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The trials and tribulations of ‘kidnapped’ startup founder Mayer Mizrachi

The nightmare, it seemed, was finally coming to an end. Today, Mizrachi's future is anything but certain.


Dell Cameron


Posted on Jun 28, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 1:06 pm CDT

Mayer Mizrachi and his attorney sat in the backseat as guards drove through the barbed-wire gates of La Picota prison before depositing the pair on a sidewalk in Bogotá, Colombia. In his right hand Mizrachi held fast to the sheet of paper declaring his freedom. Before slipping into a taxi, he took one last look at the prison behind him, his home for nearly six months. 

The nightmare, it seemed, was finally coming to an end. Today, Mizrachi’s future is anything but certain.

In the United States, we’re used to hearing tales of technology startup failures and successes. None compare to that of Mizrachi, a 28-year-old tech entrepreneur and startup CEO, who has endured what his attorney characterizes as an attempted “kidnapping,” months of imprisonment, political grudges targeting his family, multinational maneuvering, and a lifelong illness that could kill him at any moment.

Mizrachi first arrived in Colombia on Dec. 29, 2015, for what was supposed to be a vacation. He was exhausted after months of planning the next phase of his company, Criptext, which was primarily known at the time for Gmail and Outlook plugins that enable users to encrypt and recall email messages. His mother, Rebeca Matalon, drove him to the airport in Fort Lauderdale that day.

After landing in Cartagena, Mizrachi disembarked the plane eager to unwind in his hotel room. He would never make it through customs.

A silent alarm was triggered at the airport. The Colombian national police, alerted to Mizrachi’s presence by means of an Interpol Red Notice, quickly moved in and placed him under arrest. Mizrachi’s attorneys recently argued that this detention was unlawful before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). To date, no formal charges have been filed against him in any country—formal charges being a prerequisite for the Red Notice issued by Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization. Interpol has not responded to repeated requests for comment on this matter.

Mizrachi’s dilemma dates back to September 2013, when he was first contacted by Panama’s National Authority for Government Innovation (AIG) while operating out of a Miami-based startup accelerator called Venture Hive. In lieu of founding its own accelerator program, the agency made public its interest in acquiring one that was already up and running. Criptext, which had begun developing an encrypted messenger under the name Hash, was offered a contract to provide AIG with access to the platform. Over a period of several months, the Criptext platform went through more than 20 versions as Mizrachi and his colleagues tailored the software to meet AIG’s evolving demands. The company received $214,000, as per its contract, and AIG was provided an administrative account that allowed it to delegate access to a total of 100 government employees.

“It was my way of serving my country,” says Mizrachi, who was born in Panama and holds dual citizenship in Jamaica where his mother once served as an honorary consul. “I was proud. And it was a huge opportunity. Having the government as a client would act as an anchor to bring in more clients and more investors.”

Problems arose, however, after former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli left office in May 2014, and Irvin Halman, a former Kodak Panama executive, took control of AIG. According to Mizrachi, Criptext observed a significant loss in traffic over its platform during this period. Concerned about losing his most influential customer, he says he reached out to Halman and offered to extend the government’s contract for an additional six months, free of charge. “To say I wasn’t interested in keeping them as a customer is a lie,” he says. “I was proud to have them as a customer.” But the situation became clear after a brief meeting with Halman in December 2014. “He wasn’t going to make use of it,” Mizrachi said. “He didn’t care about Criptext.” (Criptext Secure Messenger recently launched on Google Play and the Apple App Store primarily as a business-focused demo.) 

“It was my way of serving my country. I was proud. And it was a huge opportunity.”

Soon after, Halman instigated a criminal investigation into Mizrachi’s company for allegedly defrauding the Panamanian government, reportedly spurred by a review of the platform conducted by two auditors whose specialties lie not in cryptography, but in finance and international banking. Mizrachi’s lawyers contend the auditors have no technical training, academic or otherwise, that would enable them to properly audit Mizrachi’s platform. Logs maintained by Criptext, which the Daily Dot has reviewed but cannot independently verify, indicate that Halman himself sent and received a combined 106 messages through the Criptext application.

A registration email allegedly sent by the company to Halman, containing his username and temporary password, is dated Sept. 2, 2014. It was roughly three months after this date that Halman urged an investigation into Mizrachi, which, nearly two years later, has yet to produce any criminal charges.

“People in Panama are being misled to believe we robbed the government and didn’t deliver on the contract,” Mayer told the Daily Dot in an encrypted message from a cellphone he obtained in prison. “The opposite is true. We did deliver, we charged them a fraction of the cost, and when they stopped using the software, we contacted the man in charge so they could make a more proper use of the people’s taxes.”

Mayer Mizrachi

On the day of Mizrachi’s arrest, Reuters incorrectly reported the value of the Criptext contract at $13.3 million, a figure the news agency obtained from the Panamanian National Police. According to Mizrachi’s attorney, the exaggerated figure endangered his client’s life while in prison. “It put a target on my back and on my family’s back,” Mizrachi says, referring to the kidnappings all too common in Bogotá.

Mizrachi’s attorneys in Panama and Jamaica have accused Halman before the IACHR of engaging in a “political vendetta” aimed at discrediting and imprisoning anyone with ties to Martinelli, the longtime political rival of President Juan Carlos Varela, who currently faces criminal charges in Panama for embezzlement, political espionage, and other acts of corruption. Sources say Martinelli, whose center-right government was once lauded for bringing prosperity to the Central American state, moved to Miami after fleeing the country. A warrant for his arrest was issued by the Supreme Court of Panama less than a week before Mizrachi was detained in Cartagena.

According to Mizrachi’s lawyers, a report signed by Halman included a formal request for a copy of Mizrachi’s family tree to “determine his relationship with figures of the former government.” Individuals interrogated during the investigation—which Mizrachi’s attorneys say was initiated without legal basis—say they were questioned about whether they personally knew Mizrachi’s father. None did. At present, Mizrachi claims to have a strained relationship with his father, who did not visit during the more than five months Mizrachi was incarcerated. 

In Cartagena, two police officers drove Mizrachi back to the airport the day after his arrest. They were polite, he recalls, but “unwavering in their duty.” His handcuffs were removed to avoid making a scene. Once inside, the trio approached the ticket counter for Avianca, Colombia’s national airline. After being informed by the airline staff that all the flights were full, the officers produced their badges. An airline manager arrived shortly after, and Mizrachi and the officers were escorted to a gate where passengers preparing to board a flight to Bogotá were asked to step aside.

“When I get on the plane, I realized we’re the first to board,” said Mizrachi, who assumed at the time it was all some kind of a precautionary measure. “All of a sudden, they shut the door, get on the PA system, and begin the usual takeoff-prep stuff.” None one else boarded the plane.

Mizrachi arrived in Bogotá less than two hours later and was immediately transferred into the custody of another group of law enforcement agents. Unlike the officers who first detained him in Cartagena, these men wore black baseball caps that read “INTERPOL” in bold letters. Their matching black jackets bore the agency’s logo: a globe and scales of justice. The time for discretion was apparently over. A man began filming Mizrachi as he was returned to handcuffs. Passengers towing their luggage around them changed directions sharply to avoid the spectacle. The cameraman followed Mizrachi and the officers outside and boarded a van en route to a Bogotá police station where a group of reporters had been assembled. 

After Mizrachi was fingerprinted, two officers posed to have their pictures taken with the prisoner. They each grabbed one of his arms as he stood silent with a vacant stare. A white backdrop behind him displayed the logo of the Dirección de Investigación Criminal e INTERPOL (DIJIN), a strategic law enforcement unit, under which the Colombian National Police provides assistance to Interpol and other international agencies.

“I was shell-shocked, so I don’t recall much,” Mizrachi said of his arrest. “But between the time I was detained and when I arrived in Bogota, they had more than 12 hours to arrange that show.”

In phone calls and encrypted messages to the Daily Dot over the past month, Mizrachi unloaded about his life in La Picota, a maximum-security facility whose notoriety is overshadowed only by the reputations of its violent inmates, many of whom have been convicted of drug trafficking. Random shakedowns, humiliating body searches, and the occasional tear gas became routine for Mizrachi, who spent nights and most days, along with two other men, confined to a small room on Patio 16, a cell block in La Picota also known as the Hall of Extraditables. Yellow buckets filled with liquid in assorted states of translucence line the cell walls. “They’ll sit there for days,” Mizrachi said during an interview behind bars.

“You have to store water for as long as you can,” he says. “On a good day, the taps will flow for a few hours, but during a period of maintenance this month, the prisoners were cut off for several days.” Brown “drinking water” was delivered to the prison by a truck and pumped up to the cell block. The men hurried to save as much as they could, filling up several large containers intended for garbage. Using a cellphone, Mizrachi snapped several photos of the event.

“You have to store water for as long as you can. On a good day, the taps will flow for a few hours, but during a period of maintenance this month, the prisoners were cut off for several days.”

During a raid last month, Mizrachi described how 80 men were stripped by laughing guards. The prisoners later returned to their cells to find their belongings torn and scattered across the floor. When they grew angry, tear gas was deployed to quell the protest. A canister landed near Mizrachi’s feet. He recalled the feeling of the gas entering his lungs as he collapsed on the ground, gasping for air.

“It was like a scene from a movie,” Mizrachi said. “I’m shocked every single time, just seeing how humans can treat other humans in this fashion. There may be people in here responsible for a thousand deaths, I don’t know, but they aren’t killing anyone right now. I just don’t find anything good that comes from it. There’s a lot of resentment here.”

“I’ve been making jokes the whole time about my experience to my family,” Mizrachi says during another a prison interview. “I’m managing expectations. I don’t want people to really know what I live through in here.” He says he was recently started on anti-depressants. “I thought, ‘these guys probably deserve to be here. My case is different.’ But five months in—I’m not so special. Whatever is going on with me, well, everyone has their own story.”

“This is the highest concentration of self-proclaimed innocent men in the world,” he continued. “After five months, I can tell you that.”

Most prisoners on Patio 16 are awaiting extradition to the United States for drug trafficking charges, including one of Mizrachi’s former cellmates, whose name has been withheld by request. A Colombian citizen, he was once considered a master shipwright, but in international headlines, he’s been painted as the mastermind behind a major drug cartel operation, responsible for the smuggling of cocaine into Florida by the tons through the construction of a dozen semi-submersible vessels. Mizrachi’s account of his cellmate’s story differs greatly from that of the newspapers. “His family was kidnapped by the cartel, and he was extorted to build these boats,” Mizrachi says. “Until he finished, they wouldn’t let his family go. If he went to the police, they would die. He had no other option but to do it.”

Mayer Mizrachi

“In this place you can’t take people’s word for it,” he adds, “but after months of living with this guy and seeing his family visit, I do believe his story.” The notoriety surrounding his cellmate drew a lot of unwanted attention, and people—the wrong kind—assumed he was a wealthy man. “In my first month here, they kidnapped his son and asked for, I don’t know, it was like two or three million dollars. This guy can’t even pay for his own lawyer. They ended up killing his son. In my life,” says Mizrachi, after a long pause, “I haven’t seen anything more heartbreaking than a 50-year-old man cry for the death of his son in a prison cell.”

Prone to epileptic seizures, Mizrachi awoke one morning on the cement floor of cell and didn’t immediately recognize his surroundings. “I didn’t know I was in a prison cell. I wasn’t sure how I got here,” he says. The insides of his mouth were swollen and bleeding. “The feeling when you regain consciousness is unmistakable. Every other time I’ve regained consciousness after a seizure, I’ve been in a place I recognize around people I know.”

For more than two decades, Mizrachi has suffered from a disease called polyarteritis nodosa, a form of vasculitis extremely rare among youth and young adults, typically striking people in their 70s and 80s. The disease often proves fatal. In Mizrachi’s case, it began to manifest shortly after his third birthday. While his twin brother, Mark, was growing bigger and stronger, Mizrachi’s body only became more feeble with age. High-grade fevers, intestinal bleeding, weak bones, blurred vision, swelling across his body, and other dire symptoms kept him from attending school. At times he was unable to walk or lift himself out of bed. The physicians in Panama seemed perplexed by his deteriorating state, and Mizrachi’s mother decided to seek help abroad, with minimal success at first.

“Miami Children’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Mass General, we went all over,” his mother, Rebeca Matalon, told the Daily Dot from her hotel room in Bogotá, where she arrived days after her son’s arrest. She hasn’t left the country since. “I can’t,” is all she’ll say.

“When Mayer was sick, the doctors didn’t know what was going on. He stopped growing. His twin brother was growing out of all of his clothes, his shoes were changing, and Mayer was just hanging behind,” she continued. “They just kept saying, ‘It’s a virus, it’s a virus.’” Matalon eventually flew her son to meet a diagnostics team in London. “Ten years of age, I walked into that hospital with him in my arms because he couldn’t walk so much. He would get tired very quickly. It took them six months to diagnose him. It’s a very rare condition to see in a child.” Mizrachi was steadily deteriorating as the blood flow to his organs was being cut off.

“I knew by instinct,” Matalon says. “People thought I was crazy, because the doctors kept insisting it was a virus. But I knew inside me that this child was very ill. I felt it. I was going to stop at nothing to save my child.”

After Mizrachi was diagnosed in London, he began receiving treatment, at times chemotherapy, which eventually sent his disease into remission. But it was not without cost. Seizures began that would arrive without warning. They subsided for a time, but after three months in La Picota, they flared up again. He refrained from mentioning the seizures to his mother during her near-weekly visits to the prison, but word eventually slipped out. “I woke today to find my mother very disappointed in me for lying,” he said earlier this month from his cell. “It was a tough dilemma. If I told her, it would scare her. But when she learned, she was devastated. We always say, ‘things are going to get better,’ but suddenly things get worse. The medicine I take is not a cure. It’s a remedy. Stress is a real trigger.”

“He’s very strong and I’m very proud of him because he’s always upbeat,” says Matalon. “When he’s in the worst situation, which is what was happening for years when he was a child, he always had a happy smile. This has happened again with Mayer, in this situation. It’s his defense mechanism, how to handle life threatening situations.”

Inside Colombia’s La Picota prison

Records obtained by the Daily Dot reveal the dizzying array of legal maneuvers attempted by various lawyers over the past few months in Panama, Colombia, and Jamaica, in pursuit of Mizrachi’s freedom.

A right of petition was filed in Panama one week after Mizrachi’s detention to counteract the “unlawful” request for extradition initiated by Panama and carried out by Interpol’s agents. That request, which was addressed to President Varela, was apparently ignored. A subsequent request for Panama to issue a “liberty ticket” for Mizrachi’s release before the Thirteenth Criminal Judge of the First Judicial Circuit of Panama was unsuccessful. That decision was rejected on appeal, however, by the Second Superior Tribunal of Panama, which granted Mizrachi bail in the amount of $100,000. The superior court’s ruling is what eventually led to Mizrachi’s release, though several months have gone by—documents from the First Judicial Circuit on Feb. 23 show the bail was paid, to no immediate effect. A ticket for liberty was again requested before the Thirteenth Criminal Judge, “upon which there was no response whatsoever and the release of Mayer was not achieved,” according to his attorneys.

Legal options were exhausted in Columbia as well. A petition before the Ministry of Justice was dismissed, along with a request of proof that Mizrachi’s attorneys say would have disclosed the lack of an indictment against their client. A similar petition before the Supreme Court of Justice reportedly went unanswered. (According to the attorneys, Colombia’s criminal procedural code requires the attorney general—prior to ordering the capture of a suspect for extradition—to acquire documents divulging the “circumstances of an indictment or its equivalent.”) An order for Mizrachi’s release was also reportedly received by Supreme Court, which forwarded it to the General National Prosecutor’s Office, which did not immediately respond to the attorney’s inquiries. Habeas corpus remedies were dismissed by two criminal court judges, one of whom based their opinion on the other without viewing any evidence or hearing any arguments.

Many of the arguments favoring Mizrachi’s release relied upon the extradition treaty between Panama and Colombia: the Montevideo Convention, ratified in the winter of 1933. In short, the signatories of 19 inter-American nations agreed to extradite delinquent subjects formally accused of crimes recognized by both the demanding and surrendering states—Panama and Colombia, respectively, in this instance. Moreover, the obligation applies only to crimes punishable under the laws of both countries by a minimum penalty of one year in prison. Mizrachi’s lawyers contend that Colombia is therefore under no obligation to extradite their client, because that fundamental requirement—that he be actually charged with committing a crime—has not been met.

“The detention of Mayer for nearly six months is a violation of his human rights,” said Alexandre Vernot, Mizrachi’s primary legal representative in Colombia, who helped draft the petition concerning his case in April to the IACHR. The panel, overseen by the Organization of American States (OAS), would have no legal authority to order Mizrachi’s release, but may have been capable of exerting significant political pressure on Colombia. The commission is apparently suffering, however, from a “severe financial crisis that will have serious consequences on its ability to fulfil its mandate,” according to a recent report in the Jamaica Observer.

Only a few hours had passed after Mizrachi’s release last week before news of his so called “prison escape” hit the website of La Prensa, Panama’s newspaper of record. A press release authored by Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that Mizrachi, after defeating an extradition request by the government of Panama in court, was nevertheless scheduled to be deported to the same country. A second document, circulated to Latin American reporters less than 24 hours later, said that Mizrachi was to be expelled from Colombia.

Neither reports issued by the Foreign Affairs office mention Mizrachi’s dual-Jamaican nationality, or the fact that he had arrived in Colombia from the United States—he was working on Criptext out of a WeWork startup accelerator in New York City—not Panama.

On June 22, the day of his release, the Foreign Affairs office broadcast allegations that Mizrachi had bribed his way out of the prison. A conflicting statement was published by a reporter the following day, however, attributed to a ministry official. “We do not know how he left La Picota,” the source said. Inexplicably, the press release referencing Mizrachi’s “escape” subsequently vanished from the ministry’s website, only to reappear on Monday afternoon. (While the ministry’s new post is backdated to June 22, the page’s URL reveals it was actually published on June 27.) It’s unclear if the language was altered, but the allegations against Mizrachi have not been changed.

“The guards then took us outside the prison in a car, they dropped us off at the corner of a street, and we took a cab, and that was it.”

“If the story wasn’t big before, it’s worse now,” Mizrachi told the Daily Dot on Monday via Skype. His version of events differ entirely from that of the Colombian authorities who’ve declared him a fugitive. “The Supreme Court in Panama issued the order for my liberation on June 6, and we have the documents to prove it,” he says.

Mizrachi claims that he wasn’t notified by the Foreign Affairs office after the appeals court in Panama ordered his release. Instead, ministry officials began negotiating with his attorney, Alexandre Vernot, under the pretext that his extradition was assured. “They called my mother and my attorney on the 6th of June to strike a deal, saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to drop the extradition in favor of an immediate deportation,’” Mizrachi says. Convinced he would win an upcoming extradition hearing at the Colombian Supreme Court, Mizrachi dismissed the ministry’s offer and resigned himself to remain a prisoner until his hearing scheduled for late August.

In reality, extradition was a bargaining chip no longer available to the Colombian authorities; regardless, more than two weeks passed, Mizrachi says, before he was informed of his release.

“Randomly, on Wednesday, I get called out by one of the guards who tells me, ‘Pack up your stuff,’” he says. “I got nervous. When you’re told to pack up during the day, it means you’re being deported—you’re being extradited. I started calling my lawyer, my mother, no one picks up.”

Mizrachi says he delayed his release as long as possible, at one point even locking himself in his cell. “I didn’t want to leave. I wanted my day in court,” he says. Then he was handed a legal document signed by a Colombian judge granting him his freedom. “It said I was to be ‘liberated immediately.’”

Still, Mizrachi expected deportation. After packing his belongings and being searched by the prison guards one last time, he was ushered to car where a group of immigration officials waited. “They wanted to take me to the immigration office and deport me,” he says. “I didn’t know that was wrong. I thought it was legal. I never even questioned it.” But suddenly, he was pulled back inside the prison. “They’re about to put me in the car when they get an order from their director saying ‘we don’t have a legal order to deliver him to another entity, so you can’t deliver him.’”

“They took me to the director of the penitentiary’s office,” Mizrachi continues. “There I met with Alex, my lawyer, and they explained to us both the pickle they were in. They said they had no order to hand me over to another government agency, and that if the transfer took place, they would be breaking the law. Because the immigration officers didn’t have a warrant to be inside the prison, they were ordered to leave the grounds.” It was then Mizrachi learned his release from prison had been ordered more than two weeks before.

“The jail has three gates, and we met at the third gate, all the way inside,” Vernot says. “The authorities of the jail received the order of the attorney general to release Mayer immediately—this is the only order that the jail received.”

Vernot says he was aware of a dispute between the Foreign Affairs office and the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC) as he moved with his client through La Picota’s corridors. He contends that, by ordering Mizrachi’s expulsion to Panama, the ministry is trying to use its executive authority to circumvent the ruling of the judicial branch, which has formally abandoned Mizrachi’s extradition case. “I asked, as his attorney, security for Mayer,” Vernot says.

Vernot compared the attempt to apprehend Mizrachi inside the prison with a kidnapping. “They lost the case,” Vernot says, “so the made a new plan to force him out of the country without any rights. The order was to let him free, because he is a free man. To me, that is like a kidnapping.”

Mizrachi and Vernot say the prison promised to get Mizrachi to freedom. “The guards then took us outside the prison in a car,” Mizrachi says, “they dropped us off at the corner of a street, and we took a cab, and that was it.”

While Mizrachi is now in a “secure location,” according to Vernot, the next step is to find a place where he can go without fear of reprisal from authorities in Panama.

“Since this arrest warrant has been lifted, we’re waiting for Interpol to lift their Red Alert so we can make a decision on whether we’re going to try and leave Colombia,” says Mizrachi. “In the meantime, I have applied for asylum. Once that process starts, I should be granted what’s called ‘safe passage,’ which should prevent them from expelling or deporting me anywhere against my will.”

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*First Published: Jun 28, 2016, 2:13 pm CDT