Former Official Wanted by Mexico Takes Refuge in Israel

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TEL AVIV — A former top Mexican official accused of compromising the investigation of a notorious mass abduction has taken refuge in Israel while the extradition case against him is mired in a diplomatic tussle over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Israeli and Mexican officials say.

The Mexican authorities have accused the official, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the former director of Mexico’s equivalent of the F.B.I., of abduction, torture and tampering with evidence in the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, and of embezzling about $50 million in state funds in another case.

Mr. Zerón, who says the charges are false and politically motivated, has applied for asylum in Israel, where he has lived for nearly two years.

Israel has not acted on either the extradition request or the asylum claim, much to the consternation of Mexican officials, human rights organizations and the families of the massacre victims, who are still seeking the truth about their loved ones’ disappearance in southern Mexico in 2014.

Israel has not commented publicly on the case, but a senior Israeli official said that it was being slow-walked as “tit-for-tat diplomacy” against Mexico, which has supported United Nations inquiries into allegations of Israeli war crimes against Palestinians.

“Why would we help Mexico?” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer a candid view of a diplomatic dispute.

The official also said that there may be merit in Mr. Zerón’s asylum claim, which was still being investigated.

Mr. Zerón, the former chief of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency, was best known for leading the campaign that led to the 2014 capture of the drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, known as “El Chapo.”

As one of the nation’s top law enforcement officers, Mr. Zerón also led the investigation into the kidnapping and presumed massacre of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, on Sept. 26, 2014. The students were forced off buses by municipal police officers in the city of Iguala, taken away in police vehicles and never seen again.

Even amid the rampant drug-cartel violence wracking Mexico at the time, the case shocked the country and has become a symbol of corruption in its justice system.

Under pressure to solve the crime by Mexico’s president at the time, Enrique Peña Nieto, who had promised to crack down on crime and impunity, Mr. Zerón’s investigation found that the Iguala police officers had been working with a criminal group that killed the students, burned their bodies and disposed of their ashes in a river.

But a panel of international investigators discredited his investigation, finding that crucial testimony was obtained under torture, evidence was mishandled and promising leads ignored. In particular, the presence of soldiers and federal police officers at the scene was dismissed by Mr. Zerón’s investigation, which portrayed the attack as a strictly local matter involving a corrupt local police force.

When the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office in 2018, he promised to reopen the case. Since then, fragments of the remains of two of the students have been found and the government has sought the arrest of dozens of people in connection with the case, including Mr. Zerón.

Mr. Zerón was reported to have fled to Canada in 2019. That September, another Israeli official said, he flew to Israel, which does not have an extradition treaty with Mexico. In December 2019, when his tourist visa expired, he requested political asylum, contending that the charges against him are false and part of an effort by the current president to settle scores with his predecessor, according to senior Israeli officials familiar with his application.

Mr. Zerón’s exact whereabouts is not known and he could not be reached for comment.

The Israeli officials said that the request was under consideration and attributed the delay to the large numbers of asylum requests Israel receives. When Mexican officials asked for Mr. Zerón’s extradition last year, their request put the asylum case on hold, Israeli officials said.

But at least part of the reason for Israel’s delay may have nothing to do with Mr. Zerón or the facts of the massacre.

The senior Israeli official cited the policies of the López Obrador administration, which has repeatedly supported 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 a brief war against Hamas in May.

The official said that Israel had no interest in complying with Mexico’s extradition request after its hostile actions toward Israel in Geneva. The reluctance to cooperate with Mexico, the official said, was an extension of a so-called tit-for-tat policy begun under Israel’s previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to diplomatically penalize countries that opposed his government’s policies.

The official also said it was possible that aspects of Mr. Zerón’s asylum application were valid. Just as Mexico is punishing Israel for crimes it did not commit, the official said, it may be prosecuting Mr. Zerón for political reasons.

Israel’s Foreign and Justice ministries declined requests to comment on the case.

Mexico’s under secretary for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, dismissed the idea that the Zerón case was political.

“What political persecution?” Mr. Encinas said in an interview. “There is a video that’s public where this guy is torturing someone and threatening him with death. And that’s not a matter of speculation or political persecution of anyone.”

He contended that Mr. Zerón had connections to powerful Israeli companies that helped him flee Mexico.

While in office, Mr. Zerón authorized the purchase of tens of millions of dollars in surveillance systems from private intelligence companies. The government used one of the surveillance programs, Pegasus, developed by Israel’s NSO Group to fight crime and terrorism, to target journalists, lawyers and activists, an investigation by The New York Times found.

Mexico also deployed the Pegasus spyware against the team of international investigators brought in to get to the bottom of the Ayotzinapa massacre, part of a campaign by the government to thwart that inquiry.

Mr. Encinas said that some of those companies, including NSO, have aided Mr. Zerón since he left Mexico. He did not provide any direct evidence of that, and The Times was unable to confirm it. A spokeswoman for NSO said that the company had never met with or helped Mr. Zerón either before or after he left Mexico.

Mexico is also investigating whether Mr. Zerón embezzled more than 1.1 billion pesos, about $50 million, earmarked for the purchase of defense and intelligence gear that, in some cases, was never delivered. It is not clear whether those deals involved the Israeli intelligence companies.

What happened that night in Guerrero and why remain a mystery. The current Mexican government is still investigating and is expected to present its conclusions in September.

Leaked transcripts of the investigation published recently in Mexican news media suggest that a drug cartel, working with the police and the military, may have mistakenly thought the students belonged to a rival cartel.

Mario González Hernández, whose son, César Manuel González Hernández, is one of the missing students, said that Mr. Zerón sought to create a narrative that would allow President Peña Nieto to put the massacre behind him while avoiding implicating federal officials.

“He wanted to cover up the role of government officials who were involved in the attack, to cover the truth about the police involvement, the military involvement,” Mr. Hernández said, and to protect those colleagues from prosecution.

Kate Doyle, the director of the Mexico Project at the Washington-based National Security Archive, who is investigating the case, says the families won’t have answers until Mr. Zerón can be questioned.

“Zerón is part of a conspiracy of silence,” she said. “It’s a conspiracy that for almost seven years has prevented 43 families from knowing true facts about their sons’ disappearance. And until Zerón is called to account, the silence will persist, and the fate of the boys will remain a mystery.”

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.

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