The Mexican army monitored the movements of 43 students who later went missing for hours before the students were first attacked, and was present when many of them were abducted, according to an investigative report published Sunday in the Mexican magazine Proceso.
The report contradicts claims by the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, which has repeatedly said the military was not in the streets of Iguala the night the students were abducted there and that federal officials knew nothing about the attacks as they occurred. The report, by journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, also unearthed evidence that soldiers from the 27th battalion of the Mexican army may have fired at the students during the attacks.
The Proceso piece tears more holes in Mexican prosecutors’ widely criticized investigation of the Sept. 26 attacks against the students. The federal government’s handling of the case was one of the key events that plunged Peña Nieto’s approval ratings into a downward spiral from which it hasn’t emerged.
Former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said in January that local police attacked a group of more than 100 students, abducted the missing 43, and later handed them off to a local drug gang called Guerreros Unidos, which incinerated their bodies in a garbage dump in the neighboring town of Cocula.
But several members of the 27th battalion told prosecutors in depositions that they were patrolling the streets of Iguala the night of the attacks and that they began tracking the students hours before the first shots were fired. The reporters obtained the depositions using Mexican transparency laws after a months-long legal battle. The attorney general's office redacted nearly all of the names of the interviewed military members.
“We received the order from [name redacted]: ‘arm yourselves, we’re going out,’” one of the soldiers said in depositions. “He told us, ‘get [expletive] ready because there’s armed personnel that are going around killing people.”
(The documents, in Spanish, are below.)
Prosecutors with the attorney general’s office didn’t ask the several dozen members of the military interviewed if they participated in the attack, despite the fact that they were present, the report says.
Hernández, a journalist who has spent the last decade investigating organized crime and political corruption in Mexico, told The Huffington Post that the glaring omission exemplified the recurring problems with the government’s investigation into what happened to the missing students. Though the attorney general’s office has blamed the crime on a drug gang, and eyewitnesses say people wearing plain clothes fired shots during the attacks against the students, soldiers and military officials questioned by prosecutors never refer to the presence of suspected criminals on the streets that night, according to the documents obtained by Hernández and Fisher.
“In none of the reports, in none of the depositions do they mention criminal groups operating in the streets,” Hernández told HuffPost. “It’s as if only the authorities were involved."
Neither the office of the presidency nor the attorney general’s office immediately responded to HuffPost requests by phone and email for comment about the Proceso report.
Other evidence cited by the reporters indicates that the military may have fired rounds themselves. Investigators found dozens of 7.62-caliber bullet casings at the scene of the attack, according to a copy of their report from the crime scene obtained by Hernández and Fisher. Those shells belong to G3 assault rifles used by the army in the state of Guerrero, where the attacks took place, but not by local police, according to the report.
Hernández told HuffPost the evidence showed it was “likely” that the military fired. “But they never carried out the necessary tests to find out,” Hernández said.
The 27th battalion refused to let police do a complete inspection of the local military base to see if the missing students had been detained there, the report says. Families of the missing students and human rights groups also demanded to inspect the base but were denied. Forensic experts were not able to examine the weapons carried by the military on the streets of Iguala that night to determine if they had been fired, Hernández said.
Proceso published the piece the same day that a panel of experts fielded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a separate report concluding that key portions of the Peña Nieto administration’s investigation were incorrect. The IACHR report also concluded that the military was on the streets of Iguala at the time of the attacks, despite the Peña Nieto administration’s insistence that the military played no role in the attacks.
The IACHR report said it was not possible that the students bodies were incinerated at the garbage dump in Cocula, as the attorney general's office says, because such a huge fire would have left visible damage to the area. The report says the evidence isn't consistent even with a small fire capable of incinerating one body.
Mexican authorities said they would conduct a new forensic report on the Cocula dumpster in response to the IACHR panel’s results.
"This case remains open," the statement reads. "The investigation continues, the search for the young students is moving forward, and it will be the courts who determine when this should finish and who will give the final conclusion."
Amnesty International said in a statement that the IACHR report highlighted Mexican officials’ “utter incompetence and lack of will to find the students and bring those responsible to justice.”
Hernández and Fisher, both fellows at the University of California at Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, have published a series of investigative pieces that cast serious doubts on Mexican prosecutor’s explanation of what happened to the missing students.
Hernández and Fisher found evidence that Mexican authorities tortured several key witnesses upon which prosecutors have based their case, making it unlikely that the evidence would be admitted in court.
In December, the journalists published cell phone videos taken by surviving students that indicated the federal police might have been present during one of the attacks, contrary to the government’s account. That story also revealed that federal authorities knew about the attacks in real time through a system called the C4 that centralizes communications between the military, and the federal and local police forces.
The reporters also located a magistrate judge who spent the entire night in the Iguala police station and says the students were never brought there, as officials with the Peña Nieto administration have insisted.