For Mexico’s President, Forced Disappearances Could Make or Break the Justice System

A new investigation into the 2014 Ayotzinapa case may bring more answers but doesn’t guarantee real changes.

Missing Ayotzinapa students' parents march on the fifth anniversary of their disappearance in Iguala, Mexico.
Relatives of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students march to mark the fifth anniversary of their disappearance, in Iguala, Guerrero state, Mexico, on Sept. 27. Francisco Robles/AFP/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY—On Sept. 26, several thousand people marched through downtown Mexico City behind a Mexican flag spattered in red paint and marked with the slogan “Ayotzinapa Vive.” They marched to mark the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa, in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The students’ parents led the way, holding photos of their disappeared children.

The parents of the 43 students have marched in Mexico City on the 26th of each month since their sons disappeared. After five years of botched investigations, the Ayotzinapa case remains unresolved, and the students’ whereabouts are unknown. They had been attacked by police on the street of Iguala, Guerrero. Six people died that night, 43 went missing, and it remains unclear who is responsible: municipal, state, or federal police; gangs; the army; or several of those forces in coordination.

Since entering office in December, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has emphasized his commitment to justice for the disappeared. As part of the ongoing investigation reopened under López Obrador’s government, Mexico’s undersecretary of human rights, Alejandro Encinas, said last week that the attorney general would open a line of investigation into the officials who had been in charge of the case under the prior administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. But even if it finds malfeasance, the ongoing investigation is taking on a monumental task if it is to substantively address the impunity plaguing the Mexican justice system, particularly in the growing number of cases of forced disappearance.

The ongoing investigation is taking on a monumental task.

The officials to be investigated include a former attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, and the former head of the Criminal Investigation Agency, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, who said that local police had turned the students over to a local drug gang, who then burned the students’ bodies in a dump in the town of Cocula.

Their handling of the case was widely criticized by the students’ families and human rights groups. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, which the Mexican government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had called on to investigate the case, also found problems in the official story. The town dump revealed no signs of a fire of that size, several of the confessions involved in constructing the story had been extracted under torture, and much of the evidence had been mismanaged. The chain of custody of one piece of evidence in the case—a fragment of bone recovered from a plastic bag by the river—could not be verified.

Although the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts and independent journalists long believed that the military and federal government may have been involved in the students’ disappearance, until recently, the state has been slow to investigate the military’s involvement. Yet some evidence does point to it. Several security cameras from a security base in Iguala captured footage around the attacks, but the full videos have not been turned over as evidence in the investigation. The journalist Anabel Hernández presents a detailed reconstruction in her 2016 book A Massacre in Mexico that alleges the disappearance resulted from collusion between drug cartels and security forces.

The alleged involvement of high levels of the state in the incident makes it a particularly significant challenge for López Obrador. He took office late last year having made ambitious promises to eradicate corruption and transform Mexico. One of his first actions was to sign an order guaranteeing to the parents of the Ayotzinapa students that there will not be impunity in the disappearances. He created a Truth and Justice Commission to take on the case, working closely with the families to pursue new lines of investigation with respect to the students’ location. Just this month, members of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, who had wrapped up their work in 2016, returned to Mexico to continue supporting the commission’s work. At the same time, the attorney general is undertaking the judicial investigation of the case, including the probes of former officials.

The resolution of the Ayotzinapa case implies two parallel tasks: first, finding out where the students are, and second, bringing the perpetrators of the crime to justice. “The commission is principally of a humanitarian character,” said Félix Santana Ángeles, the technical secretary of the Commission. “We are trying to respond to the question of where are those young men.” To that end, Santana Ángeles said, the commission is conducting searches for the students both alive (in hospitals and detention centers) and dead (in clandestine graves). Following tips by informants, they have investigated over 200 different sites since the commission was created. Currently, experts are searching for the students in a dump in the municipality of Tepecoacuilco, Guerrero, a town about 10 miles from Iguala.

Maria Luisa Aguilar, from the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, which has worked closely with the families of the 43 students, said that the relationship between the families and the López Obrador administration is different than with the previous administration. “There’s a very significant turn in terms of the theory of the case and the way the dialogue has been handled,” she said. Despite investigators disqualifying the Peña Nieto government’s account of events, his administration continued backing the official account until the end. In contrast, López Obrador has acknowledged the inadequacy of that account and worked closely with the families to find the true version of events. Aguilar said that the work of the Truth Commission is now more coordinated with various institutions, including the secretary of defense, who was previously reluctant to participate.

Still, irregularities remain in the management of the case. Encinas told press several weeks ago that a judge had released from prison a key suspect in the case, adding to a list of several dozen suspects released, despite the investigation remaining underway.

A common refrain in the Sept. 26 march was, “No son 43, son muchos mas,” “There aren’t just 43, there are many more.” In fact, the Ayotzinapa case has brought the ongoing crisis of forced disappearance in Mexico into the public eye. Over 40,000 people have been disappeared since the beginning of Mexico’s drug war in 2008, with many disappearances linked to state forces. Violent crime has risen in Mexico this year, with murders reaching record rates. López Obrador famously claimed that his government would operate on an agenda of “abrazos, no balazos”—“hugs, not bullets.” He claimed that he would demilitarize the country, given the widespread human rights abuses resulting from the military’s deployment in the drug war. But his creation this year of the National Guard, consisting of police who undergo military training, has instead brought armed forces into the streets again.

Irene Tello Arista, the director of Impunidad Cero, a think tank focused on impunity in Mexico, questioned whether López Obrador’s commitment to addressing impunity in the Ayotzinapa case will carry over to the Mexican justice system as a whole. Tello Arista said that the treatment of the Ayotzinapa case could change the paradigm for how the government treats what she calls “networks of macrocriminality”—the criminal involvement of high-level officials, authorities, and security forces, whether by collusion or omission. The investigation of Murillo Karam and Zerón de Lucio could set a precedent for how the government takes on high-level officials’ involvement in serious crimes.

So far, though, the investigation has focused only on those who were directly involved in the attacks in Iguala, rather than examining the case up the chain of command. “It’s worrying that they are still trying to go after the material authors but not the intellectual authors,” Tello Arista said. “They need to go after not just those accused of kidnapping, but also those who gave the orders, whether the municipal police, state police or army.”

Last week’s march ended in a rally in Mexico City’s central square, where the parents of the 43 students spoke on a stage. Several directly invoked the government, calling for continued commitment to the case. “We want to say to the new government that they need to support the investigation commission, the prosecutor, the experts who are returning,” said Maria Elena Guerrero. Another parent commented on the difference between dealing with the López Obrador administration and its predecessors—but issued a note of caution. “There’s a dialogue,” he said, “but we won’t trust them until we see the facts, which will speak for themselves.”

Madeleine Wattenbarger is a journalist based in Mexico City, where she writes about human rights, politics, and culture. Twitter: @madeleinewhat

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