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International Experts Say Mexico Has Blocked the Search for Truth in Missing Students' Case

The experts — attached to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — say confessions of detainees with credible complaints of torture underpin key parts of the official version of what happened to the 43 students.
Photo by Mario Guzmán/EPA

The final report of a group of international experts invited to Mexico to help discover the truth behind the disappearance of 43 student teachers in 2014 has lambasted the government's investigation, and accused officials of blocking other potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.

The government rejected the allegations, at the same time as it thanked the group for its contribution to the probe. Officials had previously made it clear there is no chance that it will extend the experts' mandate when it runs out at the end of the month.


The so-called "Group of Experts," who were convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights a year ago, released their report at an emotional press conference on Sunday attended by some of the relatives of the missing students.

The 608-page document argues that the key conclusions of the official probe are backed by the flimsiest of evidence — often little more than the confessions of detainees, many of whom have since filed credible complaints of torture.

The report is particularly dismissive of the claim that the students were incinerated in a garbage tip a few hours after they were attacked in the southern city of Iguala by municipal police officers in league with a local drug gang called Guerreros Unidos on September 26, 2014.

Related: Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance that Has Shaken Mexico

It also hints heavily that the probe has deliberately failed to explore the possible participation of federal agents in the operation against the students — from the famously radical Ayotzinapa teachers' college — who had gone to Iguala to commandeer buses to use in a later protest.

As well as demolishing the official version, the report complains that government investigators have blocked exploration of an alternative hypothesis that the students were attacked because they unwittingly commandeered a bus full of hidden drugs or trafficking profits. The mountains around Iguala are a key production zone for opium paste and heroin.


'The Mexican system is particularly corrupt and dysfunctional, and we have been battling against this all these months.'

While all these points were already made by the experts in their first report — that was released in September last year — this time they are also steeped in frustration and concern at the government's failure to improve the quality of the official investigation since then.

"The obstruction of an investigation of this kind has very serious repercussions for the future," Angela Buitrago, one of the experts, told VICE News before the report was released. "The Mexican system is unique of its kind in the world. It is particularly corrupt and dysfunctional in all its forms and we have been battling against this all these months."

The government's original invitation to the Group of Expert a year ago was part of an effort to contain the damage done by the disappearance of the students that had sparked outrage far beyond Mexico. President Enrique Peña Nieto and other government officials repeatedly insisted that the experts' presence was proof of the administration's commitment to leaving no stone unturned in its quest to deliver justice.

In Photos: A Call For Justice On The Streets Of Mexico City for 'More Than 43' Missing

The experts' first, highly critical, report six months ago was greeted with similar assurances. The government even relaunched the entire investigation with a new team in November.


Relations, however, have soured dramatically since the start of the year.

In the last month or so a plethora of high-level officials, including President Peña himself, have politely but firmly insisted that there is no possibility that the experts will be asked to stay beyond the end of their current mandate that runs out on April 30.

Meanwhile, other officials have begun quietly but insistently reviving the old garbage dump hypothesis.

This has included the claim that a new scientific study of the dump, carried out by another team of international experts commissioned by the government, had found evidence of large scale fires and human remains. All that has been available from that study so far, however, is a document of a few pages that contains almost no reference to the scientific evidence used to draw this conclusion, or explain how it might be related to the students.

"The result of the study doesn't fulfil even minimum standards," Francisco Cox, another of the experts, said at Sunday's news conference.

Cox cited the detailed scientific study in the group's first report, which first ruled out a major conflagration at the tip. He also referred to the 246-page study, which came to the same conclusion, carried out by another team of forensic experts from Argentina. That study was released in full earlier this month.

'We are very disappointed and frustrated. Above all we are worried about what awaits Mexico.'


As they prepare to pack their bags to leave Mexico, the experts have also repeatedly complained that they have been targeted by a smear campaign in the media.

"An innumerable number of things have been invented to damage our name, and they can continue doing this with the human rights defenders who are still on the case," Alejandro Valencia, another of the experts, said in the lead up to the report's release. "We are very disappointed and frustrated, and above all we are worried about what awaits Mexico in terms of access to justice."

Sunday's final report and the departure of the experts from Mexico comes at a time when the country is under growing international pressure over its human rights record.

In recent weeks the issue of torture has been particularly prominent in the wake of the release of a video in which two soldiers and a federal police officer are shown partially suffocating a young woman during an interrogation. The video prompted an unprecedented apology from the head of the army and other officials who have insisted that government institutions will not tolerate such abuse.

Related: Mexican Soldiers and a Federal Agent Caught on Tape Torturing a Woman

The experts' report on Ayotzinapa, however, highlights torture as a potential concern in about 80 percent of the approximately 110 detentions made in connection with the case so far.

It pays particular attention to 17 alleged cases. These include Gildardo López Gallardo, alias El Gil, who is accused of ordering the disappearance of the students, as well as the alleged gang members whose testimonies provide the basis of the garbage tip funeral pyre story.


The report cites one of them — who goes by the nickname of El Pato, or The Duck — detailing his version of his arrest and subsequent treatment.

"They hauled me aboard a vehicle, they blindfolded me, tied my feet and hands, they began beating me again and gave me electric shocks, they put a rag over my nose and poured water on it," the report cites his complaint. "They gave me shocks on the inside of my mouth and my testicles. They put a bag over my face so I couldn't breathe. It went on for hours."

The report stresses that none of the complaints of torture have been fully investigated, though it puts most emphasis on the questions they raise about the official version of events.

A group of relatives of the missing students attended the presentation of the report on Sunday, many of them carrying photographs of their children. Their traditional chants of "Where Are Our Children?" and "It Was The State," were this time mingled with others of "Don't Go," directed at the experts.

"We do not deserve this," said Jacinta García, the mother of Martín Getsemany Sánchez, one of the disappeared students. "The government should not turn its back on us, and keep lying to us. And now that the experts are going we are even more helpless."

The government responded to the group's final report with a statement to the press that was read by the current head of the investigation within the attorney general's office.


Eber Omar Betanzos thanked the experts for their "contributions" over the last year, and then went on to refute all the main allegations in their final report.

He particularly stressed that all complaints of torture are being investigated, that the garbage tip hypothesis is based on solid scientific evidence, and that no line of inquiry will be closed until it is proved groundless within the "most exhaustive" probe ever to take place in Mexico.

"The attorney general's office states, reiterates, and emphasizes, that the investigation is still open," Betanzos said. "And it will not conclude until the last person responsible has been sentenced by a judge."

Related: New Evidence Points to Federal Police Role in the Disappearance of 43 Mexican Students

Jo Tuckman contributed to this report

Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps