Forced Disappearance in Mexico – The Ayotzinapa Case
“I left home to take the streets,
to rebuke the bad government,
to scream your name,
to unmask the perversity of power
and to show that our lineage
is like the oak that does not rot or twist.
(…) I only know that I never forget your name.
That I breathe because your heart beats in my chest.
You Will Return Like The Autumn Rain – Fathers and Mothers of the 43
According to the Mexican Federation of Public Human Rights Organisms, 105,871 missing persons have been reported in Mexico since 1964, a figure that includes episodes such as the Dirty War in Guerrero and the Zapatista conflict in Chiapas.
In 2014, the news of the forced disappearance of 43 students from the “Raul Isidro Burgos” Normal Rural School in Ayotzinapa shook the country, not only for visibilizing at national and international levels the human rights crisis that was being experienced, but also for exposing a State that made illegitimate and disproportionate use of force to repress student and social movements.
What happened between September 26th and 27th, 2014, was part of the actions in preparation for the commemorative marches of October 2nd, 1968, the date on which the capital’s riot police and the military brutally intervened in the repression of a group of university students in Tlatelolco, ending countless numbers of their lives. No one could have suspected that a new chapter in the history of the Ayotzinapa Normal Rural School was opening on that day.
Government Interest in the Student Teachers
Two months after the disappearance of the 43, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) made a technical assistance agreement with the Mexican State and the representatives of the disappeared students official. It appointed the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (IGIE) for technical cooperation in the search, investigations, and actions related to the case, in order to punish those responsible; and for assistance to the families of the disappeared.
In their first report they highlight that, like many normal schools in Mexico, the “Raul Isidro Burgos” had a relevant presence in the political and public life of the state. It should be remembered that, for decades, the socio-political context in Guerrero has been characterized by serious human rights violations such as torture, displacement and forced disappearance, linked, among others, to the presence of criminal groups.
Based on the evidence, it was shown that, on the day of the events, the Center for Investigation and National Security (CISEN) was monitoring the students during the entire journey from when they left the school for Iguala. CISEN was informed in real time of what was happening, but did not share this information with the authorities in charge of the investigation, nor is there evidence that any specific search activity had been carried out with it.
However, in February 2022, the group of experts revealed that the students were constantly monitored by the authorities for at least ten years, not only externally, but also that the Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA) infiltrated intelligence agents, who in turn were students in Ayotzinapa. At the time of the events in 2014, at least three agents were active in the School, one of them disappeared along with the students.
None of the reports from the informants made any reference to possible activities linked to drug trafficking by the students, but rather to control of protest activities, assemblies and other activities carried out by the students. However, the IGIE said that there is a hypothesis that one of those buses was loaded with drugs, which could explain the interest that both authorities and organized crime had in the students.
The “Historical Truth”
During the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, a version was created that the students had been detained by the Cocula municipal police and handed over to members of the Guerreros Unidos criminal group. Later they would have been deprived of their liberty and murdered. The charred remains of the youths were presumably thrown into the river making their identification impossible.
Two key players in the creation of the well-known “historical truth” are former prosecutor Jesus Murillo Karam, who is said to be in charge of disseminating this version based on torture and alteration of evidence, and Tomas Zeron de Lucio, who, as mentioned by La Montaña Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Guerrero, was “the instrument that the State used to construct the historical truth.” Murillo Karam is currently in custody, while Tomas Zeron de Lucio is in the process of being extradited from Canada.
Despite the fact that this controversial version was questioned at the time by the relatives and by an investigation by the IACHR and the IGIE – who pointed out that the bodies could not have been burned in that place – it was not until 2018, with the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that this version could be discarded and the case reopened. In addition, the identification of the unburned remains of Christian Rodriguez and Jhosivani Guerrero between 2020 and 2021 supported the IGIE version.
On the other hand, in one of the reports of the Commission for the Truth and Access to Justice of the Ayotzinapa Case (COVAJ), the Undersecretary of Human Rights, Population and Migration of the Secretary of the Interior (SEGOB), Alejandro Encinas, said that the “historical truth” was designed by the Presidency of the Republic of Enrique Peña Nieto. Encinas explained that various officials, from all levels of government, participated in meetings led by the federal Executive to operate the official version on the forced disappearance of the students: “That is where it will be necessary to locate not only the design, but particularly the operation and the implementation of these actions, that in many cases there is a presumption of alteration of the crime scene and particularly what is fully accredited is having created a truth based on acts of torture”, he stated.
Vidulfo Rosales, lawyer for the parents of the 43, said that the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) carried out a premeditated investigation to “disguise the crime committed in Iguala.” He assured that fundamental evidence was erased to cut the threads that led to the responsibility of the highest levels of public power.
“Not only is it an irregular investigation, it is not an investigation in which officials accidentally committed torture, manipulated evidence, separated evidence. Rather, their objective was to cut the threads that led us to the military and to the highest hierarchies of the military authorities; they were the threads that led us to the real culprits and to the true whereabouts of our 43″, declared Tlachinollan’s lawyer.
The Army, an Almost Untouchable Power in the Ayotzinapa Case
After the COVAJ report, 83 arrest warrants were issued that included 20 soldiers and Murillo Karam, all accused of crimes such as forced disappearance, organized crime and against the administration of justice. However, 16 of those 20 orders were cancelled. So far, the only soldiers detained for their alleged responsibility in the disappearance of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa are General Jose Rodriguez Perez, Captain Jose Martinez Crespo, Second Lieutenant Fabian Alejandro Pirota Ochoa and Sergeant Eduardo Mota Esquivel.
Although the fathers and mothers of the 43 have recognized that there has been progress in the case during the current administration, they consider that Lopez Obrador continues with his commitment to protect the army despite the fact that there is evidence of its participation in the events in 2014. An example of this is the questioning of mothers and fathers “because they are supposedly generating a set of actions with the intention of wanting to discredit a military institution”, said Vidulfo Rosas, Tlachinollan lawyer.
This, after the Secretary of Defense declared that “there are perverse interests in wanting to create distrust in the armed forces because we are saying that they are murderers, that they unfoundedly infiltrate social movements and that they should answer for serious violations of human rights.” Vidulfo Rosales said that these statements are worrying “because it gives a direct message so that the military should not be touched.”
At the rally for the anniversary of the disappearance of the students, one of the parents lamented that the minimum progress that could be made with this government fell apart when it got to the point of reaching the army “everyone passed the ball (…). What is the President doing when he sees that the Attorney General of the Republic withdraws the arrest warrants? They blame the judges, they blame the prosecutor, but among themselves they do nothing”, he said.
The confirmation that the disappearance of the students in 2014 was a State crime was thanks to the IGIE report of August 2022, where the participation of CISEN, the Federal and State Police of Guerrero and the 27th and 41st Infantry Battalions of the Army in Iguala was shown, assigned to the command of the 35th Military Zone in Chilpancingo (which depended on the IXth Military Region), as well as commanders of the Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA) and the Navy.
“We demand that the government arrest those who participated on the 26th and early morning of the 27th in the disappearance of our children. (…) It seems that the military are untouchable. Now a delinquent is taken care of more than the students”, said the mother of one of the disappeared students.
From the Most Recent Findings of the IGIE
At a press conference on October 31st, 2022, the IGIE presented the results of a technical expertise that proves that 181 of the 467 screenshots presented by the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa (COVAJ) case in its report in August 2022 “have no veracity, since they do not guarantee their originality and therefore cannot be considered as reliable digital proof”.
La Montaña Tlachinollan Human Rights Center recalled that this request came from the parents of the 43 students after the strong conclusions presented in the COVAJ report in the middle of the year. The report confirmed that the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural college constituted a State crime; that there was omission and negligence on the part of federal and state authorities of the highest level with respect to the truth of the facts; and “that there is no indication that the students are alive. Rather, all the testimonies and evidence prove that the students were cunningly killed and disappeared”, according to the statements of Alejandro Encinas.
After two months, the IGIE analyzed the screenshots and revealed that the metadata shows a difference in the dates the messages were captured and sent; but also in functions of the versions of WhatsApp that were not yet available between 2014 and 2015. The IGIE said that “the attempt by the Mexican Government to speed up the results of the Ayotzinapa case (…) generates greater uncertainty and “enormous malaise”, and puts the investigation at risk. For this reason, the IGIE reported that a proposal was presented to the Federal Government that means their partial departure from Mexico.
Carlos Beristain, a member of the IGIE, said that “the credibility of the institutions is at stake in Ayotzinapa. Mexico has an opportunity to demonstrate that political will together with the independence and consistency in the investigation are determining factors for the justice that the relatives demand (…)” … “Enforced disappearance is not closed until the right to the truth of the victims and to know the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared has been responded to.”
In the following days, the lawyers of the four imprisoned soldiers accused the head of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice (COVAJ), Alejandro Encinas, before the Attorney General of the Republic, for the alleged crime of fabricating evidence to incriminate their clients. In this regard, the Miguel Agustin Pro-Juarez Human Rights Center, which has been accompanying the relatives of the victims, declared that “the lawyers seek to confuse with their statements”, and to do so “with the consent of the command” and affirmed that “the non-verification of parts of the COVAJ report does not detract from the accusation evidence on collusion between drug traffickers and the 27th Battalion”.
The NGO affirmed that “the Army is not incorruptible”, and showed alleged text messages from members of the criminal group, Guerreros Unidos, included in the report of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (IGIE) as proof of their collusion with the military. It also said that this evidence was not used to prosecute the cases carried out by the Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case (UEILCA), with which 83 arrest warrants were issued, including those of the four soldiers.
For their part, the lawyers for the military also requested the resignation of Alejandro Encinas for presenting the report of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice, considering that it “contains false evidence.” In a conference, the lawyer for the military, Cesar Omar Gonzalez Hernandez, described the report as “lack of rigor, prepared with questionable evidence.”
In turn, Alejandro Encinas, through a video, assured: “I must be clear, those who accuse me today are part of those who, linked to other authorities and organized crime, perpetrated the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Behind them are those who intend to maintain impunity in this case.”
Ayotzinapa, the Right to Truth
The case of the 43 students reveals many realities that are experienced in Mexico, not only the disappeared normal student teachers, but it also gave proof of the degree of corruption and impunity that exists in the country. The complicity of authorities with organized crime groups, transcended to torture, persecution, criminalization of the students for years, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearance.
The coming and going of the investigations has hindered progress in the case. The mothers and fathers of the student teachers have had to live with the weight of a lie gestated by a government where in many cases “there is a presumption of alteration of the crime scene and particularly what is fully accredited is having created a truth based on acts of torture”, said Alejandro Encinas.
Currently, the information regarding the participation of different military commanders and the almost inaction of the Federal Government, judges and the Attorney General’s Office on the arrest warrants of those responsible maintains the indignation of the relatives, the media, civil society organizations and the population in general due to the lack of response and access to the truth. Their concern over the Federal Government’s inclination towards the military makes it increasingly difficult to punish those responsible.
With Ayotzinapa, the massiveness of the attack is evident, the number of victims and the level of aggression were disproportionate compared to the degree of threat that the taking of buses by the students could represent. In addition to a complex and coordinated action by the perpetrators who, according to the investigations, it ranged from municipal police officers to high command of the army and the Federal Government.
Eight years after the unfortunate events, many versions have been put forward about what happened that night in Iguala. However, none of them has led to clarifying the facts, knowing the whereabouts of the students, much less punishing those responsible.
Original article by SIPAZ at https://www.sipaz.org/focus-forced-disappearance-in-mexico-the-ayotzinapa-case/?lang=en