Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday confirmed for the first time that the government monitored the phone of a human rights activist, saying it was part of a probe into a suspected gang member.
A report by non-profit groups this month accused Mexico of hacking the communications of prominent activist Raymundo Ramos in 2020, publishing documents that it said showed the military had access to messages Ramos sent to journalists.
Lopez Obrador has repeatedly denied allegations that his government has spied on activists, journalists and opponents, while saying it does intelligence work to fight crime.
On Thursday, he said the government had access to Ramos' phone because officials were investigating a suspected criminal that he said the activist had spoken to.
"This citizen ... was speaking on the phone to a suspected drug trafficker," Lopez Obrador said in a regular news conference. "Since the suspected drug trafficker was being investigated, we obtained this recording."
Mexico's National Intelligence Center was involved in the case, he said, adding that the entity typically focuses on suspected criminals and can tap their phones with a judge's authorization.
He did not give further details on Ramos' case but said more information would be provided later in the day.
Ramos has long represented victims of military abuses in the violent northern border state of Tamaulipas, where criminal gangs often wage bloody turf battles.
Mexican digital rights group R3D along with Toronto-based digital watchdog group Citizen Lab previously documented that Ramos' phone had been targeted by controversial spyware Pegasus in 2020, one of several alleged uses of Pegasus during Lopez Obrador's administration.
Lopez Obrador has said the government doesn't use Pegasus. On Thursday he noted that other technologies work similarly.
"There are systems that carry out the same functions as the Pegasus listening system," he said.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Alistair Bell)