This September will mark eight years since 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College —better known as Ayotzinapa— were forcibly disappeared from the town of Iguala in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The crime has mostly been met with impunity ever since. But the actions of the Mexican government last week whetted the appetites of many who have long hungered for justice in the case of the Ayotzinapa 43.
On Thursday last week, Alejandro Encinas, head of the Commission for Truth in the Ayotzinapa Case, presented a series of conclusions that, while long understood or suspected among Mexicans, were nonetheless chilling to hear after years of government denials.
“The disappearance of the 43 students from the Normal Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa on the night of the 26th to 27th of September, 2014, constituted a crime of state, involving members of the criminal group Guerreros Unidos and agents of various institutions of the Mexican state,” Encinas said. “The actions, omissions, and participation of state and federal authorities allowed for the disappearance and execution of the students.”
No evidence exists to suggest any students remain alive, Encinas added: “On the contrary, all testimony and evidence suggest they were cunningly killed and disappeared.”
On Friday, Jesús Murillo Karam, who served as attorney general during the mass kidnapping, was arrested on charges of torture, enforced disappearance, and obstructing justice. Arrest warrants have been issued for dozens of soldiers, police officers, municipal officials, and members of Guerreros Unidos, a Guerrero-based cartel with close financial and personal ties to Iguala’s municipal government and police force.
Stephanie Brewer, Mexico director at the Washington Office on Latin America and a long-time observer of the Ayotzinapa case, says these events offer some positive signs for the future of the case under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but questions remain.
“The profile of several of the people who have now been either arrested or charged shows that prosecutors are willing to go after high-ranking former officials,” Brewer wrote in an email to Latino Rebels. “However, the big question is: what will be the concrete outcome of these accusations? Will charges and warrants translate into arrests and trials, and will those trials lead to truth and justice?”
The official —and now officially discredited— version of events advanced by Mexican officials in 2014 was that, acting alone, the corrupt mayor of Iguala handed the 43 students over to a drug gang, who then independently proceeded to kill them and burn their bodies in a trash pit in Cocula after mistaking them for members of a rival gang.
The government claimed that no federal agents were involved in the events of that night, despite the fact that the Federal Police and Mexican Army both have bases in Iguala, and despite ample documentary proof of various federal agencies’ presence and participation—uncovered by journalists, independent investigators, the Mexican judiciary, and now the Ayotzinapa truth commission.
Many factors have compounded impunity in this case. According to the Ayotzinapa commission, 26 key persons of interest in the investigation have died or been “executed.” We also know that the first official investigation of the Iguala case in 2014 and 2015 was done by the very federal agencies who committed the crime and orchestrated the coverup: the Office of the Attorney General, the Federal Police, and members of Mexico’s armed forces under former President Enrique Peña Nieto.
We know that scores of suspects were arbitrarily detained and accused without evidence of being involved as members of criminal groups. Federal agents sadistically tortured dozens of detainees in their custody. Once finished, the Peña Nieto administration worked to cover up this torture as well, while simultaneously using the trumped-up results of this investigation to spin its Cocula trash-pit story about the fate of the 43 students.
So the “historical truth” was in fact a transparent fantasy. Karam —who first advanced this narrative at a press conference, and then infamously ended his remarks by saying, “I’m tired“— is now headed to trial himself, accused of multiple serious crimes related to the events of that night.
Even in the twilight of his presidency, Peña Nieto insisted that his government’s retelling of the Iguala case should be fully trusted. He is likely to continue doing so, if not to shield himself from prosecution, then at least to shield his conscience from the gravity of this foul crime.
“The initial false investigation under the previous government has left a lot of obstacles for current investigators,” Brewer said. “What we need to see now is whether Mexico is on track to uncover the full truth, punish the perpetrators, and take all the needed measures to stop disappearances from happening, in a context of over 100,000 disappeared and missing people.”
One key culprit, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, then head of the Peña Nieto-created Criminal Investigation Agency, is today a fugitive in Israel. Zerón, along with Karam, purchased tens of millions of dollars in Israeli spyware during the Peña Nieto administration, including from the notorious NSO Group. The Pegasus malware was then reportedly used to target not only critical journalists but also independent experts convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to document the truth in the Ayotzinapa case—their findings seriously undermined the Peña Nieto government’s version of events.
According to an investigation published last week by the Israeli daily Calcalist, Zerón is currently hiding out in a luxury Tel Aviv apartment owned by a shareholder of Rayzone, an Israeli cyberintelligence company active in Mexico.
Most of the detainees tortured in the coverup that Zerón helped spin to the press were found by the United Nations to have been tortured by the Federal Ministerial Police under Zerón’s command. According to Encinas, the Mexican government in February offered Zerón’s attorneys a deal in which he would divulge information in exchange for “some legal benefit,” which they rejected.
For its part, the Israeli government seems to be somewhat reluctant to extradite Zerón. Mexico and Israel have no standing extradition agreement, and Israeli diplomats have reportedly given their Mexican counterparts the cold shoulder over the country’s support for the UN’s human rights investigations of Israel.
Given the official investigation’s deliberate mangling of the truth, there are, in some ways, even more unanswered questions now than there were in September 2014. For example, a military spy named Julio César López Patolzin was apparently secretly embedded with the Ayotzinapa students and purportedly disappeared along with them, but officials have not explained why exactly a military mole was present that night or whether they have any suspicions about his fate.
One unsavory figure who may be able to shed more light on this matter and others is the then-secretary of National Defense, Salvador Cienfuegos. While in office, Cienfuegos repeatedly refused to let journalists and investigators interview soldiers about the Iguala case, but the current administration has very openly shielded him from prosecution in the past and has signaled it will do so in this case.
Officials have in recent days named Lt. Francisco Macías Barbosa of the 27th Infantry Battalion, which is based in Iguala. Patolzin reported to Barbosa on the activities of the normalistas, and Barbosa’s soldiers admitted to internal government investigators that they were present during the enforced disappearance. This evidence was then buried to fit the “historical truth.”
Encinas has also specified that Peña Nieto’s name, like that of Cienfuegos, is not on the redacted list of 33 individuals —comprised of Guerreros Unidos members, municipal officials, and federal officials— that have been officially implicated in the disappearances. It remains unclear how this squares with the commission’s consistent assertions that responsibility for the attacks and the coverup is to be found at “the highest level of the government.”
There are still other names on the list that we don’t know, and unaddressed questions surround certain officials who are not often associated with the case. What was the role, for example, of then-Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong, or Subsecretary Luis Miranda Nava? What about Mexico City’s current top cop, Omar García Harfuch, who at the time was the state coordinator for the Federal Police in Guerrero? What did the former president’s judicial counsel, Humberto Castillejo Cervantes, do or say about all of this at the time?
Paying attention to who gets investigated and who gets punished by this new government —and who doesn’t— will only become more important as judicial actions proceed. “The exact list of perpetrators has to come from the investigation to establish who took what actions, who had knowledge of what, who failed to act as they should have,” Brewer said.
Then there’s the fundamental question of motive: What prompted this complex, coordinated operation to kidnap and likely massacre the students?
It should not be forgotten that the normalistas were on their way to commemorate the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco. The long tradition of radical left-wing activism arising from the rural teachers’ colleges had placed the Ayotzinapa students in the sights of state surveillance and repression.
Encinas also described evidence supporting the long-established theory that at least one of the buses was carrying “either drugs or money,” possibly heroin, which is the primary good trafficked out of Guerrero by Guerreros Unidos and its more powerful allies. Members of the paramilitary group known as Los Halcónes during Mexico’s dirty war against the student left have today been replaced by the halcónes, or spies, of narco syndicates.
Such are the dirty hallmarks of a “crime of state” in today’s Mexico. When the Mexican government uses criminal groups as scapegoats by portraying their actions as rogue and largely independent of state institutions —as Karam did in 2014— it is just another way to try to bury inconvenient truths.
Behind the denial is a scarier story: In Mexico, criminal syndicates and state institutions systematically conspire at all levels to benefit powerful actors and eliminate opposition, fracturing civil society and heinously violating human rights in the process. As the Mexican journalists José Luis Pardo Veiras and Íñigo Arredondo have written, “Drug trafficking is not the beginning and end of Mexico’s ills; it is a catalyst in a country with a deep history of violence and impunity.”
And Mexico is still haunted by the most important question of all: Where are the teachers—all of them?
The bitter truth is that there are many mass graves in Guerrero. Of the dozens of sets of human remains found in hidden graves near Iguala and Cocula, only three have been identified as belonging to the disappeared Ayotzinapa students. After all, how many people across Mexico were slaughtered on Peña Nieto’s watch?
Brewer says the case plays out against a far broader backdrop of injustice in Mexico, where there are now more than 100,000 people missing or disappeared.
“Mexico still does not have all of the investigative tools and databases in place that are mandated under the country’s General Law against disappearance, which came into force at the beginning of 2018,” Brewer said. “The country has a backlog of over 50,000 unidentified bodies according to the last data I’ve seen. Impunity remains the norm in the vast majority of disappearance cases. Families continue to search the country for their loved ones. So, the government needs to prioritize and deepen actions to bring this crisis to an end and do justice for families including but reaching far beyond the Ayotzinapa case.”
Time has not run out. The truth commission has named a number of sites —lagoons, riverbanks, the outskirts of villages— where it remains imperative to continue searching for the students’ remains. These searches should not only continue unimpeded, but should indeed intensify.
Only public scrutiny of new evidence can ensure the robustness of truth and reconciliation in this case. Only when all 43 students have been found can Mexico finally hope for a rare taste of justice—never complete, and always bittersweet.
Suhail Gharaibeh Gonzalez is an incoming master’s student at Columbia University and was a deputy news editor at Washington Square News. Twitter: @suhailgharaibeh