‘Easier Than Convincing Israel to Extradite’: Mexico Negotiating With Fugitive Ex-official

Tomás Zerón is wanted in connection with the torture and disappearance of 43 students. Officials also want to question him about his role in buying NSO’s Pegasus spyware and its misuse

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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

The government of Mexico has begun negotiations with Tomás Zerón de Lucio, a former senior official in Mexico’s law enforcement system, who they want to question in connection with the disappearance of 43 students eight years ago. Zeron fled to Israel where he is still currently hiding.

According to a recent report in the Mexican magazine Reforma, Mexican officials believe that it would be easier to reach an agreement with Zerón than to try and convince the government of Israel to extradite him.

Zerón, who had served as head of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC) during the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, is wanted in connection with the disappearance and torture of 43 Mexican student teachers in 2014 as well as suspicions that he embezzled tens of millions of dollars from the state.

He is also wanted for questioning for his role in negotiating a deal for the purchase by Mexico of the Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, says Zerón promoted the purchase and signed the relevant contracts to buy the spyware, though legal charges were not yet made and he is only wanted for questioning.

>> The secret of NSO’s success in Mexico

The Mexican government's presentation on the use of Pegasus in the countryCredit: Screen capture

Zerón was responsible for putting together the Mexican government’s official report on the affair of the missing students, which was titled “The Historical Truth.” But an international panel of investigators rejected its conclusions, as did the present government, which opened a new investigation.

According to the report in Reforma, a small delegation of Mexican officials, led by Alejandro Encinas, visited Israel in February. As the deputy interior minister responsible for human rights, Encinas is responsible for the new government committee set up to re-probe the affair. Reforma reported that Mexican prosecutors met with their Israeli counterparts last week and cited sources saying that “there have been difficulties convincing the Israelis that Zerón was responsible to some degree for the disappearance of the students.”

In response, the Israeli Justice Ministry said, “As a matter of policy, we do not respond to questions concerning extradition except in cases where a court appeal has been filed. On this matter, we will not respond.”

A meeting between Encinas’s delegation and Zerón did take place at the latter’s initiative. The Mexican officials agreed to the meeting after concluding that the chances of reaching some kind of agreement with him were better than a successful extradition request would be. They told Reforma that some progress was made during the meeting.

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

The New York Times reported last year that Israel was not ready to extradite Zerón. Ronen Bergman and Oscar Lopez cited an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying the delay was intentional in response to the policies of the López Obrador administration supporting resolutions criticizing Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, including decisions to investigate Israel’s killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza in 2018 and the killing of civilians in Gaza during last year’s war.

“Why would we help Mexico?” the official told the Times.

For his part, Encinas told the Times that several companies, including NSO, that had kept up their connections with Zerón have been helping him since he fled Mexico. Bergman and Lopez noted that Encinas had not presented any evidence to back up his allegation and that companies denied they were helping. A spokesman for NSO told the Times that it had not aided Zerón and that none of its executives had met with him before or after he left Mexico.

Over the years, there have been many reports of Pegasus spyware being misused by Mexican authorities. An investigation by Canada’s Citizen Lab and Mexican reports say the software was used to monitor journalists, human rights activists and government officials as well as the families of the Guerrero students and the international committee that reviewed the Mexican probe.

Last year, Mexican prosecutors announced they had uncovered evidence that Pegasus was operated from the offices of a private company to spy on journalists, activists and others. “The Israeli company NSO Group, which owns the Pegasus program, used a Mexican company, from whom investigators obtained a hard drive, and from the information on it, it became abundantly clear that this company had tapped phones for various parties, whose identities have not yet been revealed for legal reasons.”

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