The gruesome killing of three students in the state of Jalisco has raised fresh questions about Mexico’s capacity to effectively investigate violent crimes.
Jesús Daniel Díaz García, Marco Francisco García Ávalos and Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, all students at the Audiovisual University (Universidad de Medios Audiovisuales) in Jalisco’s capital, Guadalajara, were last seen alive on March 19, as they drove back from the municipality of Tonalá after completing a homework assignment.
According to the official version of events, a group of armed men belonging to the powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), who said they were officials from the attorney general’s office, stopped the young men, forced them into another car and took them to a nearby house.
There, the students were questioned and tortured, presumably to obtain information about the CJNG’s rival, the New Plaza Cartel (Cartel Nueva Plaza), which was known to operate in the house where the students originally stayed.
The CJNG members then killed the students and took their bodies to a third location, where they were dissolved in acid in an attempt to cover up all traces of evidence.
SEE ALSO: Jalisco Cartel – New Generation Profile
At a press conference on April 23, Jalisco State Attorney General Raúl Sánchez Jiménez said that at least eight people are believed to have taken part in the kidnapping and that two of them had been arrested so far. One of them is Omar “N,” a rapper who goes by the name “QBA” and has confessed to melting the student’s bodies in acid.
Lizette Torres, who is in charge of the investigation, said authorities did not believe the students “had any links with a criminal organization.”
She also said more people are likely to have been killed in the house where the remains of the students were found, and she indicated that the investigation is still ongoing.
Student and civil society organizations have questioned the investigation to date and the handling of forensic evidence, El País reported.
Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval said via Twitter that he will make all documentation regarding the investigation available to international organizations to “certify that all evidence in the case matches reality.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The macabre murder of the Jalisco students brought flashbacks of the 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students from a rural college in the town of Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero.
The Ayotzinapa students were last seen in the city of Iguala on September 26, 2014 as they travelled to a demonstration.
Nearly four months later, in January 2015, the Mexican government said municipal police in the city of Iguala had intercepted the students and handed them over to a local criminal group known as the Guerreros Unidos, who had allegedly mistaken the students for rival gang members, killed them, and burned them in a local dumpster.
Since then, a number of investigations by independent experts cast doubt over the official version of events, and questioned the way the investigation was handled.
The most recent questioning came from United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which accused Mexican authorities of a cover-up that involved arbitrarily detaining and torturing suspects to obtain confessions that were later accepted as evidence in the case.
The UN body also accused Mexico of unnecessarily delaying the process of bringing suspects before a public prosecutor and of concealing errors during the early stages of the investigation.
Although they took place in different states, where different criminal organizations operate, there are a number of parallels between the Ayotzinapa case and the more recent crime against the students in Jalisco.
For example, the victims in Jalisco and Ayotzinapa were students, forcibly disappeared allegedly at the hands of criminal organizations largely operating freely in their states -- with authorities either unable or unwilling to stop them.
In both cases, and arguably as a response to public pressure, authorities were quick to construct a common narrative: They blamed criminal organizations, avoided mentioning the possible involvement of security forces in the crimes, built cases almost exclusively on information coming from witness testimony and confessions, and evaded questions around the veracity of forensic evidence.
Another common element of these cases is how unsurprising they are.
Mexico is facing an acute security crisis with 2017 marked as the most violent year in the country’s recent history.
Criminal dynamics in Guerrero and Jalisco are different: Guerrero is a criminal hub with a strong presence of criminal groups and an largely absent state, while Jalisco is seen as a safe heaven for criminals where violence erupts more sporadically. Nevertheless, Jalisco's homicide rate has seen a rise, according to a ranking compiled by Mexico’s National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública – SNSP).
Around 75 percent of murders in the state are believed to take place at the hands of organized crime, according to a recent study that compares government statistics with documented executions carried out by criminal groups, underscoring Mexico’s inability, or unwillingness, to tackle organized crime.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
“Neither Jalisco nor Ayotzinapa are isolated cases. They are extreme manifestations of a modus operandi that has been developing for some time and that, presumably, is also seen in other parts [of Mexico],” Mexico analyst Jaime López told InSight Crime.
“Both in the case of Ayotzinapa as in the case of Jalisco, victims were part of a social group with great organizational and mobilization capacity. That creates more social pressure for [authorities] to follow up on these cases, which does not seem to happen in other similar cases that receive less attention,” López explained.
Just as with the disappearance of the 43 students, national and international pressure is likely to have put the authorities under the spotlight and forced them to take action.
Officials have promised to solve the Ayotzinapa case by the end of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term in office, which will expire in December of this year. However, even in the unlikely event they manage to resolve the emblematic case, as important and that will be, it will not fix the deep flaws in the system that make progress in criminal investigations cases so difficult.
What is needed, instead, is a well thought-out, long-term security strategy that allows the country to conduct effective investigations and tackle some of the reasons why criminal organizations across Mexico continue to operate largely with impunity.