The Israelis had come to Mexico to clinch a major sale: The Mexican military was about to become the first client ever to buy their product, the world’s most advanced spyware.
But before they could close the deal, an argument erupted over price and how quickly the spy tool could be delivered. A Mexican general overseeing the negotiations called for a pause until later that evening, according to two people present and a third with knowledge of the talks.
“We’ll pick you up at your hotel and make sure to arrange a better atmosphere,” they recalled the general saying.
That night, a convoy of cars arrived at the Israeli executives’ hotel and took them to a new spot for the fateful negotiations: a strip club in the heart of Mexico City.
The general’s security team ordered all the other clientele to leave the club, the three people said, and the talks resumed.
It was in that dark cabaret in March 2011, among women dancing onstage and shots of tequila, that the most powerful cyberweapon in existence got its start.
The spyware, known as Pegasus, has since become a global byword for the chilling reach of state surveillance, a tool used by governments from Europe to the Middle East to hack into thousands of cellphones.
No place has had more experience with the promise and the peril of the technology than Mexico, the country that inaugurated its spread around the globe.
A New York Times investigation based on interviews, documents and forensic tests of hacked phones shows the secret dealings that led Mexico to become Pegasus’ first client, and reveals that the country grew into the most prolific user of the world’s most infamous spyware.
Mexico went on to wield the surveillance tool against civilians who stand up to the state — abuses the country insists it has stopped. But The Times found that Mexico has continued to use Pegasus to spy on people who defend human rights, even in recent months.
Many tools can infiltrate your digital life, but Pegasus is exceptionally potent. It can infect your phone without any sign of intrusion and extract everything on it — every email, text message, photo, calendar appointment — while monitoring everything you do with it, in real time.
It can record every keystroke, even when you’re using encrypted applications, and watch through your phone’s camera or listen through its microphone, even if your phone is turned off.
It has been used to fight crime, helping to break up child-abuse rings and arrest notorious figures like Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo.
But it has also been deployed illegally, again and again, with governments using Pegasus to spy on and stifle human rights defenders, democracy advocates, journalists and other citizens who challenge corruption and abuse.
Read More: Mexico Became Largest User Of World’s Most Notorious Spy Tool