The cell phones of more than half of the workers in the Salvadoran digital media The lighthouse they were intervened between June 2020 and November 2021, as they were able to verify The Citizen Lab, a specialist cybersecurity lab at the University of Toronto, and Access Now, an organization that ensures the protection of digital rights. Both organizations examined for three months, from September to December 2021, the iPhone phones of all members of The lighthouse and the conclusion is overwhelming: the telephone sets of 22 members of the newspaper were intervened with Pegasus, the espionage software of the Israeli company NSO Group.
The espionage detected and that this Wednesday revealed The lighthouse It was directed against all possible levels of the newspaper: editors, editors, members of the Board of Directors and even administrative personnel. In almost all cases, the team remained under constant surveillance throughout 226 different interventions.
Since coming to power in June 2019, the Salvadoran newspaper has been at the center of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath after the digital newspaper revealed, among other things, the agreement between his government and the gangs for the pacification of the country, as well as other cases of corruption that affect its collaborators.
The company that owns the software, NSO Group, has stated that it only sells the Pegasus spy program to governments under the authorization of the Israeli Defense Ministry. The international organizations that have made the expertise of the telephones of The lighthouse They have led similar processes with journalists, activists or opponents from other countries in which they concluded that everything indicated that it was the respective governments that were behind the interventions. MRT has tried to obtain the version of the Salvadoran government spokesman, Ernesto Sanabria, without any response.
In a statement sent to the Reuters agency, Bukele’s communications office said it was not a client of NSO Group. In addition, he assures that his Government is investigating the alleged cyber attack and that they have indications that some senior officials could also have their phones tapped and be “victims of attacks.”
In the case of The lighthouse, among the most spied on are the editor-in-chief, Óscar Martínez, victim of 42 punctures, the deputy editor-in-chief, Sergio Arauz, with 14; the correspondent of The lighthouse in the United States, José Luis Sanz, 13, and the Mexican editor, Daniel Lizárraga, before and after the Salvadoran government expelled him from the country in July.
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The most striking case is that of journalist Carlos Martínez, who has signed all the publications related to pacts between politicians and gangs since 2012. The reporter was being listened to at the same time that Citizen Lab and Access Now analyzed his phone in November 2021. At that time, Martínez was already investigating the MS-13 negotiations with the government and had published that the negotiations included the three gangs. This puncture reveals for the researchers “an unprecedented case”, according to the Toronto laboratory. “It’s very rare to catch an infection when it’s alive,” according to The Citizen Lab researcher Scott-Railton. Contacted by MRT, journalist Carlos Martínez believes that Bukele is behind the theft of information. “This illegal espionage operation against the newspaper is consistent with Bukele’s different attacks against The lighthouse since his administration began. This attack has to do with the smear campaigns against us, with the use of public institutions to attack the newspaper and the abusive audits or accusations on television that we are money launderers. The wiretaps to which we are subjected are consistent with this way of acting,” he explained.
Another notable case is that of Carlos Dada, director of The lighthouse and president of the board of directors, who was the victim of 12 punctures. Due to their duration, the investigation allows us to conclude that they remained active for 167 days distributed between July 2020 and June 2021. Each one of these punctures, which costs thousands of dollars, allows the program full access to the content of the program. phone: extraction of messages, images or any file, activation of the camera and microphone, theft of sessions in social network applications, access to attachments of text messages, messaging applications, email, and also the possibility from which to access geolocation logs, call logs and browsing activity on internet sites.
Among the journalists with ten or more thefts of information are Gabriel Labrador, with 20; Julia Gavarrete, with 18 (including 15 interventions on her personal telephone and three on the institutional one), Gabriela Cáceres, with 14; Roxana Lazo, with 12: and Efren Lemus, with ten. In addition, there are journalists from the media closed cat against whom Bukele has directed several of his attacks.
During the months in which the journalists were spied on, investigations were carried out into the negotiation between the Government and the gangs, the theft of food destined for the pandemic by the director of Penal Centers and his mother, the secret negotiations of Bukele’s brothers for the landing of Bitcoin or the assets of some officials of the current Government.
espionage against The lighthouse, however, was not limited to writing. The telephone of the general manager, Carlos Salamanca, was tapped between September and October 2020, just when the Treasury audits against the newspaper intensified. The same thing happened with the administrative manager, Mauricio Sandoval. Sandoval was intervened, at other times, on July 6, the day he received the institutional notification sent by Migration ordering the editor Daniel Lizárraga to leave the country within 24 hours.
Precisely Lizárraga represents one of the bloodiest cases of espionage against journalists. Lizárraga has suffered the brutal espionage of Pegasus on two occasions: the first in Mexico, as a member of the team of the journalist Carmen Aristegui and the second in El Salvador as part of El Faro. His case put the Pegasus scandal on the table for the first time when it was discovered that the Peña Nieto government used the program to spy on Lizárraga, who participated in the revelations about the ‘White House’ as the scandal involving the Peña Nieto’s wife in the purchase of a mansion with money from a successful builder in the public works concession. The scandal revealed that, for spying, Pegasus is the favorite weapon of governments with authoritarian temptations.
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