Why is Israel letting Mexico’s ex-crime chief hide here? - analysis

Tomas Zeron de Lucio, allegedly linked to the deaths of 43 Mexican students, has been hiding in Israel for over two years.

Protesters outside the Attorney General's office in Mexico City demanding the safe return of the students, November 2014 (photo credit: PROTOPLASMAKID/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Protesters outside the Attorney General's office in Mexico City demanding the safe return of the students, November 2014
(photo credit: PROTOPLASMAKID/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Mexico’s former criminal agency chief Tomas Zeron de Lucio, allegedly involved in the deaths of 43 Mexican students in 2014, has been hiding out in Israel for more than two years, according to reports by Calcalist, The New York Times and various Latin American media outlets.

The reports imply that Israel is dragging its feet either because of negative diplomatic relations, the lack of extradition treaties between the countries, or a special arrangement that de Lucio has with the Israeli cyberdefense establishment.

Part of the basis for that allegation relates to the NSO Group’s operations in Mexico, where the cyber offense firm is accused of selling its cellphone-hacking technology to the government and others to use against journalists, activists and other opposition figures.

Whether Israel is dragging its feet, it is clear that the legal questions are far more complicated than they may seem.

First, ultimate innocence or guilt at the end of a trial is only one piece of the extradition process.

Demonstration on September 26, 2015, on the first anniversary of the Iguala mass kidnapping (credit: PETROHSW/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Demonstration on September 26, 2015, on the first anniversary of the Iguala mass kidnapping (credit: PETROHSW/CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Complexities of the extradition process

In order to get a foreign country to extradite one of its citizens, there are certain basic levels of evidence that must be provided to the country that would extradite, in this case, Israel.

Also, there are preliminary processes in the extradition that often precede a full, final and official extradition request.

The Jerusalem Post has learned that Israeli authorities have been working on evidentiary aspects of the extradition case for years, but that the process has been dynamic, with multiple twists and turns.

The case changed substantially in 2020 and 2021, earlier this year, and again only a few weeks ago when a number of Mexican prosecutors were arrested.

Practically speaking, it can be difficult if not impossible to move an extradition process forward when some of the prosecution lawyers on the other side have been arrested or are under investigation.

Also, with dozens of new arrests of those whose narrative could overlap with de Lucio, Israel might need to request additional new evidence.

The Post has also learned that the formal and final extradition request has not yet been submitted.

In other words, from Israel’s perspective – despite all of the prior reports – the ball is in Mexico’s court.

None of this means that de Lucio will not eventually be extradited; it just puts a different spin on why the extradition process might be taking so long. It also makes it likely that his extradition is not imminent.

A diplomatic official said that the issue is being handled by the Justice Ministry, and that there is no connection between the extradition issue and broader Mexican-Israeli diplomatic relations.

More specifically, the official rejected any idea of Israel using the extradition to try to leverage Mexico to be less critical of it at the United Nations, as implied by multiple reports.

Why then is an Israeli official quoted that seems to imply there is a connection, or at least that Jerusalem might intentionally slow down the process because it does not owe Mexico any favors?

Officials did not say that the quotes in the media were necessarily manufactured, as much as they were likely taken out of context to present Israel in an unflattering light.

It could be that an Israeli official might have listed a number of reasons why Jerusalem has not yet extradited de Lucio, and some of the media might have cherry-picked the one reason that would sound the worst.

Another reason it might be unlikely that Israel would hold up the entire extradition to gain leverage over Mexico is that Mexico is not a dominant power that has much to give Israel, even if more positive relations would be preferred.

Even this does not answer why de Lucio is here, and whether there might be some cyberdefense officials assisting him, the way former minister Ya’acov Litzman ran interference in the process to extradite Malka Leifer.

The Calcalist article specifically identified de Lucio as living in Tel Aviv in the fancy home of David Avital, a shareholder in a subsidiary of Rayzone, which like NSO Group, has cyber and other operations in Mexico.

The Post spoke to multiple cyberdefense officials, one of whom said it was unlikely that Avital would be helping or harboring de Lucio over business issues related to national security.

The official said this would make no sense now that de Lucio lost his position and influence.

Rather, if Avital is helping de Lucio, it would be more likely connected to individual personal relationships and possibly individual economic considerations, since sometimes fleeing individuals are ready to pay significant sums to secure a safe harbor.

Another cyberdefense official pointed out that Mexico is a very complicated country, where a hero one day is a criminal in chains the next. He said it is very common for strong personal relationships to develop between individuals representing different governments for deals in the defense industry, which might remain strong even after one or more of the officials is out of office.

Finally, Israel is an ally of the US, which might also have an interest in aspects of stabilizing Mexico and seeing any corrupt officials there prosecuted (because of the shared border and common fights against drugs). But Israel is geographically and conceptually in a completely different universe from Mexico, or even Canada, where de Lucio fled before coming to Israel.

In other words, de Lucio probably calculated correctly that the process of Mexico seeking his extradition would be longer and harder to accelerate in Israel, as opposed to his being somewhere in the Americas, closer to Mexico.

Of course, at some point, all of the explanations will not be sufficient if Israel does not provide a substantive response to this latest controversial extradition issue.