Israel, Cybersurveillance, and the Case of the Ayotzinapa 43

Tomás Zerón de Lucio, a key figure in the forced disappearance and subsequent government cover-up of the Ayotzinapa case, is hiding out in Tel Aviv thanks to his close ties to the Israeli cybersurveillance industry.

September 14, 2022

Family members hold posters with the faces of the forcibly disappeared students from Ayotzinapa teachers’ college (Wotancito, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This month marks eight years since 43 students of the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college were forcibly disappeared from the town of Iguala in Mexico’s Guerrero state. On September 26, however, survivors, families of the disappeared, and the Mexican people at large will face a significantly different anniversary than those of previous years. Last month, the Truth Commission convened by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador published a report finding that the enforced disappearance of the 43 students on the night of September 26, 2014 constituted a “crime of state” in which all levels of the Mexican state participated. Arrest warrants were issued for dozens of federal, state, and municipal officials accused of abetting the kidnapping and apparent murder of the normalistas in collaboration with the criminal syndicate Guerreros Unidos.

The commission systematically debunked what the Peña Nieto government called the “historical truth”—the story that the students were killed and incinerated by a rogue drug gang without the federal government’s knowledge or participation. Indeed, the man who coined the phrase “historical truth,” then attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam, has been imprisoned on charges of torture, forced disappearance, and obstruction of justice.

The events of last month marked a stunning turn toward justice in the case. But as the families of the disappeared have pointed out in recent days, critical questions remain. Two figures have been conspicuously exempt from the current prosecution effort—namely, Salvador Cienfuegos, then Secretary of National Defense, and ex-President Peña Nieto himself. The commission has pointed out sites in the municipalities of Atzcala, Tepecoacuilco, Tepeguaje, and Iguala that have not yet been searched. There are accused culprits who have not yet been taken into custody. The most prominent among these fugitives is Tomás Zerón de Lucio, head of the now defunct Criminal Investigative Agency (AIC) created under Peña Nieto. Though he has been wanted by Mexican prosecutors since 2016, Zerón is currently being harbored in Israel.

Tomás Zerón de Lucio and the Fabrication of the “Historical Truth”

Former head of the Criminal Investigative Agency Tomás Zerón de Lucio (WikPW, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Zerón is a central figure in the construction of the false ‘historical truth’ version of the Ayotzinapa case—the version that federal authorities manufactured under torture and that has now been discredited,” said Stephanie Brewer, Mexico Director at the Washington Office on Latin America and a long-time observer of the Ayotzinapa case. “The importance of his return to Mexico to be held accountable, and potentially to provide useful information, shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Zerón fled the country long before the current roundup began. His legal woes began in 2016, when he was forced to resign his post as head of the AIC after international investigators from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accused him of evidence tampering in the Ayotzinapa case. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) questioned whether Zerón had, during his initial “investigation,” planted evidence at a site along the San Juan River in Guerrero with the help of torture-induced testimony from accused Guerreros Unidos boss, Agustín García Reyes, known as “El Chereje.” Reyes later said in a deposition by the Físcalia General de la República (FGR), an independent prosecutor’s office, that Zerón had brought him to the site in October 2014 to falsely state on camera that he had thrown trash bags full of the students’ burnt remains into the river, and that Zerón had threatened to throw him from the helicopter they were traveling in lest he refuse to parrot the story.

In July 2020, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard announced that Mexico was seeking to extradite Zerón from Canada, where he was last spotted, on charges that he had overseen the torture of detainees as part of the previous administration’s cover-up. Days later, video footage was leaked to the Mexican daily Milenio showing Zerón interrogating Felipe Rodriguez Salgado, also known as “El Cepillo,” an accused Guerreros Unidos Boss. Salgado is hunched over, shirtless and hooded. In front of him stands Zerón, arms crossed, directing his testimony. “A la primera mamada te mato, güey,” Zerón tells him—roughly, “One wrong move and I’ll kill you, dumbass.”

But by the time of Ebrard’s announcement, Zerón was long gone, reportedly having escaped to Israel in September 2019. Why Israel? The answer seems to lie primarily in the deep ties between Zerón and the Israeli cyber-surveillance industry.

Mexico’s Expansion of Cybersurveillance Technology Under Peña Nieto

Mexico was one of the first clients of the Israeli technology firm NSO Group, whose proprietary Pegasus spyware has been used by authoritarian governments around the world to spy on journalists, dissidents, lawyers, and others. In its dealings with the company, Mexico reportedly selected around 700 mobile phones for Pegasus espionage—the largest number of surveillance subjects submitted by any state client of the NSO Group.

In 2016, the magazine Proceso reported on emails between the Mexican private security company Balam Seguridad Privada and the Italian cybersurveillance company Hacking Team. Their correspondence showed that in 2014, two Balam employees, Rodrigo Ruiz Treviño de Teresa and the Israel-born Asaf Israel Zanzuri, sold NSO Group’s Pegasus software to the office of the Mexican attorney general in a $32 million contract. In one email “a Balam employee indicated that the ‘key person’ in the negotiations for the sale of spying programs was Tomás Zerón de Lucio.” Another email from Hacking Team described Zerón’s hunger for the company’s Remote Control System tool, saying that he planned to use the malware to surveil prosecutors across Mexico.

In 2017, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that Pegasus had been used to target a range of groups and individuals who could potentially undermine the government’s story about the Ayotzinapa case. Among the targets were attorneys representing some of the family members of the 43 disappeared students, the GIEI’s international investigators, and two of Mexico’s best-known journalists, Carlos Loret de Mola and Carmen Aristegui, who have both reported extensively on the case. Citizen Lab found that, while the GIEI was preparing its final report on Ayotzinapa, at least two attempts were made to infect a cell phone belonging to the group. The cyberattacks occurred just over a week after the GIEI held a press conference asserting that their investigation was being deliberately hampered by the Mexican government, and specifically by the NSO Group’s client, the office of the attorney general.

“The Ayotzinapa case has received high levels of national and international attention and has had a substantial political cost, so the level of espionage deployed may be higher than that seen in other cases,” Brewer said. “But it’s not the only example of the use of spyware against human rights defenders and others. Investigations into this practice have shown that Mexico stood out as a massive consumer of spyware, and there still hasn’t been full transparency and accountability for the spying that went on.”

Prospects for Extradition?

In December 2020, Proceso published a photo of a smiling Zerón allegedly taken in a Tel Aviv apartment. “A source in Israel indicated that the ex-official close to Peña Nieto was able to enter [Israel] thanks to his contacts and friendships in [the cybersurveillance] sector,” Proceso reported.

News reports in May 2022 finally confirmed this claim by pinning down Zerón’s exact location. According to an investigation by the Israeli business daily Calcalist, which was followed up by Proceso, Zerón is living in the Neve Tzedek tower in an affluent neighborhood of Tel Aviv. “For many months,” Calcalist reported, Zerón has shared an apartment with the Israeli businessman David Avital, who owns a 31 percent share in a subsidiary of Rayzone, a technology firm widely active in Mexico. According to Calcalist, Avital also owns 100 percent of the Mexican branch of a company that manufactures wiretapping tools (which are then marketed by Rayzone).

“Zerón and Avital have been acquainted with each other for a long time from Avital’s operations in Mexico,” Calcalist reported. As Proceso’s Mathieu Tourliere put it in his report, Zerón became “one of the key figures for the cybersurveillance industry during Peña Nieto’s term: he chose which systems were purchased, and from which suppliers, which allowed him to forge strategic alliances with businessmen from the sector.”

For its part, the Israeli government has so far seemed to rebuff Mexico’s efforts to extradite Zerón. The two countries have no standing extradition agreement, and The New York Times reported last year that Israel was deliberately spurning Mexico’s requests in retaliation for Mexico’s support for human rights investigations into Israel at the United Nations. “Why would we help Mexico?” said a senior Israeli official to the Times. Responding to the report, the Israeli ambassador to Mexico, Zvi Tal, told The Times of Israel that “Israel does not take political considerations into account in extradition proceedings” and said the extradition would move forward in due time.

“The extradition process is still running its course, but from a broader standpoint, it’s certainly not in the interest of any foreign country to be harboring someone in this type of situation,” Brewer said. “This is not some case of political persecution but rather charges for serious crimes and human rights violations, for which clear evidence exists to justify the extradition request.”

Legal experts and human rights advocates such as Brewer have underscored that no single arrest, no matter how high-profile, will serve as a silver bullet of justice in this case. Far more important is the question of whether new evidence and testimony, properly collected by courts of law, can contribute to transformative justice for the victims and survivors.

At this point, it is beyond question that Zerón played a key role in covering up the crimes of the Mexican state during that long night in Iguala eight years ago. According to Ebrard, a team of diplomats in Israel is trying to negotiate Zerón’s extradition, though Zerón and his attorneys in February rejected a prosecution agreement that would presumably involve sharing information about his crimes in exchange for a reduced punishment.

When it comes to Zerón, last month’s Truth Commission report is absolutely damning. What the former government called the “historical truth” was in fact a “fabrication by the federal government,” resulting from the “concerted action” of a range of state officials. Key among these, the report concluded, is Zerón, “who has reported the participation of authorities at the highest level of the federal government.” It was Zerón who “went about ordering the whole case to be cleaned of chicharrones,” referring to the burnt remains of the students.

Understanding Zerón’s actions in the aftermath of the enforced disappearance of the 43 students is key to unlocking the real truth of what happened. Extradition is the only way to force Zerón to face the charges leveled against him. Only time can tell whether Zerón will be brought to justice in Mexico, but as the legal maxim goes, justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Suhail Gharaibeh is a Mexican American writer and former deputy news editor at Washington Square News. He is currently studying for an M.A. in History and Literature at Columbia University.

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