A demonstration to support the relatives of the 43 students from the "Isidro Burgos" Normal Rural School in Ayotzinapa on September 26, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo: Ismael Rosas / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY — Mexico just arrested three members of the army, including a general, for their alleged participation in one of the most emblematic tragedies of the country’s drug wars — the disappearance of 43 students in September 2014. The arrests seemed to confirm what many have long believed: that members of the military actively participated in the atrocity.
The disappearance of the 43 students, and the subsequent coverup, has been an ongoing source of national outrage in Mexico. The arrest of the general is a significant win for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who promised upon taking office that his government would finally bring closure to one of the most tragic and controversial events in recent Mexican history.López Obrador set up a truth commission once in office to revisit the case. In August, it returned its official inquiry and called the disappearance of the 43 students a “crime of the state.”“At all times the federal, state and municipal authorities had knowledge of the students’ movements,” the truth commission wrote. “Their actions, omissions and participation allowed for the disappearance and execution of the students, as well as the murder of six other people.”Shortly after the report was released, authorities alleged that six of the 43 students were kept alive in a warehouse for days, then were turned over to the army and murdered on the orders of then-coronel José Rodríguez Pérez. Mexico’s under-secretary of public security, Ricardo Mejía, announced the arrest of Rodríguez Pérez Thursday morning, who later reached the rank of general. The other detained army officials have not been named.
The events surrounding the students disappearance has been shrouded in mystery for years.On September 26 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the southwestern state of Guerrero commandeered several buses to transport their peers to a protest in Mexico City. The practice of commandeering buses by students from the school, which has a long tradition of activism in the region, is tolerated for the most part by local transportation companies.But that night, something went horribly wrong.After the students took the buses in the city of Iguala, they were stopped by police officers and civilian gunmen. Six people were killed at the scene, while 43 students disappeared.The incident shocked the nation, leading to protests throughout the country, and calls for the students to be found. The government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto launched an investigation and in January 2015, announced that they had solved the case. Jesús Murillo Karam, the attorney general at the time, infamously outlined what he deemed the “the historical truth”: that the local Guerreros Unidos drug cartel working with corrupt local cops and officials abducted the students, murdered them, and incinerated their bodies at a local garbage dump.For years, family members of the disappeared students and human rights activists have decried this version of events, especially as the Peña Nieto government refused to investigate the possible involvement of members of the military at a local barracks in Iguala.
Nearly eight years later, Mexico’s human rights under-secretary Alejandro Encinas laid out a very different set of events in the truth commission’s report and called the previous investigation “a concerted action from the organized apparatus of power from the highest level of government, which obscured the truth.”Encinas alleged that the night of the disappearances, one of the missing students was actually an undercover soldier that had infiltrated the school, and that the army was aware of the movements of the kidnapped students. Encinas alleged that the army didn’t follow their own protocols to try and rescue him.While numerous pages of the truth commission report are still redacted, Encinas went on to clarify that they believed that six of the students survived the initial kidnapping for several days, before Rodríguez Pérez ordered their murders.The arrests of the three military officials this week came after the high profile arrest of former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, who allegedly headed the coverup, on August 19. In total, authorities issued arrest warrants for 20 soldiers and army officials, five local officials, 33 local police officers and 11 state police officers, along with 14 alleged cartel members.The government still has not confirmed a motive for the murder of the students, but the most prominent theory, backed up by text messages previously released by the government, is that at least one of the buses commandeered by the students was being used to transport heroin towards the U.S. The students were then mistaken for rival cartel members trying to steal the cargo, at least initially, when the bus was attacked.Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter.