Mexico missing students: A wanted ex-official’s ties to Israel

Mexican authorities are calling on Israel to return Thomas Zeron, former head of the Criminal Investigation Agency.

Thomas Zeron de Lucio
Thomas Zeron de Lucio, wanted in relation to alleged abuses in the investigation into the disappearances of 43 Mexican students in 2014, has denied any wrongdoing [File: Tomas Bravo/Reuters]

The disappearance of dozens of Mexican students in 2014 has gained renewed attention in recent weeks as relatives marked its eight-year anniversary with fresh calls for justice and accountability.

Top military officials were arrested in September for their alleged involvement in the disappearances, but the Mexican attorney general’s office has been criticised for cancelling other arrests orders and for leaks of a truth commission report into the incident.

The Commission for Truth and Access to Justice concluded in August that “the persecution and enforced disappearances” of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher Training College was a “state crime”, Amnesty International reported at the time.

Mexico’s top human rights official and head of the commission, Alejandro Encinas, said at the time that the “actions, omissions or participation” of Mexican government officials “allowed the disappearance and execution of the students”.

One of the key figures wanted in connection to the case remains at large: Tomas Zeron de Lucio, former director of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency, is wanted by Mexican authorities for alleged abuses in the investigation into the incident.

Here, Al Jazeera unpacks the allegations against him, where Zeron is now, and where Mexico’s ongoing investigation stands.

What is Zeron charged with?

Among other things, authorities have accused Zeron of torture and tampering evidence during the state’s investigation into the disappearances of the 43 students in the southwestern city of Iguala, media outlets have reported.

The students were on their way to a demonstration in Mexico City on September 26, 2014, when they were detained by local police and disappeared.

Zeron also is accused of embezzling about $50m in state funds in another case.

He has denied the allegations as politically motivated.

Where is Zeron now?

Mexican authorities said Zeron, who resigned from the Criminal Investigation Agency in September 2016, fled to Canada in 2019.

According to a New York Times report in July 2021, an Israeli official said Zeron arrived in Israel in September 2019 and, once his tourist visa expired, applied for political asylum. The US newspaper cited Israeli officials as saying Zeron’s application “was under consideration” but that Mexico’s request for extradition “put the asylum case on hold”.

An article in May this year by Calcalist, an Israeli financial daily, said Zeron lives with Israeli tech giant David Avital in Neve Zedek Towers, an upscale apartment building in Tel Aviv.

Mexico and Israel do not have an extradition agreement. Despite Mexico requesting Zeron’s return in January last year, Israeli officials told the Times that the country is not complying in retribution for Mexico’s condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians before international bodies, such as the United Nations Security Council.

“Israel is protecting Tomas Zeron, a human rights violator who tortured those he detained,” Meliton Ortega, a representative of the students’ families, said last month, as reported by the AFP news agency.

What connections does he have to Israel?

According to the same New York Times article, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, said Zeron had ties to powerful Israeli surveillance companies that helped him flee Mexico.

In 2016, local news outlets reported that Zeron was the key contact for negotiating the purchase of Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware for Mexico.

A year later, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said Pegasus had been used to target a number of groups, investigators and reporters who could potentially undermine the government’s position on the Ayotzinapa case.

What did Zeron say about the Ayotzinapa disappearances?

In the aftermath of the student disappearances, Zeron stuck to the Mexican government’s statements in his official report on the case.

Six months after the students disappeared, the then-attorney general told reporters “that the students had been killed by a powerful drug cartel and that the bodies had then been burned in a garbage dump”, Edith Olivares Ferreto, executive director of Amnesty International Mexico, told Al Jazeera.

This narrative provoked outrage, especially after a team of international forensic experts found that the state’s explanation was scientifically impossible. Several national and international organisations also found that the state’s investigation showed signs of a cover-up.

Human rights groups reported that the state’s findings downplayed the government’s role in the incident and was marred by serious problems, such as a lack of due process, the protection of officers suspected of involvement and confessions obtained through torture.

When and why was a new inquiry launched?

Shortly after Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador replaced Enrique Pena Nieto as Mexico’s president in 2018, he launched a new investigation into the disappearances, pledging to end a culture of impunity.

In August, the commission that carried out the probe said all levels of the Mexican government were involved. “There is no indication the students are alive. All the testimonies and evidence prove that they were cunningly killed and disappeared,” said Encinas, who headed the investigation, adding that the remains of only three students were discovered and identified to date.

That same month, the former attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, was arrested as a result of the new inquiry.

Who else has been arrested?

At least 20 military officials have been arrested along with a number of police officers and administrative and judicial officials, the Mexican government said in August. Fourteen members of the Guerreros Unidos gang, which has been linked to the abductions, also have been arrested.

For his part, Zeron faces a March 2020 arrest warrant on charges related to alleged misconduct during the initial investigation into the Ayotzinapa case. The following year, an additional arrest warrant was issued on allegations that Zeron had participated in the torture of a leading figure of Guerreros Unidos.

Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has said the Lopez Obrador administration remains committed to apprehending Zeron, even if the process takes a significant amount of time.

Lopez Obrador also recently criticised Israel for refusing to hand him over. “Let me take the opportunity to send a respectful reminder to the government of Israel. They can’t be protecting people like that,” he said in August, as reported by the Reuters news agency.

What would Zeron’s return to Mexico mean for the case?

Getting Zeron back on Mexican soil is imperative in the quest for justice and getting answers about what happened, said Ferreto at Amnesty International.

It would also break a cycle of impunity, she said, by helping the investigation progress in a way that will “lead to justice, truth, reparation of damages and guarantees” that this type of incident will not happen again.

On September 22, a few days before the eighth anniversary of the disappearances, the student’s families and supporters protested in front of the Israeli embassy in Mexico City, demanding Zeron’s extradition.

“It is also imperative to keep the families of the students fully informed and at the centre of the decision-making process,” Ferreto said, “not only because of the transparency that must be maintained with them, but also to guarantee their right to the truth and to a comprehensive reparation for the enormous damages they have experienced throughout these eight years.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies