A sensational report surfaced this week of a mass kidnapping in the same municipality in Guerrero, Mexico, where 43 students disappeared earlier this year — but days later the reporter behind the story admitted her reporting was unverified and contained several inaccuracies.
The journalist, Laurence Cuvillier, published a report on November 26 in France24 that 31 high school students were abducted this summer in Cocula, the town where drug cartel members told investigators they executed 43 students abducted by police in nearby Iguala in September. Cuvillier later admitted in an interview with Imagen, a Mexican radio network, that she had "committed errors in [her] investigation" by failing to verify information. France24 has removed the story from its website.
But the flawed report led Mexican officials to admit more kidnappings have occurred in Cocula, though the details of these incidents remain unclear.
The state's interim governor Rogelio Ortega — who took office after his predecessor resigned amid public outrage over the recent mass kidnapping — told Univision that 31 students were apparently kidnapped in July 2013, a year earlier than Cuvillier reported.
Other Mexican officials contradicted the Guerrero governor's statements about the kidnapping.
Mexico's attorney general's office issued a statement acknowledging Cuvillier's report, but refuting many of her claims. The statement said the director of Justo Sierra high school in Cocula has "no knowledge" of a mass kidnapping, and that the school's 145 students have all been accounted for. The statement said the supervisor of the area's school district — which includes Cocula, Iguala, and neighboring Tepécua — had received "no report of a disappearance of students or any incidents" at the area's schools.
The director of Cocula's middle school told Excelsior newspaper that 17 people were kidnapped in the town in the summer of 2013, but that none came from his school.
Ortega, meanwhile, said an organized crime group kidnapped the students last year, but there was "no complaint" filed with authorities so the crime was never investigated. Ortega told local media that the mass disappearance was "not a new phenomenon," and offered no information about the possible whereabouts of the alleged victims.
Ortega and the Mexican attorney general's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment from VICE News on Sunday.
Cuvillier has insisted that, despite the inaccuracies in her report, students are indeed missing in Cocula and that investigations are ongoing. Her report featured an interview with the mother of a student who was allegedly kidnapped. The woman said her teenage daughter has been missing since last July. She said the kidnappers wore masks, took students away in police vehicles, and threatened to kill residents if they reported the incident.
"On July 17, a bunch of gunmen arrived and took my daughter and [other] kids when they were leaving school," the woman reportedly said. "Nobody moved because everybody was afraid of the gunmen, who have threatened everybody."
The woman's account could not be independently verified by VICE News reporters on the ground in Guerrero.
In a statement emailed to VICE News, Cuvillier acknowledged she "might have been wrong on the number of kidnapped youngsters," but said she had three separate sources reporting a mass kidnapping.
"I still think that something happened on that day," Cuvillier said. "I am still investigating on this."
Cuvillier also maintained that her primary source, the woman she interviewed about her missing daughter, was not "crazy" as some critical local media outlets have suggested.
Prior to the abduction of the 43 students in September, the Mexican government received 89 reports of kidnapping in Guerrero in 2014. With many people fearful of reporting crimes to the authorities, that number is likely much higher. Across the country, more than 22,300 people have been reported missing since former President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.
News of the abduction surfaced just as another student and prominent activist was arrested under suspicious circumstances in Mexico City on Friday. Video footage shows Sandino Bucio, a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a member of the political group YoSoy132, being grabbed by a group of men near campus, forced into an unmarked car, and driven away.
By Saturday, local media reported that police had taken Bucio. The student later told SDP Noticias that he was threatened and abused in police custody.
"The [police] threatened me that they were going to make me disappear like the students of Ayotzinapa," Bucio reportedly said, referring to the missing 43 students. "They said they were going to violate me, they hit me in the face, the back, the chest, they threatened me, they handcuffed me, and they told me they were going to kill me."
Bucio spent Friday night in jail but was released Saturday, and his father told a crowd of protesters outside the police station that the family planned to sue the police department.
The tumultuous week in Mexico unfolded as President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a new security plan Thursday. Human Rights Watch immediately criticized the plan, saying the measures did not amount to serious reforms, El Universal reported.
Disheartened citizens mocked the security plan on social media, including a proposal to create a 911 line for emergencies. Mexico already has an emergency line, but the current number is 066.
"Peña Nieto is a genius. Who would have imagined that all the problems could be solved by changing 066 to 911?" Mexico City resident Santi Ortiz Tweeted. "#respect."
This story has been updated since it was initially published. An earlier version failed to mention Cuvillier's partial retraction of her story and some of the inconsistencies between the various reports of the alleged 2013 kidnapping.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman
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