A United Nation’s body has accused Mexico's government of fabricating evidence and using torture to force confessions during its investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, again raising questions around Mexico’s approach to tackling rampant violence and organized crime.
The report by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) accuses the Mexican authorities of a cover up, and points to an “almost uniform modus operandi” in the way suspects in one of the worst human rights violations in Mexico’s recent history were arbitrarily detained and tortured to obtain confessions, which were later accepted as evidence in the case.
It also accuses authorities of unnecessarily delaying the process of bringing suspects before a public prosecutor and of concealing errors during the early stages of the investigation.
The study – which is based on a review of judicial files and interviews with detainees, witnesses, lawyers and the authorities in charge of the investigation – focuses on the cases of 63 of the 129 people prosecuted.
According to the UN, evidence points to the possible use of torture in 51 of the 63 cases. In 34 of those, the OHCHR strongly believes “torture, arbitrary detention and other human rights violations were committed” mainly at the hands of staff of the Office of the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República -- PGR) and members of the Federal Police and army.
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The UN says the government tried to cover up some of these abuses, and that the efforts by the Internal Oversight Office of the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the irregularities where “thwarted by the replacement of the public officials committed to this effort. The preliminary conclusions of the internal investigation were modified, diluting responsibilities and maintaining impunity for the committed violations.”
The 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, disappeared after a confrontation with police officers on the evening of September 26, 2014.
In January 2015, Mexican authorities concluded that municipal police in Iguala had intercepted the students as they travelled to a protest. During the confrontation, six people died and 25 were injured. According to the government’s version of events -- which the Attorney General at the time, Jesús Murillo Karam, called the “historical truth” -- Iguala police handed the students over to the criminal group Guerreros Unidos, who killed them before burning their bodies and throwing them on a local dumpster.
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Although most of the allegations by the UN are far from new -- a report by an independent group of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published in April 2016 pointed to some of the same abuses -- the level of detail in the UN study brings fresh pressure on the battered Peña Nieto administration.
Although authorities were quick to dismiss the report's findings as issues that have already been raised and are being dealt with, the UN investigation provides further evidence of long standing accusations on the use of torture to force confessions from detainees, and of attempts by the Attorney General’s office to cover up certain facts.
It also comes at a crucial time. After years of intense international pressure on the Mexican authorities to resolve what is considered one of Mexico’s most heinous recent human rights scandals, attention on the case had dwindled. But the government recently said it is committed to “resolving the Iguala case by the end of the year,” before the current administration comes to an end. Presidential elections will take place in July 2018, against the backdrop of Peña Nieto’s diminishing popularity and unprecedented homicide rates.
Following the mass abduction of the 43 students, the Mexican authorities seem to have focused on securing a high number of arrests and placing the blame almost exclusively with criminal groups operating in the area.
Last week, the prosecutor’s office in charge of the Ayotzinapa investigation announced the arrest of Erick Uriel Sandoval, accused of being a member of “Guerreros Unidos” and of having played “a key role in the crime”.
However, relatives of the missing students and human rights organizations have questioned the move, saying it is little more than an attempt to show action is being taken without looking at the underlying issues that facilitated the disappearances.
Amongst those is the entrenched relationship between politics and organized crime in Mexico. The country also suffers from acute levels of torture and impunity, which create an environment in which human rights violations flourish and go unpunished, nurturing public distrust of the authorities and security forces.
The new allegations, and the level of proof presented by the UN, will be uncomfortable reading for the government, particularly as Peña Nieto’s security strategy is being criticized for not being successful in tackling the country’s scandalous levels of violence, corruption, official collusion with criminal organizations and impunity.
Whether the latest allegations will have any impact on the resolution of the Ayotzinapa case is hard to tell, but there is no question that it will act as a tough reminder that Peña Nieto and his administration still have a long way to go to build a positive legacy for his six years in power.