Mexican authorities said in January they had established the “historical truth” of what happened to 43 students who disappeared in one night last September in the city of Iguala. A growing chorus of witnesses, family members, journalists and independent experts beg to differ.
According to the Mexican federal investigation’s account of events, the students from Ayotzinapa teachers school were abducted by corrupt local police in Iguala on Sept. 26, and slaughtered by members of Guerreros Unidos, a local drug gang. Mexico’s then-attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, said in January that all leads in the case had been exhausted, signaling that the bulk of the government’s investigation was over.
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission recently listed 32 problems with the government’s investigation -- including witnesses who were never questioned, key evidence left unexamined, and the failure to build basic profiles of the victims. The report bolsters the questions of many critics of the government’s case, which has become a rallying cry for those furious with the corruption, impunity and drug violence in Mexico. The families of the missing students refuse to accept their sons’ deaths until their remains are found.
Mexican criminal justice expert Layda Negrete said that by presenting such problematic evidence as truth, the authorities are reinforcing the lack of transparency and right to a fair trial in Mexico's deeply flawed justice system. Negrete pointed to one survey that found just 26 percent of Mexicans believe justice will be done in the case.
“On an individual level, I find it very sad. As a country, I think it’s dangerous not to have avenues to be heard, like the justice system," she told The WorldPost.
In a case riddled with complexity and confusion, The WorldPost lays out the Mexican government’s account of events and the serious holes that remain.
The government’s case
Iguala’s municipal police, in collusion with the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, opened fire on the students in at least three separate attacks after the students commandeered several buses to take to an upcoming protest. Amidst the attacks, the local police officers abducted 43 of the students and took them to Iguala’s police station. Then, police from the nearby municipality of Cocula drove them to an area called Loma de Los Coyotes and handed them over to gang members.
Mexico’s government said no federal forces were involved, so there's no need to investigate their role. Mexico’s national defense secretary said that the Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion, stationed a few miles from Iguala, did not find out about the attacks until hours after they began, and were misled by the municipal police commander when they tried to investigate.
The government said it has dozens of confessions to support its case, including those of local police officers and three cartel members who admitted to carrying out the killings.
- Students who survived the attacks that night said they saw federal police at the scene.
- In cellphone footage recorded by students on one bus attacked that night, someone can be heard shouting out: “The police [municipal forces] are leaving! The federales [federal forces] are staying, they’re going to want to mess with us.” The footage is too dark to identify the attackers or their uniforms.
- Magistrate Judge Bernabé García said the students never came to Iguala’s municipal police station, where he was stationed throughout the night of the attacks. García is wanted by Mexico in connection with the attacks, and is now seeking asylum in the U.S.
- Records uncovered by investigative journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher appear to show that federal forces were made aware of the attacks that night. A command center that is used by military, federal and local security forces, called the Center of Control, Command, Communications and Computation, or C4, was monitoring the students’ movements from the moment they left their college and communications show that the first attack was reported to the center.
- Federal forces were patrolling the streets that night. Military logs obtained by Mexican magazine Proceso showed the 27th Battalion’s Reaction Force came across the wounded students at a hospital, but did not report any unusual activity to their superiors.
- Hernández and Fisher obtained medical records suggesting that key witnesses, including cartel members and over two dozen municipal police officers, were beaten and given electric shocks in order to extract their confessions.
- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is now looking into the case, said they heard “numerous” accounts of abuse and torture from the suspects and that at least a dozen detainees have lodged complaints of torture or due process violations with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
- While it’s not uncommon to have conflicting testimonies in complex investigations, Hernandez and Fisher obtained the depositions and confessions from the federal probe, and found that they contradict each other over basic facts like when and how the students were abducted.
The government’s case
The federal investigation claims that the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, masterminded the attacks.
Pineda was holding a political event in town that was meant to launch her own political career, and Abarca wanted to prevent the students from disrupting it, federal investigators said. A local police official told them he overheard Abarca order police to "teach them a lesson." Pineda and Abarca were captured by Mexican authorities in November after going on the run.
In their January summary of the case, federal authorities added another element -- claiming that another reason Guerreros Unidos targeted the students, in collaboration with local authorities, was because they believed them to be members of a rival drug gang, Los Rojos.
- Pineda’s political event was already finished two hours before the first attack took place.
- Mexican authorities have had trouble getting charges to stick against Pineda. She is charged with links to organized crime, but other charges connected to the missing students have been thrown out for lack of evidence. Abarca was charged with the kidnapping of the students, but denies the allegations.
- Another investigation by Proceso found serious inconsistencies in the case against Abarca, and doubts about the credibility of the main witness against Pineda.
- It is not clear how the Guerreros Unidos members misidentified the students as members of a rival gang. The leader of Guerreros Unidos claimed that the students had been infiltrated by Los Rojos members, but his confession was riddled with inconsistencies, including placing the students in Iguala several hours before they actually arrived. The Ayotzinapa students and victims' families strongly deny that the students had anything to do with the cartel.
The government's case
The students were crammed into two police trucks and driven to the Cocula municipal dump, according to government investigators. Many of them died on the way, possibly from asphyxiation, while those who made it to the site were interrogated and shot dead.
The gang members incinerated their bodies and belongings in a fire that burned until the following afternoon. Then the cartel members put the ashes in garbage bags and dumped them in the San Juan river.
Investigators said they found evidence of a fire and ballistics from the scene. They also recovered a bone fragment from the site that the University of Innsbruck in Austria matched to the DNA of one student, 19-year-old Alexander Mora.
- The victims’ families insisted that an independent party join the investigation, and the government agreed to work with a team of forensic experts from Argentina. However, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) strongly criticized the government for not notifying them before they extracted the bone fragment and other evidence from the site, so that they could confirm the "chain of custody" of the evidence -- a critical forensic procedure to establish the origin and authenticity of evidence.
- The EAAF released pictures showing several fires burning at the site since 2010, meaning the charred evidence of a huge fire on the site could date from an earlier time.
- The EAAF also said the site was left unguarded for three weeks after the remains were found there, leaving the possibility that evidence could have been compromised.
- Residents said it was raining that night in the area, which would have impeded such a huge fire. Mexican authorities dismissed the reports, saying at most “isolated showers” took place.
- The government said no one would have witnessed the fire because it was at such a remote site. But flight records show that a helicopter searched the area that night, but saw no plume of smoke, according to The Intercept.
- Mexican scientists said it would not have been possible to burn that number of bodies in that amount of space in such a short period of time.
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