The final report released by the panel of international experts charged with investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico at the hands of a criminal organization reiterates a little-discussed theory: that the students were attacked by security forces because they were riding a bus used to traffic drugs and money.
The report, compiled by a team of five investigators appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), further discredits the Mexican government's version of what happened one night in September 2014 in the small town of Iguala in Guerrero state, when 43 student protestors were last seen in the hands of municipal police before they disappeared.
The government initially said corrupt police handed over the students to local criminal group the Guerreros Unidos, who proceeded to kill and burn the youths in a trash dump. In a previous report released last year, the investigators said such a scenario was impossible. Those assertions were backed up by other independent scientific studies conducted at the dump.
The investigators' newest report, released on April 24, does not shed light on many of the core mysteries of the Iguala tragedy -- not the least of which is what happened to the missing students. It does, though, provide a wealth of detail on how the Mexican government -- particularly the Attorney General's Office -- obstructed and delayed the investigation. Also included are extensive medical reports showing how 17 of the government's witnesses were tortured, further detracting credibility from the government's case.
However, the IACHR investigators do reiterate one theory that could explain why security forces in Iguala responded so aggressively to the student protestors: one of the buses hijacked by the youths may have been used to smuggle drugs to the US. Here are four questions regarding that fifth bus.
1) Drug-Smuggling Buses?
The night of the Iguala disappearances, the students -- following a long-running tradition of their rural teacher's college -- hijacked five buses and planned to commandeer them to a protest in Mexico City. After such hijackings, students typically returned these buses safely and, as The New York Times reported, "The bus companies and the authorities mostly tolerated it."
But there was no tolerance the night of the mass kidnappings. Instead, police launched an aggressive, wide-ranging offensive against the students. They set up multiple road blocks on the northern and southern sides of Iguala, and began firing tear gas and bullets at the student buses. In the confusion, police even fired on a bus carrying teenage soccer players, killing two people, as well as cars and taxis transporting other civilians, killing and wounding several more. The police were also seen herding away 43 students, 41 of which still have not been found.
What provoked this aggressive response to a student tradition that was, as the Times said, "mostly tolerated?" The government's version of events includes several theories. The first is that the police were acting on orders from the town mayor, who did not want the students to interrupt a political event that night. Additionally, government witnesses linked to the criminal group that allegedly disappeared the students, the Guerreros Unidos, testified that the students had been "infiltrated" by a rival gang, and the police may have "confused" the students with drug traffickers. In other documents related to the investigation, the government implied that the students instigated the violence by throwing rocks at officers, and thus the police chose to respond with force.
However, as the IACHR investigators wrote in their reports, it may be that the security forces wanted to do everything they could to ensure the buses -- or perhaps a particular bus -- did not leave Iguala. The intensity of the violence directed against the students may have actually been aimed at paralyzing all traffic along Iguala's major highway, investigators hypothesize.
The theory is in part based on US court documents viewed by investigators that accuse a Chicago-based drug trafficker of collaborating with the Guerreros Unidos in moving heroin and cocaine from Mexico to Illinois in commercial buses. This organization built hidden compartments in the vehicles where they stashed their drug shipments when the buses moved north, and cash from drug sales when they came back south.
Could it be that the students picked the wrong bus that night?
The five buses hijacked by the students came from three bus lines -- two Costa Line buses, two Estrella de Oro buses (whose passengers included the 41 missing students), and one Estrella Roja bus.
None of these bus lines have been identified by law enforcement as involved in heroin trafficking networks, investigators found. But, as stated in the reports, investigators did confirm that Iguala is a major heroin-trafficking hub, and that commercial buses have passed through or left the city loaded with illicit drugs bound for the US.
However, as it was in the investigative lines inquiry, investigators were thwarted by Mexican government officials. When they asked Mexico's Attorney General's Office for information on previous cases involving heroin trafficking through Iguala, they were told that none existed, the reports state.
2) The "Fifth" Bus
Inconsistencies in the government's version of events also support the hypothesis that the students unknowingly hijacked a bus used by drug smugglers, the IACHR investigators wrote in their two reports.
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One of the biggest inconsistencies has to do with the so-called "fifth bus" -- the only Estrella Roja bus hijacked by the students. According to Mexico's Attorney General's Office, the clash between students and police only involved four buses -- the fifth one was allegedly abandoned and destroyed by students shortly after they left the bus station. Other government documents related to the investigation -- including those issued by the country's main organized crime investigative unit -- do not even mention the existence of a fifth bus.
However, investigators found no solid evidence to support such assertions, nor were they able to secure any explanation from the Attorney General's Office as to why this element of the investigation was overlooked.
All 14 students on the Estrella Roja bus testified that their vehicle -- the "fifth" bus -- was the last one selected, and the last to leave the Iguala bus terminal. They headed southwards, and made it to Iguala's Palace of Justice, where one of the Oro buses had been attacked by the police and where up to 15 students would eventually be handed over to police, then never seen again.
The Palace of Justice had video recordings from that night, but when the IACHR investigators requested the tape, they were told it had been destroyed, the reports state.
Several of the students on the "fifth" bus testified that they were stopped by the federal police, who forced them off the vehicle. At that point, the students learned via cell phone that on the north side of Iguala, another student, Aldo Gutiérrez, had been shot in the head -- thus, the "fifth bus" students fled into a nearby forested area, as shown in the graphic below.
Image showing students fleeing the "fifth bus" into the woods from the investigators' first report
The bus driver was taken into federal police custody -- the only one of the five bus drivers who was not beaten or roughed up by police, investigators said. The fifth bus -- the only one that police did not fire upon with either bullets or tear gas -- was then driven to a temporary federal police holding station, the IACHR investigators state.
The IACHR investigators were allowed to inspect what they were told was the "fifth bus" at one point during their research. However, they assert that the bus they were allowed to inspect did not precisely match visual descriptions or video footage of the Estrella Roja bus hijacked by the students that night. A Canadian forensic video analyst also confirmed that there were key differences between the bus seen by investigators and the bus that appears in video footage from the Iguala bus terminal. These discrepancies included different seat patterns and sticker patterns on the driver's window.
Above: bus terminal video footage of seats from the "fifth bus." Below: seats on the bus viewed by investigators from the investigators' first report
"We're not saying that the bus we inspected is or isn't the fifth bus," former Guatemala Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who served as one of the investigators, told Mexican media last year. "But it does present an element of doubt."
The government's opaque dealings with the "fifth bus" in official documents -- alongside doubts over whether investigators were given a different or "modified" bus to inspect -- were not the only factors that made investigators think this bus may be a central element to the case.
3) Why the Conflicting Testimony?
According to investigators, when they asked the Mexican government to share with them all official documents related to the Iguala investigation, included among the papers was a hand-written testimony, apparently penned by the driver of the fifth bus. That testimony confirmed the same version of events related by the 14 student passengers on the bus.
Handwritten testimony allegedly by the driver of the "fifth bus" from the investigators' second report
However, when investigators interviewed the bus driver -- who was accompanied by a prosecutor from the Attorney General's Office organized crime investigative unit -- he said that shortly after leaving the Iguala bus terminal in the Estrella Roja bus, one of the students ordered him to stop, declaring, "We're not using this bus." The students then disembarked, "carrying stones in their hands," and went back to the terminal and boarded another bus.
None of the 14 student passengers on the Estrella Roja bus confirmed this version of events, investigators said.
The bus driver also denied authorship of the handwritten testimony that the IACHR investigators found in a case file, although he admitted that the signature was his. The driver said that he signed a blank piece of paper when he began working at the bus company, and that this must have been the same signature on the paper found by investigators.
After investigators asked the Attorney General's Office to analyze why the bus driver's testimony contradicted everything the student passengers said, the Attorney General's Office presented investigators with an analysis of the bus driver's handwriting, asserting that the bus driver could not have written the testimony -- although the signature was indeed his. Investigators asked Mexico's federal police to conduct a similar graphology test. The police concluded that they could not say for sure that the bus driver had not written the document.
4) A Narco-Conspiracy?
All of this context put together -- the Attorney General's Office failure to initially mention the existence of the fifth bus; the fact that police did not attack the bus nor treat the driver the same way they did the other buses; the possibility that the bus inspected by investigators had been modified; the bus driver's conflicting testimony -- may be enough to feed conspiracy theorists for years.
However, the IACHR investigators do not see the "fifth bus" hypothesis as another far-out, narco-conspiracy in a country full of them. The fifth bus is one of the central mysteries in a case full of unanswered questions, investigators argue, even though the Mexican government has done little to explain the inconsistencies. Did Iguala's police forces shut down all roads leading out of Iguala in order to stop a bus filled with heroin from being driven to Mexico City, and did they shoot, beat, and perhaps even kidnap the student passengers as a way of "punishing" them for their mistake?
As the investigator's latest report puts it, "All of these circumstances indicate that investigating this hypothesis is relevant."