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Could Mexican Officials Eventually Face Charges for Failings in Missing Students Case?

Despite the damning report by an independent panel, a government official defended the original investigation this week. President Enrique Peña Nieto said he would meet parents of the missing as the one-year mark approaches.
Imagen por Marco Ugarte/AP

A lengthy independent report released this week in Mexico proves the 43 students who were disappeared by police last year and sparked a global outcry for justice could not have been incinerated in a pyre as the government claims.

The report was produced by a panel of internationally respected heavy hitters in the human-rights community from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Spain. It essentially refutes months of work in a ballooning government case file into the disappearances of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.


In a year, 110 people have been arrested in connection to the case, but the government has been unable to totally prove its central claim — that the students were piled in a criss-cross fashion and burned with wood and fuel by a drug gang and police who had picked them up in Iguala, Guerrero.

It also proves government authorities destroyed or attempted to block proof that federal authorities, both federal police and the army, were at least aware that the young men were under attack by local cops, and may have even participated in the attacks — in a question in the case that remains unsolved and is a central focus for the victims' families.

One official still defended the government's work.

The report released this week by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), along with another recent study into the justice failings in Guerrero by the Open Society Foundation, come at a delicate moment for Mexico's government.

Stagnant economic prospects coupled with dropping poll figures for President Enrique Peña Nieto loom over a demonstration planned to mark the first anniversary of the September 26, 2014 attacks against the "normalista" students that left six people dead that night and 43 forcibly disappeared who remain unaccounted for to this day.

The meticulously gathered evidence presented by a special panel of the IACHR debunks the government's official storyline into the case of the students in almost irrefutable fashion.


The report also raised the prospect that government officials could eventually face charges in an international tribunal, some observers said, because officials apparently destroyed video surveillance footage or were negligent in their duties to properly carry out the investigation in the Iguala attacks.

Yet despite the IAHRC's assertions, the head of Mexico's criminal investigative unit insisted in a radio interview Tuesday that the official version of the students' fate was still "technically possible."

Tomas Zeron de Lucio, the attorney general's top criminal investigator, defended the government's work, saying a new forensics investigation would confirm his agency's original findings. His statements contradicted the conciliatory responses made by President Enrique Peña Nieto and Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez on Sunday when the report was released.

Human bodies, it turns out, don't burn so easily, the panel found. Such an incineration was determined to be scientifically impossible.

The Ayotzinapa case sparked a wave of protests in Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

The Guerreros Unidos drug gang, accused of burning the 43 young men after kidnapping them in Iguala, would have needed 23,600 pounds of tires and 66,000 pounds of wood to do it, said the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in Spanish), which was convened by the IAHRC with the approval of the Mexican government.

The fire would have taken 60 hours to burn — or two-and-a-half days — not less than 14 hours as the government claimed. And the resulting flame radiation would have scorched anything near it, yet the trash dump where the mass incineration allegedly happened was surrounded by green trees just days after the supposed blaze.


The GIEI researchers, who began working on the Ayotzinapa case earlier this year, hand-delivered the 560-page report to parents of the missing 43 in an emotional press conference on Sunday.

The group's members include Claudia Paz y Paz, former attorney general of Guatemala; Carlos Martin Beristain, a Spanish psychologist who specializes in attention to victims; Angela Buitrago and Alejandro Valencia Villa, two Colombian human rights attorneys; and Francisco Cox Vial, a Chilean lawyer who has worked on major human rights cases.

Parents called the findings proof that the Mexican government has been lying to them.

"We are modest, but not stupid," Epifanio Alvarez, father to Jorge Alvarez, told VICE News. "I knew this fucking government was lying to us. It's time for them to return our sons, alive, or this will get ugly."

'Every day the case for a trial at the international level gets stronger.'

The GIEI report — published with a cover depicting the turtle logo of the Ayotzinapa school — came as the parents and survivors of the attack were preparing to mark the one-year anniversary since the 43 teachers college students went missing. They called on supporters to rally with them as they've done every month since the attacks against their sons.

Minutes after the report's release, President Enrique Peña Nieto published a series of tweets thanking the researchers, and asked for corresponding government agencies to review their report.


"I've instructed that investigations take into consideration the elements provided by the GIEI on the tragic Iguala events," Peña Nieto wrote.

Related: The Executioners: What the Government Hasn't Revealed About the Mexico Student Massacre

Above, the VICE News documentary "The Missing 43."

What the report doesn't say is what happened to the students. The special panel said it could not determine where the students were taken to instead of the Cocula dump.

But the team did say a fifth bus was involved in the September 26 shootings, confirming statements made in files examined by VICE News in January.

That fifth bus carried approximately 14 Ayotzinapa students and also came under police or gang fire that night. The researchers said that the bus could have been loaded with drugs or meant to transport drugs by the Guerreros Unidos gang towards Chicago, but the panel offered no concrete evidence.

Iguala is identified in a December 2014 affidavit in US federal court in Illinois as a Guerreros Unidos hub for transporting heroin to Chicago. Some suspects in custody for the Ayotzinapa killings initially claimed they believed the students were members of a rival gang called Los Rojos.

"That's why we've asked the attorney general's office to get in touch with the US to establish the connection, because there's already an investigation in that country about drug transportation in passenger buses," Beristain said.


The GIEI report noted that the army and federal police were monitoring students who came under fire in the fifth bus, refuting initial claims from military and federal authorities that they were unaware of the Iguala attacks as they happened. However, the report said, surveillance footage that could shed light on that confrontation was deleted over the course of the investigation.

President Peña Nieto said on Monday he was willing to meet with the students' parents again, as they requested. Peña Nieto said he wanted the GIEI experts present. The students' relatives met with the president last October 29, but were left dissatisfied with his responses to their demands.

Related: Mexico is Stonewalling Attempts to Interview Soldiers in Case of the Missing 43, Panel Says

Parents of the dead or missing, including Epifanio Alvarez, second from right, listen to the GIEI panel press conference on Sunday. (Photo by Mario Guzman/EPA)

In her statements, Attorney General Gomez did not clarify whether the new information invalidated the "historical truth" about the alleged incineration established by her predecessor, Jesus Murillo Karam, last November 7.

Back then, Murillo Karam closed the case after stating the young men had been "kidnapped and later dumped into the lowest part of the garbage dump, where their bodies were burned." The former attorney general also said the executioners had "taken turns to ensure the fire lasted for hours, pouring diesel, gasoline, wood, and plastic, among other objects found in the place."

He presented a video with the reconstruction of the events and statements from detainees, who confessed to burning the students' bodies at the Cocula dump. But the GIEI investigation said suspects in the case were tortured by authorities during interrogations.


Murillo Karam left his post on February 27, and was given a low-ranking job in Peña Nieto's cabinet before he was booted entirely from the government in a reshuffling late last month.

Related: Mexico is Stonewalling Attempts to Interview Soldiers in Case of the Missing 43, Panel Says

In other highlights, the GIEI report said the group was also denied permission to interview members of Mexican Army's 27th Infantry Battalion, which is based in Iguala and has faced intense protests and claims of wrongdoing in the case.

Human rights leaders welcomed the GIEI study, calling it sound and detailed, and saying it raises a troubling prospect for current Mexican officials — if impunity in the matter exceeds recourses for justice inside Mexico's institutions, international bodies may have to become directly involved. Some of the missing students' parents traveled to Geneva in February to call on the United Nations to investigate Mexican officials' handling of the case.

"The report reveals what is at least a strong negligence on the part of the public officials in charge of the investigation, and that's where we believe there should be a serious sanction," Perseo Quiroz, director of Amnesty International Mexico, said in an interview on Wednesday.

"Mexico's government is at its limits," Quiroz added. "Every day the case for a trial at the international level gets stronger."

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the report reinforces the fact that forced disappearances at the hands of Mexican security forces are "generalized," a term that signals the entire government, from the president on down, could possibly be held responsible for such crimes.

"Without this report, the full extent of the investigative failures would probably never have come to light, and the case of the 43 students would have remained closed," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Human Rights Watch director for the Americas. "The country's justice institutions need external scrutiny to avoid a repetition of this shameful performance."

"I won't get tired, I'm not tired," Alvarez, one of the parents, told VICE News on Sunday. "My son is alive and I miss him. I want him home, now."

The full report by the GIEI is available, only in Spanish, here.

Related: The Missing 43: Mexico's Disappeared Students (Full Length)