'Israel Refuses to Extradite NSO-linked Former Mexican Official'

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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A screen grab from Tomas Zeron de Lucio interrogation for his role in possibly covering up the disappearance and murder of a group of Mexican students
A screen grab from Tomas Zeron de Lucio interrogation for his role in possibly covering up the disappearance and murder of a group of Mexican students Credit: YouTube, screen capture
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Israel is refusing to extradite a former senior Mexican federal prosecutor who is wanted in his own country and is also linked to alleged misuse of NSO Group’s spyware, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing a senior Israeli official.

Tomas Zeron De Lucio is wanted in Mexico on suspicion of falsifying evidence and torturing witnesses, however his whereabouts were not known until the Mexican foriegn minister said last year that he was hiding in Israel. 

Zeron is suspected of skewing an investigating into the abduction and murder of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College in 2014. He is also wanted for questioning about abuses of the Pegasus spyware program, made by the Israel-based NSO.

Tomas Zeron de Lucio, the former head of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation AgencyCredit: Mexican government website

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that a senior Israeli official told them that due to Mexico's support for Palestinians, Jerusalem was using “tit-for-tat diplomacy” against it and would not extradite Zeron.

Mexico voted in favor of a UN call to investigate allegations of potential war crimes by Israel against Palestinians. “Why would we help Mexico?” the New York Times quoted the official as saying

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard claimed a few months ago that Zeron as seeking asylum in Israel. At the time, he said that despite the lack of an extradition treaty between Israel and Mexico, it was possible to reach an agreement about Zeron specifically. He also said he believed Israel would ultimately reject the former prosecutor’s asylum request, since there is ample evidence that Mexico wants him not due to a political vendetta, but due to the crimes he is accused of committing. 

For instance, a video clip posted on the web shows Zeron threatening to torture the person he is questioning if he refuses to answer investigators’ questions.

The Israeli Justice Ministry said at the time it doesn’t comment on requests from other countries or on any information related to such requests unless legal proceedings have officially been opened.

Zeron, who headed his country’s criminal investigation agency under former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, was responsible for investigating and writing the official report on the students’ kidnapping and murder, which continues to cause a storm in Mexico to this day, more than six years later.

According to his report, the students were kidnapped by local police officers in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, then turned over to members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who murdered them and burned their bodies at a local dump.

But an international commission of inquiry rejected the Zeron report’s conclusions, as has the current Mexican government. Current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has ordered a new investigation into the crime. Israel should not protect Zeron, Obrador said in September after initial indications placed him in Israel. 

Last year, Zeron fled Mexico after the new investigation was opened against him, and Mexico launched an international manhunt in his wake. According to the Mexican media, an Interpol arrest warrant was issued for him.

In July 2020, Mexico sent an extradition request to Canada, where he was last spotted. But two months later, Lopez Obrador said that Mexico was now asking Israel to extradite Zeron.

Zeron is also wanted for questioning on other issues, including the suspected embezzlement of over a billion pesos (more than $50 million) in public funds.

He’s also involved in a scandal with a clear connection to Israel, as Haaretz reported in November. As noted, he headed the agency that bought the phone-hacking software Pegasus from NSO and is suspected of abusing the spyware. 

According to emails from 2015 from a rival company, Hacking Team, and media reports in Mexico about that period, Zeron insisted on buying Pegasus even though it was substantially more expensive than the alternatives. His agency was also named in contracts released by Mexico’s prosecution in response to a freedom of information request from the Israeli organization Octopus.

NSO group has repeatedly claimed that it sells Pegasus only to security services and law enforcement agencies, and only for the purpose of combating serious crimes and terrorism. But research by Citizen Lab, as well as investigations in Mexico and other countries, indicate that buyers have often used the software to spy on journalists, human rights activists and, in Mexico’s case, even researchers for the international inquiry commission into the murder of the Ayotzinapa students.

Zeron was considered a key player in importing sophisticated cyber products during those years. According to reports by Amitai Ziv in TheMarker and the Mexican magazine Proceso, as part of Forbidden Stories's Cartel ProjectZeron had ties with Israeli middlemen who sold Pegasus and other cyber products to various agencies in Mexico.

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