Ori Zoller made headlines over a decade ago selling thousands of AK-47s that eventually found their way into the hands of terrorists in Colombia.
Now, according to recently leaked documents, the former small arms dealer is working as cyber arms dealer, supplying the government of Honduras with powerful surveillance tools used to spy on computers and cell phones.
The revelations are contained in the internal files and emails from Hacking Team, an Italian company that has sold spyware to repressive regimes and law enforcement agencies around the world, including Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. The Hacking Team files were dumped on the web by an anonymous source.
Zoller, a former member of the Israeli special forces, acted as the middleman for Hacking Team to sell its surveillance equipment to the Honduran government, a relationship that was formalized in July 2014, according to Hacking Team records. The records show the Hondurans paid at least $355,000 for the software, which is used to seize control of a target’s computer or cell phone, with the ability to track an individual’s movements, log their keystrokes and even activate their computer camera.
Talks between the parties took place throughout 2013, in the midst of a Honduran presidential election marred by violence. Working as a business partner to NICE Systems, an Israeli firm with a reseller agreement on behalf Hacking Team, Zoller arranged meetings with Honduran officials and members of Hacking Team.
Zoller’s previous career as a conventional arms dealer is detailed in news reports and in a classified State Department cable revealed by WikiLeaks. In 1999, Zoller acquired surplus arms from the Nicaraguan army and proceeded to sell the weapons, including 3,000 AK-47s, through a third party dealer on a ship bound for Panama. The weapons were diverted to Colombia, where they ended up in the hands of the United Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States. The UAC has worked with multinational corporations and the Colombian military to carry out a campaign of murder and torture of leftist Colombians, including labor activists.
Zoller denied that he was aware that the AUC was the intended buyer of his 1999 arms deal. In 2003, the Organization of American States investigated the arms shipment, and concluded Zoller “exhibited negligence and perhaps willful blindness” for allowing the shipment to fall into the hands of the AUC.
The State Department cable notes that “Zoller’s involvement in the arms diversion can be interpreted in three possible ways: he knowingly associated with a foreign terrorist organization, he arguably should have discovered the arms’ true destination but was deliberately negligent in his research, or he was completely unaware of the illicit nature of the deal.”
In 2001, Zoller attempted to sell Nicaraguan weapons to Samih Osailly, an arms dealer who has been investigated for ties to al Qaeda. That deal, which was drawn up to ship guns to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, however, fell apart as the Nicaraguan army failed to supply the weapons.
In 2007, Zoller again played a key role in an illegal arms deal. He acted as a middleman to sell U.S.-supplied weapons from Guatemala to Century Arms, a private weapons dealer. Again, Zoller was cleared of wrongdoing by claiming negligence, telling investigators he believed the Guatemalan weapons were purchased from commercial sources.
Notably, Zoller has cooperated with the U.S. government, providing information about Israeli embassy officials, Russian ammunition sales, and the origin of grenades used by Mexican narcotraffickers, the leaked State Department cable further notes.
According to the Hacking Team files, Zoller also helped set up potential deals with the Guatemalan government, though it’s not clear if these contracts were ever finalized.
Zoller did not respond to a request for comment. We also reached out to the Honduran Embassy in Washington to ask how the Hacking Team software has been used, but did not hear back immediately.
The ruling party of Honduras helped instigate the 2009 coup that overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Over the years, the regime and its supporters have been linked to the killings of attorneys, journalists, as well as LGBT and farmworker activists.