Telcel’s court documents, its cellphone data from October 2021 to January 2022 was obtained from the Mexico City attorney general’s office.
“It’s deplorable, condemnable,” he said. Mr. Martínez has denied any wrongdoing and said he had no idea he was under investigation until he was informed by Times reporters.
Mr. Taboada, the district’s mayor, was monitored in 2021, but it was more than a year when he was first informed of the surveillance after a friend in the Mexico City attorney general’s office told him they were investigating him, he said.
Alarmed by the news, Taboada filed a lawsuit to force the attorney general of Mexico City and Telcel to respond to the accusation.
In court documents related to the case, Telcel acknowledged providing Mr. Taboada’s phone records to the attorney general of Mexico City in response to 14 kidnapping-related orders, and to the attorney general of Colima state for one order.
Dozens of other phone numbers were also listed in the orders, Telcel said, including those of powerful figures within Morena, the ruling party, and some of its opponents.
In documents submitted to court, Colima’s attorney general said he requested Mr Taboada’s phone taboadas from Telcel after an anonymous person provided his phone number, and others, in connection with a local kidnapping case. Colima prosecutors said the investigation had uncovered nothing of significance and they had since destroyed phone records.
In the same lawsuit, Mexico City’s attorney general denied requesting Mr. Taboada’s telephone taboadas.
Mr Taboada has denied any involvement in the abductions.
According to two jurists, the action of the Attorney General of Mexico City is illegal. Another expert said they might not necessarily be illegal but would constitute a clear abuse of power.
“The system is easily playable. Prosecutors can invent investigative files or use open investigative files to get data from whoever they want without any judicial oversight,” said Luis Fernando García Muñoz, executive director of R3D, a Mexican digital rights group.
“It is definitely a system designed for abuse and being abused.”
Telecom companies are expected by law to cooperate with authorities, “but they also have the ability to reject abusive requests,” García said. But these companies rely on government licenses and often comply more than they should, perhaps fearing repercussions, he said.
This is not the first time an attorney general’s office has abused its power. In 2016, Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office secretly requested telephone records for a human rights lawyer, an investigative journalist and a forensic anthropologist as they investigated the massacre of 193 people, claiming the women were linked to a kidnapping investigation.
The monitoring ordered by prosecutors “sends the message that they can use the criminal justice system against defenders, against journalists, against independent experts, against opponents,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, the lawyer targeted in 2016. “It sends the message that “they can do it, and nothing will happen to them”.
In the most recent case, Telcel also handed over the phone data of Horacio Duarte, a Morena ally who was running Mexico’s 2022 customs agency at the time.
Conservative Senator Lilly Téllez, until recently one of the main opposition presidential candidates, and Alessandra Rojo de la Vega, former congresswoman and opponent of Claudia Sheinbaum, former mayor of Mexico City and candidate of the governing party in the elections presidential elections next year, have been monitored, according to written orders and court documents reviewed by the Times.
Mexico City’s attorney general charged Ms. Rojo de la Vega with election crimes last year, which Ms. Rojo de la Vega said was political retaliation for opposing Ms. Sheinbaum’s policies. A judge later dismissed the case.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Sheinbaum, who was older at the time the phone records were requested, declined to comment.
Ms. Rojo de la Vega, angry about the monitoring, said such surveillance should instead be used to investigate real criminals. “This is supposed to be the job of the prosecutor’s office, but they are busy hunting down people who make them uncomfortable,” she said.
Ms. Téllez and Ms. Rojo de la Vega, whose cellphone details were requested seven times each in 2021 and 2022, denied any involvement in any kidnapping cases.
Prosecutors also ordered the phone records of Dolores Igareda, a top Supreme Court official, and Ricardo Amezcua, a member of Mexico City’s judicial council, records and court orders show. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Ernestina Godoy Ramos, Mexico City’s attorney general, is expected to be reappointed later this year.