MEXICO CITY — Ever since the disappearance six years ago of 43 students in rural Mexico, their family members have insisted that the military participated in the crime. Now, the government is for the first time bringing criminal charges against soldiers and federal police officers who were allegedly involved in the mass abduction, a potentially significant step in solving the highest-profile human rights case of the last decade.
Mexican authorities announced they have issued 25 arrest warrants against people they believe to be the “material and intellectual authors of the disappearance.” Among them are the then-director of the Criminal Investigation Agency, a former head of the federal police, and a one-time top investigator into the mass kidnapping.
The case of the 43 students who went missing en route to a protest in September 2014 is evidence of the violence and impunity that reigns in Mexico. An investigation by the previous government was widely discredited as botched, marred by corruption, and based on testimony extracted under torture. Adding to the fury were revelations the government used sophisticated surveillance technology to spy on independent investigators.
The arrest warrants for state security officials help fulfill President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pledge to get to the bottom of the case and find the missing students who attended a teachers’ training college in Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero. The students’ family members maintain hope that they are still alive.
“We are facing a great injustice committed by the Mexican state,” López Obrador said at a press conference announcing the arrests. “That is why the state has to repair the damage, clarify what happened and set matters straight. There has to be justice and that’s our commitment.”
It remains unclear what exactly the military and federal police officers are being charged with and if their arrests will yield a breakthrough in the case. López Obrador has yet to articulate a clear theory of what happened to the missing students, even as he has derided the investigation carried out under his predecessor.
They said it was far more likely that the students, who were trying to secure buses to attend a protest in Mexico City, had unknowingly commandeered a bus that contained a shipment of heroin to the U.S. Guerrero is a major drug production state — clandestine plots of heroin poppy and marijuana dot its fertile green mountains, and the zone is contested by dozens of different, violent criminal organizations.
The biggest name to be announced in the arrests is that of Tomás Zerón, who was chief of criminal investigations in the attorney general’s office under the prior administration. Zerón orchestrated a campaign of lies to explain the student’s disappearance, Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero said.
“From the most powerful to the most elementary operators, they covered up, lied, tortured, carried out false proceedings and tried to hide with impunity and media scandals a plot that has had its raw truth revealed,” Gertz Manero said, adding that the students were victims of a “battle of interests between drug trafficking forces.”
In exchange for promoting the “historic truth,” Zerón stole more than $40 million from the agency’s budget — with the consent of superiors, Gertz Manero said. “The institution put at his disposal 50 police officers and the entire administrative apparatus to take care of him and facilitate this looting.”
Zerón has fled to Israel and Mexican officials are seeking his extradition. He is also wanted by Interpol on allegations of torturing suspects in the case.
There have been frustratingly few breakthroughs in the search for the disappeared students. In November 2014, a tiny fragment of bone from one of the students was found in a ravine in Cocula, Mexico. The discovery offered hope that the remains of other students would also be found.
The arrest warrants against military officials are an “extraordinary step” and a turning point, said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst at Lantia Consultores in Mexico City. “It’s a hermetic and opaque institution that has been called on to do to the government’s dirty work,” he said. “Until now officials haven’t dared to go after the military.”
For López Obrador, the arrests also offer him a chance to shame his predecessor while showcasing his command over the military, on which he depends heavily on security issues. López Obrador is also pushing for a national referendum for Mexicans to vote on whether they want recent presidents to be prosecuted for alleged corruption.
Parents of the disappeared students expressed cautious optimism about the latest development.
“It’s what we have always said – the military was involved,” said Mario González, father of César Manuel González Hernández, who was 19 at the time of his disappearance.
“Unfortunately, the last president hid, manipulated and destroyed evidence. Now, we see political will that gives us a little more hope,” he said.
Cover: Students raise pictures of 43 missing students during a protest to demand justice for their abduction in September 26, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Credit: Carlos Tischler / Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.