Mexico: one step closer to justice for the missing 43?
Eight years after the disappearance and presumed killing of 43 students, the Mexican government has admitted that this was a state-sponsored crime. Accused on engineering a cover-up, Mexico’s former attorney general has been arrested, and warrants have been issued for 82 other suspects, including state officials, military and police personnel and gang members. While the latest developments bring the families of the missing students one step closer to justice, many questions remain about the students’ fate, who else took part in the murders and their cover-up and who ultimately gave the orders that likely ended 43 lives. The fight for truth and accountability is far from over.
Justice is a long time coming for the families of the 43 students kidnapped and disappeared in September 2014 in Guerrero state, southwest Mexico. The students were on their way back to Ayotzinapa from the town of Iguala when they were abducted and presumably killed in an operation that involved state agents and members of Guerreros Unidos, a criminal gang.
Eight years on, only bone fragments from three missing students have been found and the sequence of events that unfolded on the night of 26 September remains unclear. But recent revelations point to a government cover-up: the former attorney general who headed the original 2014 investigation, Jesús Murillo Karam, has been arrested. He’s accused of ignoring and altering evidence and fabricating a version of events that placed all the blame on local police and organised criminals, while absolving the state authorities and senior security force members of all responsibility.
Additional arrest warrants have been issued for 82 people, including military commanders and personnel, police officers and local officials. This is by far the most significant step to date towards holding those responsible to account.
A night of infamy
On the night of 26 September 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were headed back home from Iguala, where they had seized some buses they planned to use for a trip to Mexico City. There, they were to take part in a commemoration of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which armed forces opened fire on unarmed civilians, many of them students, who were protesting against Mexico’s hosting of the Olympics.
The Ayotzinapa students’ buses were intercepted by municipal police and unidentified gunmen who fired on the vehicles. About 25 to 30 students were removed from the buses and driven away in police trucks.
A second ambush came as witnesses attempted to collect evidence and contact the media. Masked gunmen attacked and abducted more students. The next morning, six people were found dead, 25 were reported wounded, and 57 students were reported missing. Thirteen students returned home on 30 September 2014, but 43 remained unaccounted for. A military informant who had infiltrated the group was also abducted and disappeared.
According to early official reports, Iguala police officers handed over the abducted men to officers in the neighbouring town of Cocula, who then delivered them to Guerreros Unidos. But later, independent investigations revealed that various state officials, including from the military and police, played a much bigger role throughout, working hand in hand with the criminal gang to disappear the students and then cover their tracks.
The Ayotzinapa case is part of a much bigger problem of enforced disappearances in Mexico. These have happened for years and numbers continue to grow.
Despite several arrests and a few convictions, much still isn’t known about the events. A clear motive hasn’t been determined, although several theories have been put forward. These include the suggestion that the students refused to pay extortion money to Guerreros Unidos, the buses they had seized were carrying Guerreros Unidos contraband, and the attack came in backlash for an intended protest during a speech given by the wife of Iguala’s mayor.
The whereabouts of the students remain unknown, but they have long been presumed dead. Their families continue to demand truth and justice.
Initial investigation falls short
Reports indicate that 280 municipal police officers in Iguala were called in for questioning soon after the incident. Almost all were released without charge, but 22 were detained for using excessive or deadly force against the students. Members of Guerreros Unidos – including gang leader Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado – were arrested within a month of the disappearances, and by November, the fugitive mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife were taken into custody on accusations of ordering the attack.
This early response seemed to suggest that investigations would be thorough and all involved, including state representatives, would be held accountable. But this was not to be the case. By 2015, accusations of a cover-up began swirling and the initial report, which claimed that the students’ bodies had been incinerated in a landfill, was rejected by their families. Its conclusion was dismissed by forensic scientists from both the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Group.
Then-president Enrique Peña Nieto sought to discredit the independent experts’ findings and actively obstructed the IACHR’s investigation. A 2018 United Nations (UN) report found that witnesses had been tortured and intimidated to suppress evidence. New information published in 2022 by the official Truth Commission established that government officials had knowledge of the military’s involvement but lied.
El Informe de la Presidencia de la Comisión para la Verdad y Acceso a la Justicia del Caso Ayotzinapa se lee en conjunto con sus ocho anexos.— Alejandro Encinas (@A_Encinas_R) August 21, 2022
Consúltalos aquí👇🏻https://t.co/ia4BGEcdPH pic.twitter.com/l9boPH7yPY
Fight for justice
Over the years, dozens of protests have demanded a proper investigation of the disappearance and for those involved to be brought to justice. The first big protest, held on 8 October 2014, saw 15,000 people marching together in Mexico City. People in at least 25 Mexican states mobilised that day, and more continued to do so as the movement grew across the country and around the world.
On 5 November 2014, Mexican student groups organised a Global Day of Action for Ayotzinapa in Mexico City, which according to police was attended by up to 60,000 people. Fifteen days later, over 100,000 marched in Mexico City, with protests held in 250 other Mexican cities and abroad, making them the largest protests to date demanding justice for the disappeared students. In the first year following the abductions, 38 days of mass protests were held in various cities, with numbers often reaching tens of thousands.
Government workers participated in strikes and hundreds of local volunteers joined public searches for the students in the weeks after their disappearance.
Members of the victims’ families led several protests. Even as the size of the demonstrations dwindled over time, families maintained their presence. On the 26th of every month, they continued to take to the streets alongside hundreds of others to demand justice. Their resilience has been a big part of what kept hopes for the truth remained alive through years of attempted cover-up.
Social media has also been used to mobilise support. Hashtags such as #AccionGlobalporAyotzinapa (‘Global action for Ayotzinapa’), #CompartimosElDolor (‘We share the pain’) and #AyotzinapaSomosTodos (‘We are all Ayotzinapa’) offered key rallying points.
Local civil society organisations (CSOs), including student groups and labour unions, were heavily involved in organising protests and offering help. Among those active are Tlachinollan, which has provided legal and moral support to the relatives of the disappeared, Comité Cerezo, which has helped report state repression of activists, and Serapaz, which has also supported families of the disappeared and proposed a draft law against enforced disappearance.
International organisations and CSOs have also played a role. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among the first international organisations to condemn the disappearance and demand a quick response from the authorities. Less than two weeks later, 101 national and international CSOs released a joint statement condemning the incident and calling upon the government to take action. In the USA, a civil society coalition organised a tour by the families of the disappeared in April 2015 to raise awareness of the case. The IACHR helped to hold the government accountable, derailing state cover-up attempts by conducting its own investigation.
El reconocimiento que los hechos acontecidos el 26 de septiembre es un Crimen de Estado es significativo ya que evidencia que diversas entidades municipales, estatales, federales y militares que participaron en la desaparición de nuestros hijos. https://t.co/W79Lqd1yxx pic.twitter.com/nZ5ZwBL68q— Tlachinollan CDHM (@Tlachinollan) August 27, 2022
Hopes for justice
Two days after taking office in December 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador fulfilled a major campaign promise by signing the decree that established a Truth Commission charged with investigating the disappearance.
As part of the investigation, arrest warrants were issued for soldiers involved in the case for the first time on 26 September 2020. On 18 August 2022, the Truth Commission presented its report declaring that the disappearance was a state crime orchestrated jointly by Guerreros Unidos and agents from several state institutions.
The Commission analysed over 41,000 documents and 50 videos showing the tortures that detainees involved in the case were subjected to. It rejected the previous administration’s claim that the students’ bodies had been incinerated at a nearby landfill and, in a bombshell revelation, disclosed that six of the students remained alive for days after their abduction but were then turned over to the local army, where Colonel José Rodríguez Pérez ordered their killing.
Following the release of the Commission’s report, the prosecutor’s office announced the arrest of Murillo Karam. As the architect of the previous government’s narrative about the case, he is set to stand trial on charges of enforced disappearance, not reporting torture and official misconduct. The prosecutor’s office revealed that warrants had been issued for 82 further people: 20 military personnel, 43 police officers, 14 members of Guerreros Unidos and five local officials from Guerrero state.
President López Obrador has promised to continue searching for the truth and vowed that those responsible will be prosecuted. But the fight is not over yet: in a joint statement, the families of the 43 expressed relief at the official admission of the government’s involvement but insisted that the report left many questions unanswered.
An uncertain road ahead
Families want conclusive proof of their loved ones’ fate. They want to know who exactly gave the order for their disappearance, something the Commission’s report doesn’t say. They demand full disclosure of the military’s role.
While the arrests and warrants offer a positive signal, they may not be reaching all the way to the top of the chain of command. There have been convictions in the past, but none so far of anybody who played a direct role in the students’ disappearance. It isn’t known whether Colonel Rodríguez Pérez is among those being sought in the latest round of arrest warrants.
Some have seen in the Commission’s report a recognition that the case may never be solved. Systematic evidence tampering and obstruction of justice under the previous administration may make it unlikely. And, despite López Obrador’s assurances, the current administration may want to underplay the military’s involvement and limit scrutiny.
The Ayotzinapa case is part of a much bigger problem of enforced disappearances in Mexico. These have happened for years and numbers continue to grow. Evidence points at dense networks of corruption and complicity involving public officials, police and military officers and organised crime, but impunity prevails, particularly among the top ranks.
In the case of the missing 43, the very visible public response has pushed the government to act. López Obrador made an election promise and has shown some willingness to follow through. But in a country where journalists have been killed for reporting on the case, there are clear limits on people’s ability to exert public pressure, and López Obrador isn’t making it any easier.
The same president who set up the Truth Commission is now directing intensified attacks at Mexico’s already heavily restricted civic space. He should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, and instead strive to be remembered for doing something quite unprecedented: challenging impunity and delivering justice for the dead, the missing and those who remain.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must make every effort to determine the fate and find the remains of the missing students, and make all findings public.
The government must hold all perpetrators and collaborators to account, including those at the higher ranks who ordered the crime.
The government should work to root out corruption and rebuild public trust in government institutions.
Mexico is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Cover photo by Reuters/Henry Romero via Gallo Images