He oversaw capture of notorious drug cartel kingpin El Chapo

Wanted Mexican fugitive official in Israel claims ‘political persecution’

Mexico seeks extradition of Tomas Zeron, ex-head of Criminal Investigation Agency, accused of compromising probe into 2014 disappearance of 43 students; he awaits asylum answer

Tomas Zeron, the former director of the Criminal Investigation Agency of Mexico, fled to Israel in 2019 and is seeking asylum. (Screen capture/Channel 12,  used in accordance with article 27a of the Copyright Law)
Tomas Zeron, the former director of the Criminal Investigation Agency of Mexico, fled to Israel in 2019 and is seeking asylum. (Screen capture/Channel 12, used in accordance with article 27a of the Copyright Law)

A former Mexican law enforcement official who is seeking asylum in Israel amid a request from Mexico to extradite him in connection with the alleged coverup of the 2014 disappearance and suspected murders of 43 students in the southern part of the country, told Israeli TV that he was being persecuted politically and ultimately wanted to return to his family and his country.

“It’s not an easy situation,” said Tomas Zeron, the former director of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency, whom Mexican authorities accuse of compromising the investigation into the disappearances of the students.

He is also accused of embezzling over $50 million and torturing suspects.

Zeron fled to Israel after the investigation into the mass abduction was reopened following the election in 2019 of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Zeron has been in Israel since and has applied for asylum, as the Obrador government has sought his extradition.

Obrador requested Israel’s help with the extradition process in 2021, writing to former premier Naftali Bennett on the matter, and later to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in July appeared to indicate he would be willing to discuss the matter.

A handout picture released by the Mexican Interior Ministry on January 20, 2017, shows Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman (C) being escorted in an unknown location by US Drug Enforcement (DEA) personnel as he is extradited to the United States on January 19, 2017. (AFP PHOTO/Mexican Interior Ministry)

Zeron, who as head of Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI oversaw the capture and arrest of notorious drug cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in February 2014, told Channel 12 news that the accusations against him were part of a “political persecution” campaign and claimed to have “evidence and the necessary ways to prove it.”

“At the end of the day, my goal is to return to my country, to my family, with my name…justice will prevail,” Zeron said in the interview aired Saturday.

Then-director of the Criminal Investigation Agency of Mexico Tomas Zeron listens during a press conference at the Attorney General building in Mexico City, on October 27, 2014. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)

A lawyer for Zeron, Liora Turlevsky, told Channel 12 that her client denied all accusations and that the “arrest warrant against him stood in contradiction to all the facts and the numerous evidence in the case.”

“According to all indications, there is a real threat to his freedom in Mexico and he will not get a fair trial,” she said. “The Mexican government created a conspiracy against him, and everyone is working together to bring Tomas’ head to the Mexican public.”

The September 2014 disappearance of the 43 teaching students shocked Mexico and sparked mass protests against then-president Pena Nieto’s government.

Public anger at Zeron has also grown and in September 2021, Israel’s embassy in Mexico City was vandalized by demonstrators calling on Israel to extradite him to Mexico. The demonstrators defaced the embassy with graffiti slogans including “Death to Israel.”

In the wake of the disappearance, an investigative team headed by Zeron concluded, just weeks after the fact, that corrupt police in the city of Iguala, Guerrero had stopped the students, who had taken five buses to travel to a demonstration, and handed them over to a local drug cartel. The criminals then killed the students, before incinerating their bodies at a garbage dump and tossing the remains in a river.

Prosecutors initially said the cartel mistook the students for members of a rival gang.

International investigators later refuted Zeron’s account, discovering that the government had both tampered with existing evidence and extracted new evidence through torture.

Zeron stepped down in 2016 after a video was revealed showing him handling evidence that was apparently never officially recorded.

Zeron told Channel 12 he fled to Israel after being stripped of private security and receiving death threats. “It was a very real threat to be without security and at that moment I decided to leave my country, and I flew to Canada and then to Israel,” in 2019, he said.

A Mexican official told the New York Times in 2021 that Zeron had received assistance from Israeli firms he has ties to, such as controversial private intelligence firm NSO Group, whose spyware he reportedly authorized for use in the “El Chapo.”

An international media investigative effort called The Cartel Project also reported that he had fled to Israel with help from his contacts in the country’s cyber-surveillance industry.

NSO denied ever assisting Zeron, and the Times said no direct proof of the allegation was provided.

Relatives of the disappeared students in Iguala in 2014 protest outside the Israeli embassy in Mexico City on September 21, 2022, to demand the extradition of former General Attorney Tomas Zeron de Lucio. (CLAUDIO CRUZ / AFP)

In his Channel 12 interview, Zeron said he doesn’t “know anyone” at NSO and that no one helped him. “I don’t have ties with them, I never met them. There’s no proof of any of this,” said Zeron, who currently manages a Mexican restaurant in Tel Aviv while awaiting word on his asylum request.

“It is difficult to live in another country for almost four years, I live alone, without my family, without my people. Now I have only one target:… [to] fight for my life,” he said.

Last year, The New York Times reported that the head of a new commission investigating the students’ disappearance flew to Israel to try to convince Zeron to cooperate in the investigation.

According to the report, a month after Mexico submitted an extradition request, head of the commission Alejandro Encinas traveled to Israel and had a nearly three-hour lunch in Tel Aviv with Zeron where he “pleaded” with him to provide more information on the case and offered Obrador’s “support” in exchange for any new information about the remains of the students.

In an interview with the newspaper, Encinas said he believed Zeron may have valuable information and was only promising the president’s support that could include a reduced prison sentence.

The report said Encinas made the trip to Israel to meet with Zeron because he was under pressure to make an announcement on the case, even though investigators had not concluded their investigation.

Two months after the meeting, the commission received a trove of WhatsApp messages that seemed to provide a breakthrough in the case. However, Encinas said that much of it cannot be validated.

In August 2022, a Truth Commission tasked by the current government to investigate the atrocity branded the case a “state crime” involving agents of various institutions. It included new information about the military’s involvement in the disappearances, including screen captures of messages indicating that military personnel allegedly gave the order to kill some of the students and hide their remains.

Arrest warrants were issued for more than 80 suspects, including military personnel, police officers and cartel members.

Former attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam, who led the initial controversial investigation into the mass disappearance, was detained in July 2022 on charges of forced disappearance, torture and obstruction of justice.

In this Dec. 7, 2014 file photo, Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, right, flanked by Tomas Zeron director of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency, speaks during a news conference regarding the more than 40 college students missing and presumed dead since September, in Mexico City (AP/Marco Ugarte, File)

In September 2022, a group of international experts denounced the rush to show results, and raised doubts about some evidence included in the report by the government’s Truth Commission.

The experts raised doubts about the WhatsApp messages, which they said were written very differently from messages intercepted by US authorities.

At the time, Encinas said that “no one has pressured me” and that “there are not political times” in the case, adding that the issues raised by the independent experts can be addressed.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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