Washington, D.C., April 14, 2023 - Tomás Zerón’s rehabilitation tour has begun.
This week, the Israeli magazine 7 Days published an extraordinary and exclusive interview with the former Mexican official accused of orchestrating the cover-up of one of the country’s most infamous human rights violations. In the article, Zerón, the former lead investigator of the 2014 Ayotzinapa student disappearances, talks about his childhood, his career in law enforcement in Mexico, and his current life in Tel Aviv, revealing details that have never appeared in a Mexican media outlet.
He also provides a self-serving account of his role directing the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case – the September 26, 2014, kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students that shocked Mexico for its brazenness, for the government’s failure to solve the case, and for evidence indicating that it was obstructing its own investigation.
When the boys went missing, Zerón ran the Criminal Investigations Agency, considered the Mexican FBI. Today, he is charged with multiple crimes related to the Ayotzinapa investigation, including obstruction of justice and the torture of suspects. Interpol has a red notice out for him, and the Mexican government under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador considers him a fugitive.
In his interview with 7 Days – a weekend supplement to one of Israel’s largest daily newspapers, Yediot Ahronoth – Zerón is adamant that he is an innocent man. He continues to insist on the accuracy of his findings in 2014 and 2015 – findings that formed the basis of the widely discredited “historical truth” explanation for the attacks on the students. He considers the charges against him to be a campaign of political persecution directed by the President of Mexico.
Beyond what the article tells us about Tomás Zerón’s life and work, his interview with the Israeli magazine – accompanied by a handsome photograph – is a masterstroke of public relations. It also appears to be his strongest bid yet to rid himself of the legal troubles facing him in his home country.
The article begins with a description of an improbable meeting in Tel Aviv between Zerón and an emissary from President López Obrador: Alejandro Encinas, Mexico’s Subsecretary of Human Rights and the man who has overseen the government’s new efforts to solve the Ayotzinapa case since December 2018.
Unbeknownst to Encinas, the meeting was secretly recorded.
“Around ten o'clock on the morning of February 16, , a team of 3 intelligence and covert surveillance experts arrived at ‘Greco Ozari,’ a renowned Greek restaurant in North Tel Aviv… They sat down next to one of the tables, ordered something to eat and drink, but actually looked for the best place in the restaurant where they could install the cameras and microphones.”
The article does not reveal who ordered the taping.
Once seated in the restaurant, as previously reported by The New York Times, Encinas tried to minimize Zeron’s legal charges and convince him to help solve the case, assuring Zerón that neither he [Encinas] nor President López Obrador wanted him to go to prison. Encinas all but begged Zerón for information about what happened to the students, promising the president’s support. In the 7 Days interview, Zerón scoffed at the clumsy attempt by Encinas: “He had to be very naive, or maybe desperate, if he thought he could convince me with these promises, and these words, to go back to a place (Mexico) where a campaign of political persecution, entirely based on lies, is operating against me.”
The meeting may have destroyed any chance that Israel will send Zerón back to Mexico. Although López Obrador ruffled diplomatic feathers when he publicly criticized Israel for failing to return Zerón, the article makes clear that it was Encinas’ own words during the covertly recorded conversation that are the most damaging to Mexico’s petition. As one Israeli senior official is quoted saying in 7 Days, the comments could serve to be “the final nail in the coffin” of the extradition request.
In the interview, Zerón, 60, describes growing up in a middle-class family in Mexico City, one of four sons whose father was an accountant and mother a housewife.
“‘I never went to private school,’ he says. ‘Always to public schools.’ As a child, he fantasized about a career in the military, but after high school, under family pressure, he continued to study business administration at university. He later completed a master's degree in law, though he was never certified as a lawyer. The beginning of his career was in business – Zerón was the importer who brought to Mexico the French fashion brand "Lacoste," for example – but in the end the recession in Mexico got the better of him.”
The article describes how, as a result of losing his business, Zerón “happened to find his way to work for the Mexican Federal Police” in 2007, working “mainly in the economic field.” Because he “did not get along with the Secretary of Public Security” – Genaro García Luna, who in February 2023 was convicted by a U.S. federal court for drug trafficking and bribery – he was fired, according to the article. (By contrast, Mexican journalists have described Zerón as a “disciple” of García Luna’s and reported he was fired for poor planning during a violent confrontation with armed criminals in Cananea, Sonora, in 2007.)
“That's how he found himself working for Mexico State Police in the Estado de Mexico…There he first became acquainted with the world of intelligence. ‘I told whoever recruited me that I don’t know anything about intelligence,’ says Zerón. ‘He told me, “No problem, you'll learn.”’
He must have been an excellent student. Although his reputation for intelligence gathering, espionage, and clandestine audio and video surveillance are not mentioned in the Israeli magazine piece, Mexican journalists have reported for years on Zerón’s penchant for covertly collecting information about friends and foes alike. In one investigation published in 2020 in the newsmagazine Emeequis, for example, sources in the federal judiciary said that Zerón learned “the power of the hidden lens” while working in the Estado de México, and kept a hard drive containing “hundreds of hours of secret recordings between Tomás Zerón and high-ranking civil servants from the Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto administrations, captured in compromising situations,” including “bribes, payments for shady favors,” and “updates on cases that were resolved so that innocent people went to prison…”
According to 7 Days, it was during his apprenticeship in intelligence that Zerón was introduced to Israel for the first time.
“As part of his training, he visited Israel in 2008, and took a two-week warfare and intelligence course here. Upon his return to Mexico he was found to be an effective intelligence man, and his responsibilities grew. After the governor of the state, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected to be president of Mexico, Zerón moved with him to the capital and was appointed the chief of the AIC, a new government enforcement agency which was defined as the ‘Mexican FBI.’”
In Mexico, Zerón is perhaps best known for his connection to the purchase of the notorious Israeli spyware, Pegasus, which has been used by two successive governments to spy not only on criminals but also on journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and even public health advocates. 7 Days reports:
“Zerón was very impressed by the technologies he saw in his training in Israel and in the closed compounds of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Mexico City, and aimed to have Mexico’s law enforcement agencies undergo a technological revolution. During the time he served at a senior level in Mexican intelligence and law enforcement, a series of contracts with Israeli intelligence companies were signed for purchasing surveillance and hacking systems for law and intelligence agencies in Mexico, including the NSO company's Pegasus system for phone penetration. Zeron's signature is emblazoned on at least one of the contracts with NSO. These systems were very helpful in the war against the drug cartels, but they were also used, according to reports by various international journalists, to monitor human rights activists, political opposition figures, and even against the grieving parents of the missing youths.
The magazine does not dwell on Mexico’s misuse of the spyware to target citizens, however, but conveys Zerón’s account of its importance in “catching criminals,” including, of course, El Chapo.
Zerón’s biography moves smoothly in the Israeli magazine from working in the “economic field” for the police to being a central player in the successful effort to capture notorious drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. The article describes Zerón as a “rockstar of the Mexican legal system” following the capture of El Chapo. “‘I remember the date when we captured him - February 22, 2014,’ says Zerón, who was the one who personally informed the president of Mexico the good news.”
Missing from the account of Zerón’s early career are some of the disastrous cases he was associated with, including the bizarre “Paulette” affair, when he was the director of the Investigations and Analysis section of the state prosecutor’s office and coordinated intelligence efforts related to the disappearance of a four-year-old disabled child named Paulette Gebara Farah from her home in 2010. Despite intensive and heavily publicized searches by investigators in the family’s apartment, her decomposing body was found wrapped in sheets at the foot of her bed nine days after she went missing. The decision by the state attorney general to declare Paulette’s death an accident caused outrage and suspicion.
Zerón does tell 7 Days about his experience overseeing the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case. His version faithfully follows the account described by him and then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam during a press conference in Mexico City on January 27, 2015, when they announced the “verdad histórica” or historical truth of the case. In their account, the 43 students were removed from buses in Iguala by corrupt police working with a local criminal group, Guerreros Unidos. The police handed them over to members of the gang, who took them to an open garbage dump in nearby Cocula and shot and killed them there. They carried the bodies down the 40-meter mountain of trash and burned them in a gigantic bonfire until their remains were reduced to bone fragments and ash before being thrown into the San Juan River.
The article does not probe the many questions about the “historical truth” raised by the families of the 43 students nor does it even mention the findings of the group of five independent experts (GIEI) suggesting that Zerón may have planted evidence at the San Juan River site, the testimony of fire expert José Torero, who proved that a bonfire of the nature described could not have incinerated 43 bodies overnight, or the contradiction posed by the discovery, in 2020, of student remains more than a kilometer from the dump.
When asked about accusations that he tortured detainees to force them to say what he wanted to hear, Zerón denies torturing anyone, despite one video in which he is heard threatening to throw a detainee out of a helicopter, and a second video where he tells another he would kill him if he told him “mamadas” (bullshit). “Zerón says in our interview that the things were said in the heat of the moment: "You are talking to this despicable murderer, and you understand what he did and how coolly he slaughtered these poor students, and you just explode."
For Tomás Zerón, the decision to give 7 Days an interview – to talk about selected aspects of his background, personal life and career – was a calculated exercise in public relations. It is likely that Zerón felt comfortable talking with an Israeli reporter who did not know Mexico well and would perhaps be less inclined to press Zerón on certain details about his past. (Several errors in the article attest to a lack of knowledge about Mexico. For example, the piece refers to the 2018 presidential election, which “Peña Nieto lost largely because of the assassination of the students.” There is no reelection in Mexico, and Peña Nieto was not a candidate in 2018.)
This isn’t the first time Zerón has tried to project a message to scrub his image. On June 3, 2020, less than three months after Zerón’s indictment in Mexico, an article appeared on Yahoo! Finance touting Tomás Zerón as a courageous law enforcement officer who was being unfairly targeted by a corrupt government. Running under the title “Tomás Zerón de Lucio (TZL): Mexico’s Persecuted Hero,” the piece was a clumsy attempt to stir up support for the fugitive former investigator, complete with misspellings, awkward language evidently not written by a native English speaker, and tagged as coming from “Accesswire” – a PR firm that places content on websites and with news organizations.
Zerón’s public relations and legal teams have clearly improved in the intervening years. His profile in 7 Days is not dissimilar in some details to what was described in Yahoo! Finance, but the new piece is longer, is well-written, and has much better photos.
Today, according to 7 Days, Zerón is a partner in a Mexican restaurant in Tel Aviv. He enjoys long walks, visiting historical sites, and music. “‘I do a lot of sports here and get proper sleep,’ he explains. ‘After years of intensive work, I now have some quality time for myself…
“‘My life in Israel today is dedicated to reflecting on the meaning of life, thinking and learning… In Israel, I learned that some of the good things in our lives are those which are given for free: freedom, security, nature, health, and true friendship.’”
Tomás Zerón may never be able to return to Mexico due the criminal indictment that still hangs over his head. But it appears from this article that he has found a new home in Israel.