After his landslide victory, Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to get to the bottom of a national scandal involving the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers college, but authorities today are no closer to justice.
It’s been five years since the students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were abducted in the city of Iguala in southwest Guerrero state on the night of September 26, 2014.
Months after the disappearance, former president Enrique Peña Nieto claimed that local police had conspired with a criminal gang known as the Guerreros Unidos to detain the students. He alleged they were then killed and their bodies later burned in a massive trash dump, although forensic evidence has severely discredited this version of events.
The buses the students had taken to attend a protest in Mexico City allegedly had an important heroin shipment worth some $2 million stashed on board, prompting the response from authorities and the Guerreros Unidos. Traffickers tied to the Beltrán Leyva Organization had local security forces on their payroll and ordered them to recover the shipment, according to an investigation from Proceso.
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Federal police and the armed forces claimed not to have known anything about what transpired.
However, it has since become clear that this so-called official version was anything but the truth. The army and federal police had in fact been monitoring the students’ movements long before they arrived in Iguala, and coordinated with municipal and state police to ultimately detain them, according to investigative journalist Anabel Hernández.
What happened next remains a mystery. To this day, the bodies of the missing students have never been found, and the families still hold out hope that one day their loved ones will return home.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Ayotzinapa case has come to symbolize Mexico’s deeply rooted problems with corruption, official collusion with organized crime groups and rampant impunity. Despite committing to make the investigation a priority for his administration, President López Obrador has so far been unable to fulfill the promise he made to solve the case.
Before taking office, López Obrador requested that an international team of experts return to Mexico to examine the case and that a Truth and Justice Commission be established to reopen the investigation.
Upon taking office, the Mexican government has since offered unlimited manpower and resources for finding the disappeared, extended protection to those with information on the case and created a special prosecutor’s office to establish the whereabouts of the missing students. The Truth and Justice Commission has also come to fruition, and is composed of relatives of the disappeared, experts and officials from the López Obrador administration.
Despite making necessary headway, however, there have been some worrying developments in the case as family members demand answers.
In early September, a judge ordered that 24 local police officers arrested in connection to the case be released because they had been tortured while in custody. This came shortly after one of the alleged intellectual authors of the crime, suspected Guerreros Unidos leader Gilardo López Astudillo, alias “El Gil,” was also released from prison.
Of the 142 individuals arrested for their suspected involvement in the case, just over half remain in custody while 65 others have been freed, according to Proceso. Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero has vowed to push back against a number of these acquittals.
A 2016 report from an independent group of experts and a 2018 United Nations report accused the Mexican government of fabricating evidence, using torture to illicit confessions and covering up these abuses. A new investigation is underway to examine “serious misconduct,” including evidence tampering and other crimes possibly committed in the initial probe.
Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDH) is also demanding an investigation into 375 public officials who allegedly may have obstructed the original investigation in some way.
In a September 18 meeting with the parents of the disappeared students, Gertz Manero said that authorities cannot build off of the investigation that has been conducted up until this point and will start again from scratch.
“He [Attorney General Gertz] says … that he will support the special prosecutor [Omar Gómez] and [that] gives us hope that the doors will open again and we will move forward to continue the investigation," Cristina Bautista, the mother of one of the missing students, told Excelsior.
“This [case] is an open wound … We all have to help and contribute,” the president said during a September 18 press conference. “I urge everyone that has information to participate to heal this wound.”
President López Obrador’s willingness to reopen the investigation and his recognition of the need to start from square one are indeed positive signs. That said, answers about the full truth of what happened on that fateful night in September of 2014 still seem to be far off.