El Salvador / Transparency

Apple Warned Salvadoran Supreme Court Judge of Possible Pegasus Infection

El Faro
El Faro

Thursday, February 9, 2023
Gabriel Labrador

Leer en español

Supreme Court Magistrate Paula Patricia Velásquez is the first member of the Salvadoran judiciary to assert that her cellphone was surveilled with the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israel-based firm NSO Group. Digital experts have corroborated that dozens of journalists, human rights advocates, and civil society leaders in El Salvador have been targeted with Pegasus, a software purportedly sold exclusively to governments and law enforcement agencies that grants operators unfettered access to targeted devices.

“Justice Velásquez explained she was subjected to espionage through a spyware called ‘Pegasus’ and that the company Apple Inc. notified her that she is probably being targeted because of the function she serves,” wrote the Supreme Court in a document obtained by El Faro. The outlet also reviewed an email that Velásquez received from Apple on December 15, warning that her account may have been breached: “Apple believes that state-sponsored attackers are trying to access the iPhone associated with your Apple ID.”

Magistrate Velásquez, appointed to a nine-year term from 2015 to 2024, is one of the only five members of the Supreme Court who kept their position when Bukele’s party legislators replaced the other 10 in May 2021, illegally removing the five members of the Constitutional Chamber. Velásquez is a career judge who previously worked as assistant attorney general from 2013 to 2015. She did not return messages from El Faro nor calls to her office.

This is not the only case of a public official under possible espionage. An official from an institution in the Ministry of Security and Justice confirmed to El Faro that he also received an email threat notification but asked to conceal his identity. William Soriano and Alexia Rivas, legislators from the ruling party Nuevas Ideas, also said they received Apple’s alerts, but claimed they weren’t concerned.

In November 2021, more than a dozen El Faro employees received similar threat notifications from Apple. A subsequent analysis by digital rights groups Citizen Lab and Access Now found that at least 35 individuals in El Salvador —22 of them in El Faro— had indeed been targeted. In December, 18 members of El Faro sued the developer of Pegasus in California court, asking for an injunction on its use in El Salvador and an order for the company to destroy information stolen from the targeted devices and reveal its client.

Velásquez informed the Administrative Chamber, where she is assigned, amid its deliberations in a case relating to the alleged purchase of Pegasus. In February 2022, human rights organization Cristosal asked the Court of Audits to investigate the use of public funds to acquire the spyware. When the Court refused, Cristosal filed multiple appeals: first, to the Court of Audits last March, and next, in October, to the Second Administrative Court. Both petitions were rebuffed, so Cristosal escalated to the Supreme Court’s Administrative Chamber on October 31.

The court learned of the alleged attack in December, days after Velásquez received the email. In the Supreme Court document obtained by El Faro, the magistrate cited the Apple notification in recusing herself from the case, in which she could have ruled on the Salvadoran government’s alleged acquisition. The court document provides no additional details about the espionage beyond citing her recusal request.

The Chamber is still deliberating on whether the Court of Audits has the legal obligation to investigate whether the Salvadoran Government purchased Pegasus, but decided on January 27 not to remove Velásquez from the case. The other three justices said there was no connection between her assertion that she was targeted and Cristosal’s petitions. “The object of the process is not to determine the existence of the Pegasus spyware,” the court wrote. Therefore, “the cause for [Velásquez’] abstention is not reasonable.”

The documented Pegasus attacks in El Salvador have added to a growing body of global evidence that the software has been used by authoritarian governments to illegally spy on opposition figures, activists, and journalists.

*Sergio Arauz contributed reporting.

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