The disappearance of 43 college students only proves what everyone in Mexico already knows: The authorities are not to be trusted.
- By Daniel WilkinsonDaniel Wilkinson is managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch.
Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, says his office has finally solved the crime that has riveted his country for more than a month: the disappearance of 43 college students at the hands of police in Iguala, a small city in the southern state of Guerrero. In a news conference on Nov. 7, Murillo Karam announced that three gang members had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, leaving only ashes and bone shards on the bank of a river below a municipal dump outside a small mountain town called Cocula.
The attorney general’s account may well be true. But the families of the missing students aren’t buying it. They say they will not concede that their children are dead until they hear it from an independent source — namely, a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists who will study whatever DNA may have survived the incineration.
The families’ skepticism is understandable. On countless occasions over the past decade, Mexico’s police, military, and justice system have proved themselves untrustworthy, unaccountable, and unprepared to handle the public-security catastrophe that has taken the lives of more than 90,000 Mexicans since the drug war began in 2006.
In Iguala, the authorities showed a remarkable disregard for the fate of the students from the moment their ordeal began on Sept. 26. The mass abduction took place just 100 meters from a military base. Yet the army brigade stationed there — ostensibly to combat violent crime in the region — did nothing as police opened fire on the unarmed students, shooting one in the head and injuring four others. The police then forced dozens of students into several vehicles and drove off, first to a police station and then, apparently, to meet their executioners on the outskirts of town.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first public reaction to the case several days later was to declare that it was not his government’s problem, but rather the responsibility of local authorities in Guerrero. The president soon backtracked, but it would be 10 days before his attorney general opened an investigation into the fate of the missing students.
I spoke with the attorney general recently and asked why it had taken so long to take on the case. He said it was because under Mexican law his office needed prior authorization from authorities in Guerrero to intervene. Once they obtained it, he insisted, they opened one of the most ambitious investigations in recent history, deploying thousands of agents and detaining scores of suspects.
Even if this is technically accurate, it’s very hard to believe the federal government could not have pressed state-level officials to grant the authorization more quickly. Indeed, the delay was entirely consistent with the passive approach the Mexican government has taken to other human rights atrocities in recent years.
Take for example the case of José Luis Abarca, the now-former mayor of Iguala who was arrested in early November and presented as prime suspect for ordering the 43 students’ abduction. Abarca was also implicated in the abduction and murder of a prominent critic of his administration and two other political activists in May 2013. It took federal prosecutors until June 2014 to begin investigating the case, and they only brought charges against the mayor in October — after the 43 students went missing and the national spotlight was turned on Iguala. Had Abarca been investigated and arrested sooner, perhaps the students’ fate would have been different.
In another recent case, federal prosecutors waited three months to open an investigation into the killing of 22 people by soldiers in June in Tlatlaya, a small town in the state of Mexico. For weeks, the government maintained that the soldiers had killed the 22 people in a gun battle. In fact, according to a report issued by the national human rights ombudsman in October, at least 12 of the people were killed, execution style, by the soldiers after they had surrendered. And the human rights violations extend beyond the soldiers: According to the ombudsman’s report, state prosecutors forced three women who witnessed the killings to sign statements exonerating the soldiers, beating two of the women and threatening to rape all three.
From the outset, there were multiple reasons to question the official account of the Tlatlaya killings. Yet the federal attorney general’s office only opened an investigation after the Latin American edition of Esquire magazine published an interview with one of the witnesses in September. The attorney general’s office has since charged seven soldiers in the case, including three for "aggravated homicide" and "altering the crime scene," as well as a lieutenant for his role in covering up the crime.
That’s a start in terms of guaranteeing legal accountability, but it’s not enough. What federal prosecutors have not done is to open an investigation into other officials’ participation in the cover-up. When I asked the attorney general why not, he responded indignantly: "What cover-up?" The senior military officials had accurately reported what the lieutenant had told them, Murillo said, and other government officials had repeated this version. Moreover, he pointed out, as attorney general he was obligated to presume "good faith" on the part of other state institutions.
He made a similar observation at the news conference on Nov. 7 when asked about the military’s failure to intervene to save the students in Iguala. "What would have happened if the army had gone out at that moment?" he asked. "Who would they have supported? Obviously the established authority." That is, the police that were busy attacking a group of college students.
To be fair, Murillo’s point here was that an army intervention would have only made matters worse. But in his moment of candor, he captured what many Mexicans consider to be an essential truth that the Iguala tragedy has exposed about their country: Its public security institutions are not functioning as safeguards of public security. On the contrary, they are a central part of the problem — whether it’s police colluding with murderous gangs, soldiers executing civilians, prosecutors torturing witnesses, or senior officials using the law to justify inaction in the face of such atrocities.
Recently, I met with the fathers of three of the missing students. Two sat in silence — one trembling uncontrollably, the other absolutely still, seemingly oblivious to the tears rolling down his face — while a third described the "impotence and rage" they felt as a result of the government’s failure to protect or find their missing sons. "We’re up against the biggest monster of them all," he said with an anguished sigh.
"What monster?" I assumed he was referring to the violence of organized crime. But his answer was more disturbing.