Wednesday, July 6

Marcela Turati, journalist spied on with Pegasus: “In Mexico, organized crime is within the State”

Before, long before Pegasus filled the front pages of the Spanish media, the name of this Israeli espionage software was already well known in other countries. In Mexico, for journalists it is like a fly that they always have behind their ear. One of the most notorious cases was that of the journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was spied on in 2017. A few months ago, it was the turn of Marcela Turati (Mexico City, 1974), who was accused of organized crime and kidnapping to justify the espionage to which the Mexican government subjected her for a year. She visits Barcelona to participate in some debates at the Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB).

Missing: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

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This week, Mexico has reached 100,000 disappeared and has added the eleventh name to the list of journalists killed so far this year. When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) came to power, it seemed that things would get better, but the figures say otherwise. What is happening to Mexico?

We have a rate of disappearances never seen before and we have no end on the horizon, no turning point that could reverse this situation. Andrew Manuel [López Obrador] It came with high expectations, because it is a so-called leftist government, which seemed to be going to change the paradigm of militarization. But instead he has deepened it. The military have increased their powers: they are dedicated to public security tasks, they are managing the construction of the New Mexico City International Airport, they attend to the so-called “problem” of immigration… You see military personnel everywhere and, although AMLO say that it is “citizenizing the military”, the truth is that it is militarizing the cities.

It is true that there have been positive actions, such as the creation of a commission to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, or an extraordinary forensic identification mechanism, because we have some 55,000 unidentified corpses in the municipal morgues or cemeteries. But that is not enough: it will not serve to reverse the 23 disappearances that occur every day in Mexico. If we only focus on identifying the victims and, if we continue at this rate, how many years will it take to identify all the remains? And, furthermore, is it going to be of any use to identify these corpses, taking into account the high figures of impunity?

Since 2006, when the drug war began, organized crime has been the scapegoat for anything that happens in Mexico. Is it a way to torpedo journalistic investigations and shield impunity?

The 2006 war was a ‘watershed’ in the country and we continue to pay the consequences. We have always been told that organized crime is to blame for everything, but every time we take a closer look at cases like Ayotzinapa, we see that the State is also behind it. In this case, a criminal group, the Guerreros Unidos, disappears them, but together with municipal police. With members of the army and intelligence taking care of the operation and the Federal Police closing the perimeter.

We are told that the culprit is organized crime, but who is it? In Mexico, organized crime is also within the State. We see it if we start to investigate the pits. If you dig through them, you begin to see that there was protection, collusion, narco-politicians, drug traffickers in power. We see that journalists like Miroslava Breach have been killed because she was investigating municipalities where drug traffickers were in power and where the public security structures were hitmen, not policemen.

One of the catastrophes that has marked your career is the San Fernando massacres. What happened there?

San Fernando is my obsession. I’ve been reporting that case for 11 years. About 50 graves appeared, with 600 bodies, just an hour and a quarter from the border with the United States. In the end, we discovered that the Los Zetas cartel had been stopping the buses with migrants and interrogating the young men, because the opposing cartel (the Gulf cartel) was recruiting Central American men. So Los Zetas checked their cell phones and, if they had any information that seemed suspicious to them, they killed them and buried them.

So far, blame organized crime. But why didn’t anyone put out a roadside alert? The security forces knew this because the handcuffs stayed on the bus and alerted the police, the army and immigration agents. The drivers didn’t say anything either, despite the fact that the bus terminals were full of abandoned suitcases, from travelers who never reached their destination. The worst thing is that, when we uncover the graves, the State Attorney General’s Office [equivalente a la Fiscalía] he tried not to make any noise: he cremated some bodies and returned others to mass graves.

These are other types of crimes and, every time you see that the Attorney General’s Office is involved in something heinous, you realize the impunity in Mexico. That justice does not work and that many of the disappeared were disappeared by the State. Why else have you not identified those 55,000 bodies? They don’t care, it’s a contempt for life.

What happens to people like you, who do care and investigate?

John Gibler often says that “in Mexico it is more dangerous to investigate a crime than to commit it.” When I started covering victims of violence in 2008, I thought that would not be dangerous, because I did not cover organized crime or cartels. But as you accompany the victims, you discover with them that there are forced labor camps, safe houses of criminal groups full of people, that there are trafficking networks, extermination camps in which they use acid to make the bodies…

When you begin to realize and investigate these realities that are not talked about, you see that organized crime does not perpetrate them alone, that to do that, in some way, you have to have permission. There is always a politician or official involved. The danger lies in finding those connections, so any data, any report, even the simplest thing, can put you in danger without you realizing it.

That danger, for you, manifested itself in the form of an accusation of belonging to organized crime.

That’s when I realized that there is an intention to make the bodies disappear from public roads, so that it is not known what is happening or that they are killing people. For this reason, uncovering these graves was, in some way, an attack against the State. That put me in danger, but not only me. An Argentine forensic anthropologist and a defense attorney for the victim families were also affected. All of us ended up in the case file, investigated for kidnapping and organized crime, as if we were a gang. In the same file that contained the members of Los Zetas who committed the murders.

How did you find out about that?

I was researching that file for a book I’m writing about San Fernando and, suddenly, I realize that I figure in those documents. I don’t know what they wanted from me, just that they watched me for at least a year. They were able to find out who I met with, which victims I talked to, who gave me information, what my coordinates were and where I traveled. It is a very tricky file. And, just last year, I also found out that I had Pegasus applied. That they spy on you with that program is like that they get into your house, scrutinize your panties and read your diary. It extracts your photos, contacts, messages, mail. Your entire life is on your cell phone.

Was he afraid for you or for the consequences that this could have on your sources and confidants?

I worried about my sources, of course. If they apply Pegasus to you, they know who spoke to you and who you will meet. It’s the nightmare of everyone we know who spied on us. We thought a lot about what we did that year, who we saw and if they did something to someone. I think about whether I put someone at risk, because there are people from within the Government who give me information. Did something happen to them? It is a very strong psychological warfare. How much do they know about me? What can they use next? It is a very strong blow that disables journalism.

As reporters, we can offer professional secrecy, but I can no longer guarantee anyone’s anonymity since it is known that they spied on me. How am I going to talk to my sources now? How am I going to do journalism now?

Do you think that the fact that your espionage was made public was a ruse to make your sources suspicious and make it difficult for you and other journalists?

I don’t think so much like that, because this is not new. In 2017, the journalist Carmen Aristegui and her team learned that they had been investigated and filed a complaint. But just now they are arresting people, but no one from the Israeli company responsible for Pegasus, nor from the Mexican government. The problem is impunity, that justice does not work. And in Mexico we already have this type of violations very well accepted: when I explained what had happened to me, people told me “well, obviously, what did you expect?”. All journalists feel, all the time, that they are spying on us. We have all heard echoes in calls or WhatsApp messages are deleted.

But it is true that it has affected me in my work. I have a hard time communicating with some sources, even if I have changed my cell phone. Some of my historical sources haven’t called me back, but I get it. Who will want to talk to me? They will think three times before giving any information to me or anyone else and it is very hard.

We journalists feel, all the time, that they are spying on us. We have all heard echoes in calls or WhatsApp messages are deleted

Has your way of working become more analog?

We have taken so many digital security workshops in the last 10 years, that many journalists from other countries laugh at us and take us for paranoid. I was very careful with my devices. I had fights with people who brought old cell phones, the kind that are not smartphone, because I told them that they were putting us at risk, that they were forcing us to talk about everything on the phone, out loud. And look now, it turns out that the safest ones were the ones that didn’t adapt to the technology.

And that leads me to wonder how I am going to report now. With the Covid we hardly ever see each other in the newsrooms, everyone is in his house and even in different cities, because we have gone to live where we could. We still have to go back to the techniques of the guerrillas, who passed USB. Or do as in Watergate and tie a ribbon on the balcony to let sources know we want to talk to them. Or with carrier pigeons or whatever.

I know I have to buy disposable phones, but how long can I be like this? No one answers a call if they don’t know the number. How do I explain to a source that it’s me, but my email doesn’t have my name on it? How am I going to tell my sources to download Signal because WhatsApp is not secure? I’m still in shock. I do not know what I’m going to do. When they want to give me information, I tell them not to tell me until I know how I am going to report from now on.

Mexico has the Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists, a government tool to offer support to threatened reporters. You have taken advantage of it despite the fact that, according to the developers, Pegasus is only sold to governments. Why?

The Mechanism doesn’t work, right. I was already sheltered in 2015 due to physical threats. They gave me a burned phone, which had already been used by another journalist who received threats. They also put escorts, but I had to pay them because they didn’t have gas and, if they didn’t come out, neither did I. It was terrible, but now I’m back, yes.

Since I’m in the process of writing a book about the same investigation that got me spied on, I was afraid they wouldn’t let me finish it. So I jumped back in because I need an explanation. The Protection Mechanism allows you to decide how you want to resolve your situation and it is the only way I could think of to sit down, with witnesses, with the people who have been spying on me.