The chief of Mexico's military said Tuesday he will "not permit" international investigators to interview Mexican soldiers in relation to the case of the missing 43 students.
Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico's secretary of defense, told the Televisa news network in an emphatic tone that officers and infantry who responded to the incidents taking place on the night of September 26, 2014 in southern Mexico behaved within the law and have been responsive to domestic investigators.
Cienfuegos said there is thus no reason for soldiers to submit to questions as had been requested by a special panel of international experts, convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to look into the case.
The panel last month published a report on the attacks on the students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. In it, its members called out the military for not allowing them to question any soldiers stationed in Iguala, Guerrero, where the attacks took place.
Parents of the missing 43 young men have alleged that soldiers were involved in the attacks, and at one point some even suggested that army incinerators be examined to check for human remains. No proof has surfaced to bolster the claims.
"I cannot permit that they interrogate my soldiers who have until now not committed a single crime," Cienfuegos said in the interview shown Tuesday morning on Televisa newscasts.
"Everything has been declared" to local officials, he added. Fifty soldiers or officers have made statements to civilian investigators in relation to the case, "some up to four times," Cienfuegos said.
"I cannot permit that the soldiers be treated like criminals [...] That's my position and I do not think that I can or should move, because I would lose a lot of who I am."
The secretary's statements were the strongest pushback yet from Mexico's insular Secretariat of National Defense against persistent allegations among parents of the missing and protesters on the streets that the 27th Infantry Battalion participated in the disappearances.
The case of the missing 43 students — which captured international attention and sparked months of massive protests in cities across Mexico and the world — has been thrown into flux in recent weeks since the special panel, known as GIEI, published its 560-page investigation.
Mexico's federal government subsequently arrested a suspected ringleader of the attacks on the students in Iguala, and has sought to discredit the claims of skeptics over the level of knowledge and possible participation by federal forces on the violent night of Sept. 26, 2014.
The GIEI report noted that a military intelligence officer, dressed in civilian attire, witnessed one portion of the attacks from a motorcycle.
It also said that soldiers left the battalion base to investigate reports of "armed men" who were hiding out in a clinic after police had opened fire on buses carrying Ayotzinapa students.
Cienfuegos confirmed these incidents, and said the soldiers who reached the Iguala clinic only found unarmed young men who were the students, hiding from the gunfire. Last year, some of these students told VICE News that soldiers interrogated them and confiscated their cell phones, telling the group to stay out of trouble.
In his statements Tuesday, Cienfuegos said the infantrymen returned to their base at 10:30 pm and were otherwise not active in any other way.
Separately, he confirmed that two military officers were present that night at a central surveillance command post known as the C4, where local, state, and federal-level civilian police were also monitoring camera footage from Iguala. He characterized their presence there as normal.
The defense secretary reiterated that the 27th Battalion commander on duty that night called the Iguala police chief to ask what was happening on the streets, and that Chief Felipe Flores — who later fled and is still considered a fugitive for the attacks — told the commander that nothing was amiss.
"Why would they have intervened?" Cienfuegos said of the soldiers. "There was no omission and neither action against anyone."
He also confirmed that one of the missing 43, Julio Cesar Lopez Patolzin, was an active-duty soldier, as previously reported. "But this is nothing unusual," the secretary said. "This young man was authorized to study."
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