In fealty to US foreign policy, Mexico has long refused to recognize Palestinian statehood. Last week, that finally changed, with AMLO’s government officially acknowledging Palestinian statehood and establishing a full embassy in Mexico City.

A member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee holds a Palestinian flag in a protest against US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in front of the US Embassy in Mexico City on December 15, 2017. (Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images)

On June 2, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates announced that, as of the first of the month, it had reclassified its diplomatic mission in Mexico from special delegation to embassy. The ministry “expresses its firm conviction that this measure will contribute significantly to the . . . strengthening of relations between Mexico and the State of Palestine, on the basis of respect and mutual recognition, in benefit of our two peoples as well as international security and development,” it affirmed in a statement.

The announcement should have made headlines. Instead, it was received with a soft thud by both the Mexican and international press. As for the Mexican government, its only confirmation came by way of a hands-free upgrading of the delegation’s status to embassy on its official website — a curious, backdoor route for such a fundamental change in foreign policy.

From Leader to Footdragger

Mexico hasn’t always been quite so reticent. In 1975, it established diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); Mexico’s then president Luis Echeverría met with Yasser Arafat in Egypt that same year. Two decades later, it elevated the PLO’s “information office” in Mexico City to the rank of special delegation. Diplomatic visits were exchanged, and a posthumous bust of Arafat was unveiled in the Azcapotzalco district of the city in 2010.

But by then, the nation’s relative boldness on the Palestinian front had dissolved into a foot-dragging fealty to US foreign policy. When Lula da Silva’s Brazil recognized Palestinian statehood in December of that year, infuriating Washington and Tel Aviv, the trickle of prior recognitions (primary among them, the Hugo Chávez administration of Venezuela) became a flood: by Christmas, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador had followed suit, joined, over the next few months, by Chile, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay. In short order, practically the entirety of Latin America and the Caribbean made common cause with Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Global South in recognizing Palestine: some 139 countries in total. The only holdouts were Panama, a few of the island states — and Mexico.

Build the Wall, Infect Your Phone

In recent years, relations between Mexico and Israel have been complicated by other factors. When Donald Trump proposed building a wall along the border in 2016 — a project especially reviled in Mexico — he specifically cited Israel’s Gaza wall as a model. With casual disregard for Mexican public opinion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted barely a week after Trump’s inauguration that the border wall was a “great idea.”

Immediately, Israeli firms such as Magal Security Systems, surfing a wave of soaring stock prices, leapt into the breach to stake their claims. Far from a one-off interest, this was just the latest in a long string of Israeli firms applying lessons of the “Gaza laboratory” to the US-Mexico border, stretching back to the Obama years and before.

Israeli security firms also plied their wares within Mexico, with toxic results. In 2011, the Defense Department of conservative president Felipe Calderón became the first in the world to acquire Pegasus spy software, developed by the Israeli NSO Group. So keen was the interest in propagating the software that Calderón’s security minister and right-hand man, Genaro García Luna, attempted to turn around and peddle it to the state government of Coahuila, according to testimony by the state’s ex-treasurer. In February, a federal jury in Brooklyn found García Luna guilty of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Armed with the potency of Pegasus — which can vacuum up a phone’s content and contacts, record calls, film through the phone’s camera, and pinpoint locations — the succeeding government of Enrique Peña Nieto employed it widely, spying on journalists, businesspeople, human rights lawyers, and politicians of all parties, including current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and some fifty members of his family and inner circle. (According to a recent investigation, Mexico’s armed forces are still using Pegasus to spy on journalists and federal officials, such as Subsecretary Alejandro Encinas, who are investigating its past abuses.)

The Zerón Affair

A prime mover of Pegasus in the Peña Nieto administration was Tomás Zerón. As head of the Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC in Spanish), a now-defunct part of the Attorney General’s Office, Zerón authorized the purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of spy software, including Pegasus, in 2014. Zerón’s spending spree put him in contact with key figures in the network of Israeli security firms, including Avishay Samuel Neriya, partner of Uri Emmanuel Ansbacher in the company BSD Security Systems. Ansbacher, in turn, was the primary distributor of NSO Group products in Mexico.

In September of that year, forty-three students from the Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa were disappeared in the town of Iguala, Guerrero. As the head of the AIC, Zerón was assigned to lead the investigation, a task he performed with a singular combination of cruelty, mendacity, and ineptitude.

In addition to the basic errors of mishandling evidence, ignoring leads, and failing to follow the chain of custody, Zerón and his team actively interfered in the investigation, planting evidence at the site where the students’ bodies were allegedly burned and obtaining evidence through torture, rendering it unusable. In a video released in 2020, Zerón, dressed in black and marching around the cell like a grand inquisitor, is seen interrogating a seminaked, hooded suspect identified as Felipe Rodríguez, alias “El Cepillo,” from the Guerreros Unidos cartel. “Just one fuckup and I’ll kill you, buddy,” Zerón is heard to say.

All of this led to the creation of what then attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam called the “historic truth”: that the students were killed by the cartel, which mistook them for a rival gang — a self-serving thesis since totally discredited. Murillo Karam was arrested in August 2022 and remains in prison awaiting trial on charges of torture, forced disappearance, and obstruction of justice.

As for Zerón, an arrest warrant was issued for him in 2020 on his own basket of charges. But the grand inquisitor had already fled the country, first to Canada and then to Israel which, curiously, does not have an extradition treaty with Mexico. And there, nearly four years later, he remains. AMLO’s government requested his extradition in September of 2021. It requested it again in June of this year. Israel has refused, choosing instead to slow-walk Zerón’s claim to asylum. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

“Why Would We Help Mexico?”

In a 2021 article in the New York Times, a senior Israeli official made no attempt to hide the fact that his government was protecting Zerón. At the time, Mexico was voting, as it has on previous occasions, to authorize a United Nations inquiry into Israeli war crimes: specifically, its eleven-day assault of Gaza in May of that year. At the time, the Israeli embassy in Mexico had attempted to pressure the AMLO administration into supporting it in the vote on the Human Rights Council; when that failed, it called in the Mexican ambassador, Pablo Macedo, for consultations.

Not only did the official quoted in the Times piece acknowledge this tit-for-tat response for Mexico’s “hostile actions” at the UN; he even went a step further to suggest that Zerón’s patently self-serving asylum application could wind up being accepted because “just as Mexico is punishing Israel for crimes it did not commit. . . . It may be prosecuting Mr. Zerón for political reasons.” An aberrant attempt, in short, at establishing an equivalence between a vote to investigate human rights abuses and the harboring of an Interpol-listed fugitive wanted for torture and forced disappearance. “Why would we help Mexico?” the official concluded.

The story doesn’t end with Zerón. In the same May of 2021, an arrest warrant was issued against the professor, television personality, and former diplomat Andrés Roemer for rape; between May and July, three additional charges of rape and sexual abuse were filed.

United Mexican Journalists (Periodistas Unidas Mexicanas), a collective that advocates for women’s rights in journalism, has compiled sixty-one testimonies of women who allege sexual abuse on the part of the man who has been dubbed the “Mexican Weinstein.” But even before the arrest warrants were issued, the accused was comfortably installed in Israel, having entered the country despite COVID-19 travel restrictions. Just like Zerón, Mexico has formally requested that Israel extradite Roemer; just like Zerón, Roemer is the subject of a red alert by Interpol; and just like Zerón, Roemer remains comfortably ensconced in Israel with no sign of being in any imminent danger of having to leave.

It is hard to overestimate how Israel’s shielding of wanted fugitives has rankled public opinion in Mexico. As for AMLO, he has returned to the subject repeatedly in his morning press conferences. On March 15, the president stated point-blank: “Israel cannot give protection to a torturer” and called on the Jewish community in Mexico to advocate in the case. “What is most important to us is to clear up what happened to the young people at Ayotzinapa,” he added.

On May 31, shortly before sending his second extradition request, he returned to the issue: “It’s not possible [for Israel] to protect someone who’s been accused of torture in Mexico. No nation should protect torturers, much less a country whose people have suffered from tortures.”

It may be that AMLO’s government was planning on recognizing Palestine anyway, despite massive State Department pressure. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the president, having grown tired of Israeli game playing on issues of such serious criminality, decided to start moving some pieces of his own. In the process, Mexico has moved a step further from Washington and closer to the settled regional consensus in Latin America.

Whichever roundabout road it took to get to Rome — or rather, Gaza — the decision is the correct one. And with Mexico’s increasing clout, it is a decision that will have international resonance — once the media gets around to covering it.


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