TEL AVIV — A former Mexican official accused of orchestrating a cover-up of the infamous disappearance of 43 students is unlikely to be extradited from Israel, where he now lives, according to Israeli officials not authorized to speak publicly.
The Mexican authorities say Tomás Zerón tortured witnesses and tampered with evidence during the investigation into the 2014 abduction, considered the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history.
For the past few years, though, Mr. Zerón has been living in Israel, where he told The New York Times in a statement that he has befriended “amazing people, starting with chefs, tour guides, artists, various entrepreneurs and simple workers.” Acquaintances say he is a regular at parties and upscale restaurants in Tel Aviv.
Mexico asked for his extradition last year. But now, citing delays and missteps by the Mexican government, Israeli officials say the extradition request is all but dead — another major setback in an investigation riddled with problems.
Why does it matter?
The failure to secure Mr. Zerón’s return to Mexico, experts say, would cost Mexico the opportunity to glean new information from a key suspect. The victims are all presumed dead, but only three students’ remains were ever found.
“He is key to solving the case and searching for the young men,” said Carlos Beristain, a member of an international group of experts that has been investigating the abduction. “Tomás Zerón must be held accountable for that debt to the country.”
Mr. Zerón’s lawyer, Liora Turlevsky, denied the charges against her client.
“He didn’t tamper with evidence, he didn’t torture detainees, he didn’t build a false narrative about what happened to the students,” Ms. Turlevsky said, adding that he conducted a rigorous investigation and was not withholding information.
Who is Tomás Zerón?
On the evening they vanished in September 2014, the 43 students had commandeered buses for transportation to a demonstration, in keeping with a local tradition that had been tolerated in the past.
But that night, gunmen, including local police officers, dragged the young men off the buses, shot some of them and took the rest away. They were never seen again.
Mr. Zerón, the head of Mexico’s Criminal Investigations Agency, helped lead the investigation into the crime. Within weeks, the authorities announced their conclusions: Local police had handed the students over to drug dealers, who killed them and dumped their burned remains in a river.
That account was eventually discredited by a team of international investigators who found that the government had tampered with evidence and obtained testimony through torture.
Mr. Zerón left his post in 2016, after the investigators obtained video showing him handling evidence that they said was never recorded.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president in 2018, he appointed a truth commission into the crime. Mr. Zerón left Mexico months later and, by late 2019, had settled in Israel.
Mr. Zerón said he escaped the country because his government-paid bodyguards were removed.
In 2020, the Mexican government formally accused Mr. Zerón of torture and evidence tampering and of embezzling tens of millions of dollars in a separate matter. Mexico has also charged Mr. Zerón with forced disappearance, arguing that his mishandling of the inquiry contributed to the students’ vanishing.
After obtaining an Interpol “red notice” for his arrest, the authorities began discussing an extradition request with Israel.
Why won’t Israel hand him over?
Mexico faces an uphill battle: The two countries do not have an extradition treaty and while its law permits it, Israel has never repatriated anyone to a country with which it did not have a permanent agreement, officials say.
Initially, according to an Israeli official, Israel slow-walked the case as retaliation for Mexico’s support for United Nations inquiries into allegations of war crimes against Palestinians.
Then came a slew of missteps by the Mexican government.
In September 2021, Mr. López Obrador wrote to the Israeli prime minister, demanding that he extradite Mr. Zerón to ensure “that justice be fulfilled immediately.” But at that point, Mexico still had not completed its own investigation into the case, nor had it submitted a formal request for extradition.
Mexican officials told families of the students they were having trouble translating extradition documents from Spanish to English. “It was like they were making fun of us, saying they hadn’t finished the paperwork,” said Mario González Contreras, the father of one of the students.
When the government finally filed the request, in January 2022, Israeli officials said it didn’t include enough evidence to establish Mr. Zerón’s relevance to the abduction.
Months later, Omar Gómez Trejo, the lead prosecutor in the investigation, met with officials in Israel to try to narrow the gaps. He said he had been pushing officials who handle extradition requests in the Mexican attorney general’s office to move faster, but didn’t get anywhere.
“They took too long and they weren’t diligent,” Mr. Gómez Trejo said. “It was only when I went to Israel and explained the case that the Israelis understood the importance of Tomás.” When Mr. Gómez Trejo returned to Mexico, the attorney general sidelined him. He resigned in September and eventually left Mexico.
The Israeli government still has not received most of the documents it requested from the Mexican government, two Israeli officials said.
In October, The Times reported that Alejandro Encinas, the head of the truth commission, had been covertly recorded during a meeting with Mr. Zerón in Tel Aviv. Mr. Encinas was heard suggesting he believed Mr. Zerón was not guilty of embezzlement, and expressing doubt about government witnesses. “I believe that there is a legal basis to overcome all the accusations,” Mr. Encinas told Mr. Zerón.
Israeli authorities were surprised to learn of the visit and hear Mr. Encinas question some of the accusations against Mr. Zerón, one of the officials said. In an interview last year, Mr. Encinas told The Times he was merely trying to persuade Mr. Zerón to cooperate and return to Mexico.
What happens next?
The Mexican authorities say they are continuing to investigate the disappearance.
One top Israeli official said that the statements by Mr. Encinas during his meeting with Mr. Zerón were likely the decisive blow to the extradition request.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.