07/29/21 (written by rramos) – Authorities in Mexico continue to face difficulty in capturing Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the ex-director of the Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal, AIC) in the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) who led the Mexican government’s controversial response to the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The inability to detain Zerón represents yet another obstacle to fully resolving the mass disappearance, which has persisted as an enduring symbol of impunity and corruption in Mexico.
According to the New York Times, Zerón, who headed the AIC from August 2014 until widespread criticism of his handling of the probe into the Ayotzinapa disappearances prompted his resignation in September 2016, is currently in Israel even as the Mexican government has requested his extradition. Israeli officials who spoke to the New York Times claimed that the decision to not act on the extradition request is diplomatic retribution in response to Mexico’s frequent criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in various multilateral fora, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although Israel’s ambassador to Mexico denied that his government was holding up the extradition for political reasons, he did not indicate whether the Israeli government planned on detaining Zerón, simply stating that they have informed Mexican authorities of the “level of evidence and requirements according to Israeli law” (author’s own translation) needed to carry out an extradition request.
Back in Mexico, Zerón faces various legal proceedings. In March 2020, the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) obtained an arrest warrant against him based on charges related to misconduct during the initial investigation into the Ayotzinapa case. The accusations against Zerón include tampering wth evidence, forcibly disappearing potential witnesses, and using torture to obtain testimony, all part of an alleged effort to distort the results of the inquiry. Current federal Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero also accused Zerón of embezzling “billions of pesos” from government coffers while at the helm of the AIC. An additional arrest warrant was issued in April 2021, this time based on allegations that Zerón had participated in the torture of Felipe Rodríguez Salgado. Known by the criminal alias “El Cepillo,” Rodríguez Salgado is alleged to be a leading figure in the Guerreros Unidos criminal group that has been linked to the Ayotzinapa abductions. Specifically, prosecutors allege that Zerón employed tactics such as death threats and sensory deprivation during Rodríguez’s 2015 interrogation in order to force him to provide confessions that would corroborate the government’s official version of events regarding the disappearance of the 43 students.
Zerón has dismissed the accusations as “political persecution” on the part of the administration of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024), and has sought political asylum in Israel since January of this year. Although the Israeli government continues to avoid taking action on both the extradition request and the asylum application, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has publicly stated that the López Obrador Administration remains committed to apprehending Zerón, even if the process takes a significant amount of time.
Zerón Case Highlights Broader Corruption-Related Issues in Mexico
Although President López Obrador vowed to reexamine the Ayotzinapa case upon assuming office in 2018, progress towards bringing the perpetrators to justice has remained frustratingly slow. The continuing fallout from the disappearance of the 43 students, including the ongoing saga involving Tomás Zerón, serves as a reminder of some of the foremost corruption-related challenges in Mexico.
The allegations against Zerón underscore the persistent impunity enjoyed by members of security forces involved in human rights abuses. Indeed, some have suggested that Zerón’s alleged tampering with the investigation was intended to downplay the possible role of military and federal police officers in the forced abductions. Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer representing the families of the 43 missing students, has stated openly that he believes that the Peña Nieto government sought to protect members of the Army and Federal Police that may have been involved in the mass kidnapping by putting forward an official version of events that focused heavily on municipal police officers.
Furthermore, the Zerón case highlights the ever-present risk of politicized investigations and prosecutions in Mexico. As mentioned earlier, Zerón has denounced the corruption charges against him as politically motivated. This is not the first time that corruption probes have been criticized as being weaponized for political reasons. Former officials like Ildefonso Guerrero and Rosario Robles, both of whom served as cabinet secretaries in the Peña Nieto government, have rejected corruption investigations against them as “political persecution.” Accusations of the use of corruption investigations as a political tool are not unique to the current López Obrador administration and have persisted for decades, representing a major impediment to genuine efforts to build Mexico’s capacity to combat corruption.
While a future arrest of Zerón to face the charges against him in Mexico could be a step towards full resolution of the Ayotzinapa tragedy, longer-term progress in Mexico’s broader struggle against corruption will depend on successfully addressing various systemic challenges that have allowed impunity to persist in the country.