The truth behind the Iguala tragedy appears farther away than ever, after an independent probe debunked the Mexican government's version of what happened when 43 students disappeared at the hands of local police, but offered no definitive alternative version.
The report was issued by a working group created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The task was to independently investigate what happened the night of September 26, 2014 in Iguala, in the crime-ridden state of Guerrero.
The disappearance remains the hallmark event of the Enrique Peña Nieto administration. It led to nationwide protests and a crisis of confidence that has not dissipated since.
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The IACHR's report will only fuel more distrust and engender more conspiracy theories. Based on interviews, government documents, and other sources, the report provides a detailed, blow-by-blow account of what happened in the lead-up to the mass kidnapping of 43 male students that night.
Then the trail goes dry, mostly due to the incompetence -- or criminal negligance -- of government investigators. The students, meanwhile, remain disappeared.
Where the Stories Diverge
The government and the IACHR coincide in some respects: they both say that hundreds of student protestors at a Rural Teacher's College took over several buses, in order to secure transport to Mexico City for a larger protest planned for October 2 (the anniversary of one of Mexico's most significant human rights abuses).
They both say that after students commandeered the buses, the police stopped them, and there were confrontations between the students and the police. They both say that six people were killed during these exchanges and numerous others injured. And they both say that the police took dozens of students captive after these initial confrontations.
Then the stories diverge. According to Mexico's Attorney General's Office, the local police force handed over dozens of students to criminal group the Guerreros Unidos, who believed that among the students were members of a rival gang, the Rojos. The criminal group took the students to a trash dump near the town of Cocula, killed them, burned them, and dumped the remains in a river, the government says.
However, for numerous reasons, the IACHR report concludes this version of events could not have happened.
Govt Witnesses Can't Get Their Stories Straight
Much of the Mexican government's case rests on testimony collected from alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos, who describe how they kidnapped and killed the students.
However, the IACHR report details that these witnesses essentially tell four different versions of what happened. Each version involves a different site where a different number of students were allegedly killed.
The version with the greatest number of witnesses -- five -- is the Cocula trash dump story. This is the same one the Mexican government presented as the "truth" of what happened. But as the IACHR report points out, the five witnesses repeatedly contradict each other during key parts of the story. These inconsistencies are too numerous -- and too great -- to be blamed on faulty memories, the report states. (See bits of some of these testimonies in the video below)
The disagreements among the five witnesses include:
- Whether the students were taken to another holding site first, before they were taken to the trash dump.
- Where and when the police handed over the students to the gang.
- How many students were dead, if any, by the time they arrived to Cocula.
- Whether the students were handcuffed, or had their hands tied up, or had their hands free (which, as the report points out, raises the question of why none of the young, fit students tried to resist their captors at any point).
Only three witnesses describe the actual moments of the students' death, and again, all of their versions differ on key points, including:
- Whether the students were killed at the top of the trash heap, at the bottom, or both.
- Whether all of the kidnapped students were shot to death, or whether some were shot, and others beaten with sticks that the Guerreros Unidos had brought with them.
- How the bodies were moved from the top of the trash heap to the bottom (with one witness saying they were "rolled," and another claiming they were "dragged," raising the question of why more forensic evidence -- fragments of clothes, hair, skin, anything -- was not found in the dump).
- How and when the bodies were burned and who lit the fire.
- How and when the ashes were collected and then dumped into the river.
Casting further doubt on the story is that all of this -- the transfer of the students, the killing, the moving of the bodies -- allegedly happened in the early hours of the morning. These are challenging conditions in which to carry out such a massacre, the report points out. Nor did the report find any resident living near the trash dump who said they noticed anything suspicious.
Forensic Evidence Doesn't Support Government
These inconsistencies between the government witnesses feed into another serious credibility problem: the forensic evidence does not back up the government's version of events.
There have long been rumblings that the forensics don't support the Cocula trash dump story. The IACHR report further reiterates this -- there is no way that the bodies could have been burned in the trash dump, the way that government witnesses say they were, the report concludes.
An independent forensics specialist the University of California Berkeley hired by the IACHR says it would have taken a minimum of 60 hours; over 30 metric tons of wood; over 13 metric tons of tires; and over 13 metric tons of diesel to burn 43 bodies into ash, as the government witnesses claimed.
Nor is there any evidence at the site itself that there was ever a fire of this magnitude, the expert concluded -- something that other forensic experts in Mexico have previously said. The minimum amount of damage that such a fire would have caused to the trash dump and the surrounding site would have been much larger in size than what was found. (See below)
Who Gave the Order and Why?
Aside from the lack of forensic evidence, there is one essential question to the case: who gave the order to hand over the students to the criminal group and why?
But after hundreds of interviews, dozens of diagrams and charts, and multiple appendices, the 560-page report is unable to shed any light on this point. The report itself takes note of this, asserting:
At no point in the testimony provided by the municipal police, or the alleged members of Guerreros Unidos implicated in these acts, is there any reference to who ordered that the students be removed from Iguala and apparently handed over to this criminal, drug trafficking group. It comes off as something that happened spontaneously, without direction from anyone. In the statements by the alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos, the actions of the Iguala and Cocula municipal police are presented as unimportant, a mere accident.
The official conclusions by Mexico's Attorney General's Office maintained the Guerreros Unidos killed the students because they suspected some were members of rival gang the Rojos. However, the IACHR report notes that this motive is based primarily on the (very inconsistent) testimony of the alleged Guerreros Unidos perpetrators (who were reportedly tortured prior to giving their testimony, according to a previous report). Nor does the Rojos theory take into account that the military and the federal police were all aware of the students' movements, and were present when the municipal police opened fire on them, the report states.
SEE ALSO: Profile of the Guerreros Unidos
"Given the evidence, in that moment, the Iguala municipal police had no reason to believe -- not even mistakenly -- that they were persecuting the Rojos," the report says. "They knew that they were dealing with students."
The report also notes that while Iguala is a significant drug trafficking hub in the region, there is little precedent indicating that the Guerreros Unidos would be capable of carrying out such a sophisticated operation. While multiple mass grave sites confirm that the Guerreros Unidos and other gangs were repeatedly carrying out atrocities in the region, the level of organization and resources needed to eliminate 43 bodies without a trace is quite different.
An Unsolved Crime
The Mexican government has insisted that organized crime played a key role in the students' disappearance, but there still appears to be a great deal of official ignorance over how those criminals actually operated in Iguala. Investigators asked the Attorney General's Office to look into the Guerreros Unidos and the Rojos' criminal activities in the region, and share information about their links to local public officials. But the IACHR report says the authorities have not provided any information on these links or these criminal activities.
Government investigators also did not bother to collect video evidence, such as recordings in front of the Iguala judiciary building, or the bus station where students gathered. Nor did the official investigation team follow through with what should have been basic steps in the initial probe, such as tracking down and interviewing the drivers of the buses hijacked by the student protestors. And they did not get the number of buses involved in the initial police-student confrontation right -- it was five, not four, the IACHR report found.
While President Enrique Peña Nieto has said authorities will investigate Iguala until we "know what really happened," the government had already asserted that it arrived at "the truth" of the matter back in January. Essentially, the Mexican government based its case almost exclusively on witness testimony that did not add up; failed to examine these inconsistencies, and failed to seriously pursue other lines of investigation that might answer the many questions that remain.
For nearly a year now, the government has been presenting the Iguala incident as a crime in two acts: first, when police assaulted the students, and second, when the Guerreros Unidos reportedly killed the 43 who are still missing. After the IACHR report, the disconnect between these two acts looks fuzzier than ever.