Mexico's government has agreed to relaunch its investigation into the last year's disappearance of 43 student teachers in the southern city of Iguala in what amounts to a tacit admission that its existing probe has little credibility.
The announcement was made during a special session on the case at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington on Tuesday.
"It will be a new team that will relaunch the investigation," Eber Betanzos, deputy attorney general for human rights, said during the session. "The investigation will not close until the last person responsible is in the courts."
The disappearance of the students, after they were attacked on 26 September last year in the southern city of Iguala by local police in league with a local drug gang, sparked a wave of public outrage that has yet to be resolved. The government's international image has also been seriously damaged by the widespread perception that its investigation has put more effort into deflecting blame away from federal institutions than in finding out what happened to the missing students from the Ayotzinapa teacher-training college.
"Up until now the Mexican government has proved incapable of carrying out a serious, rigorous and credible investigation," José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. Vivanco described the investigation's relaunch as a "positive change," though he added, "We will have to see if the agreement is reflected in concrete actions that mean an investigation that meets minimal standards."
The announcement was part of a wider agreement reached by government officials and members of a group of international experts that was assembled by the Inter-American Commission earlier this year to study the case.
The expert's report released last month pushed the already much-questioned government probe into crisis by meticulously exposing the lack of evidence behind its central conclusions that the students were attacked because they were confused with a rival drug gang, and that their bodies were incinerated in a garbage dump.
The agreement also promises the experts an active role in the selection of the new investigators as well as the new leads they will explore. It also says the experts will participate in both a relaunch of the search for the students using state-of-the-art technology and a new technical study to evaluate whether the garbage dump incineration hypothesis has any scientific basis.
"We hope that the state sees this as an opportunity in the struggle against impunity," one of the experts, Carlos Beristain, said of the agreement. "We hope that it also aids the many other cases in Mexico that are waiting to advance towards justice."
The government's delegation at the special session repeatedly assured the Inter-American Commissioners of their commitment to get to the bottom of the case, and praised the contribution of the group of experts.
A major potential sticking point in the new phase of the investigation nevertheless surfaced during a brief question and answer session that touched on the experts' complaints about not being allowed to talk to military personnel from Iguala, who were monitoring the attacks on the students.
Roberto Campa, the undersecretary for human rights in the interior ministry, gave a long, hesitant and confusing response to a question about the new investigation's willingness to overrule the minister of defense's recent statement that he would "not permit" the experts to interrogate the soldiers. Campa's response became somewhat shorter, but not much clearer, when Commission President Rose-Marie Belle Antoine insisted he give a "yes or no" answer.
The 111 detainees currently incarcerated as a result of the government's now largely discredited probe represent another potential problem. This is particularly relevant in the case of alleged drug gang members whose confessions form the basis of the version that the students were incinerated in the dump, and who have since claimed that they were tortured.
The government's willingness to at least promise a new and more rigorous investigation into what happened to the Ayotzinapa case, with direct participation of the group of experts from the Inter-American Commission, comes at a time of escalating international criticism over its general human rights record. This includes pressure to address abuses carried out by the army within the context of Mexico's efforts to contain violent drug cartels, such as the case of an alleged massacre of gunmen after they had surrendered in the municipality of Tlatlaya in June last year.
This week the US State Department revealed that concern over human rights violations in Mexico prompted it to withhold $5 million from a security aid package known as the Merida Initiative. While the amount is small, the decision sends a powerful message given that US governments have regularly ignored requests they withhold such funds made by human rights activists in the past.
"The State Department used to turn a blind eye [to human rights violations]," Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister when the aid package was originally negotiated in 2007, told Radio Fórmula. "This is a historic change of attitude."
Castañeda noted that as well as the Inter-American Commission and the State Department, Mexico also recently received a rebuke from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Husseinduring during his recent visit to Mexico City. The former minister predicted a similar scolding would soon come from the European Union.
"There are two options now," Castañeda said. "Either the human rights violations stop, or the whole world will continue to criticize Mexico."
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