Mexico's government sought to turn the page on the case of the Ayotzinapa student disappearances, declaring on Tuesday that authorities have "concluded" that the student victims were executed and incinerated at a trash dump the night they were attacked.
The statements, made by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam in a press conference, repeated a hypothesis made in November about what happened to the 43 young men who were kidnapped by police and turned over to the drug gang Guerreros Unidos on September 26, 2014.
But officials presented no new, conclusive evidence proving their theory of the students' fate — in a move critics on social media called an attempt by the government to tie up and seal the matter of the 42 who remain missing.
Instead, authorities said the confession of a suspected Guerreros Unidos hitman who was arrested earlier this month confirmed statements already made by three other executioners. The government presented an animated video — awkwardly musicalized with a spooky soundtrack — that laid out a play-by-play of the attacks.
"[We] have legal certainty that the students were killed in the manner described," the attorney general said, speaking alongside his chief criminal investigator, Tomas Zeron.
No concrete evidence has been found directly linking the Ayotzinapa disappearances to the military or federal police.
Murillo Karam said his new suspect, Felipe Rodriguez Salgado, had tagged three Ayotzinapa Normal School students as members of a rival gang, known as Los Rojos. The revelation echoed a VICE News investigation published January 20 that found several confessed Guerreros Unidos hitmen believed members of Los Rojos had mixed in with the students.
Ayotzinapa students and government officials say the school has no links to organized crime.
"The prosecutor can't say that none of them belonged to any criminal group," Murillo Karam said. "Indeed, frankly, I believe that the majority of them were young men who wanted to be teachers and wanted to study more than anything else."
Eight dead in three years: The school that draws government fire in Mexico. Read more here.
A political cartoon from the left-leaning daily La Jornada depicts Mexico's attorney general pulling a "carpetazo," legal slang in Mexico for a hasty shuttering of a case, on the Ayotzinapa disappearances.
Tuesday's press conference came four months after the attacks against the group of Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Guerrero, and a day after thousands of demonstrators poured once more into the Zocalo central square in Mexico City to call for justice for the missing.
It also came as President Enrique Peña Nieto asked the Mexican public to not remain "trapped" by the tragedy.
"I'm convinced that in this moment in Mexican history, of regret, tragedy, and pain, we cannot remain trapped," Peña said in a speech Tuesday, after making direct reference to the Ayotzinapa case. "We can't stay there."
But the case is far from closed. No one has been convicted or sentenced for the mass disappearance. Several key suspects remain at large, including the police chief of Iguala.
The VICE News investigation also found at least 13 more victims were killed the night of the Iguala attacks, in addition to the undetermined number of victims who were taken to the Cocula dump. Authorities have mostly ignored this other group of victims in public statements, including on Tuesday.
Later that night, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission released a statement requesting that every last line of investigation be exhausted before the case is declared solved.
The Executioners: What the government hasn't revealed about the Mexican student massacre. Read more here.
Peña Nieto on Tuesday asked the Mexican people to not remain "trapped" by the Ayotzinapa case.
Six hours after the prosecutor's statements, parents of the missing students offered their own press conference in Mexico City, in which they again refused to believe Murillo Karam.
Vidulfo Rosales, an attorney representing parents of the missing, said the government has failed to fulfill promises made to the parents in a meeting with Peña Nieto, and also pointed out that numerous lines of investigation remain without clarification from authorities.
No one so far has been charged with "forced disappearance" in relation to the incident, Rosales pointed out. Authorities, for example, have also not cleared up who killed Julio Cesar Mondragón, the Ayotzinapa student who was found with his face and eyes removed the day after the attacks.
The government has said its case file on the disappearances is 82 volumes big. VICE News had access to only two of those volumes, which equaled to hundreds of pages of witness testimony.
'This is fatigue that I never imagined, but we are sticking with it, come what may.'
Epifanio Alvarez, parent of missing 21-year-old Jorge Alvarez, said the government has "stepped all over our dignity."
"If I could give my life so that this could end, I would, but I can't do anything," Alvarez said. "I feel desperate. This is fatigue that I never imagined, but we are sticking with it, come what may."
Mexico's handling of the case has been criticized from nearly the start of the investigation.
Parents of the missing and survivors claim that military personnel in Iguala and the federal police were involved in some form in the attacks. They've ramped up protests in Guerrero, most recently storming an entrance to the 27th Infantry Battalion station in Iguala.
The government responded by saying that officials would allow parents of the missing students and human-rights investigators to enter and examine the military base. No date has been set for such a visit.
Theories note that students from the historically leftist teachers college have come under attack by state forces before, most notably in 2011, although no concrete evidence has been found directly linking the Ayotzinapa disappearances to the military or federal police.
But there are precedents of military repression against leftists in Guerrero that have fueled the circulation of theories on soldiers' involvement on September 26. Personnel from the 27th Infantry Battalion station have been accused by Human Rights Watch of carrying out numerous forced disappearances of civilians in recent years in Iguala, a region in Guerrero that is now considered littered with clandestine graves from unchecked drug-related violence.
Monday evening's demonstration at the Zocalo ended with a rally led by Ayotzinapa student leaders and grieving, tired parents whose sons remain unaccounted for.
The parents' spokesman, Felipe de la Cruz, told crowds before the National Palace that Guerrero state will not hold elections as planned this year, saying that a vote to any party would be a vote for corruption.
There are more than 43 missing in Guerrero, and Mexico's military may have a role. Read more here.
On Tuesday, Murillo Karam and Zeron offered no new positive identifications of Ayotzinapa victims among the bone fragments and ashes authorities said they pulled from the river near Cocula, reiterating that the remains were burned so badly that identification will be nearly impossible.
Besides the six confirmed fatalities that night, only one of the 43 missing has been confirmed dead through DNA testing on the found human remains. A bone fragment belonging to student Alexander Mora was identified after tests conducted by an Austrian university and an independent team of forensics investigators from Argentina.
The Argentine group, however, later cast doubt on a tiny detail about the positive identification of Mora, 19. It said it could not confirm that the fragment came from the dump or the river, in what amounted to a statement of distrust for the government's ability to effectively conduct the investigation.
"I don't know if they got there before or after [the remains were removed]," Murillo Karam said. "But I can tell you there was an enormous group of investigators there, and for me, the prosecutor's investigators are very good, the Mexican ones."
The Missing 43: Discovering a Mass Grave (Excerpt). Watch it here.
VICE News reporters Melissa del Pozo and Rafael Castillo contributed to this story.