Everything You Need to Know About the Disappearance of 43 Students That's Threatening to Tear Mexico Apart
According to a new report, Mexican federal police shot at the students and collected bullet casings to cover up their involvement.
Photo via Flickr user numbdog
An investigation by a Mexican magazine into the disappearance of 43 students in September suggests the country's federal police had a hand in the horrific affair.
The report in the print magazine Proceso, coupled with a VICE News investigation that suggested the military was involved, has challenged the government's claims that the federal police and the army did not participate in an attack on the students. Proceso's investigation—based on an unpublished state report the magazine obtained exclusively, legal documents, and surviving students' video and audio recordings—directly contradicts assurances by President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, and calls into question key testimony the Mexican attorney general's office used to substantiate its version of events. (Neither the president's office nor that of the attorney general responded to requests for comment.) Meanwhile, the plight of the "missing 43" has drawn international outrage and sparked protests across the country.
The official story put forth by the Nieto administration is that the mayor of Iguala, Guerrero—where the students disappeared—ordered municipal police to attack the young people as they traveled from Ayotzinapa to participate in a protest. As VICE News reported in September, according to witnesses and the government the Iguala police opened fire, killing three students and then arresting 43 others. The captives were then supposedly handed over to members of local criminal organization Guerreros Unidos—a group the mayor and his wife allegedly had ties to—which then killed the students and burned their remains. Authorities have insisted that the federal police and army had no knowledge of the events as they unfolded. But Proceso's report says that federal and state police monitored the students from the moment they left their school and ambushed them as they entered Iguala.
According to the report, federal police shot at the students and even collected bullet casings after the fact to cover up their involvement.
"It is absolutely not true, it's not true that the Federal Police intervened, there are many baseless assertions [in the report]," Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in an interview with MVS Radio on Tuesday. "I haven't said anything without evidence to back it up."
Steve Fisher, a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the new report, says the testimony the attorney general's office based its investigation around was obtained through torture, which is illegal in Mexico. Fisher and his colleague Anabel Hernandez detail how the navy and federal police tortured key witnesses before the attorney general interviewed them, which renders their testimony inadmissible in court.
"This doesn't differ that much from the way these types of investigations have happened in the past, especially when they need to show desperately that a particular organization was involved—in this case the municipal police," Fisher told VICE.
The government used that information to build its case against Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and to arrest local police officers while clearing federal police and the army of any involvement. But Fisher claims it's unclear what the witnesses' affiliations to organized crime were.
"From the depositions and documents we have, it appears as if they didn't do all of their homework when they were looking to find the primary sources that, according to them, were involved in the attack," he says.
An excerpt of the article is available online, but the full version of the story only appears in the print magazine sold in Mexico. One section describes the men who were interrogated and tortured: Some had been electrocuted and beaten, and one man had more than 30 lesions on his body and internal hemorrhaging in his eyes. A few of the men told the attorney general they wanted to file complaints against the navy and federal police officers who detained them. It was these men who told the Mexican government that Abarca was part of Guerreros Unidos and that there were members of another criminal group, Los Rojos, among the students, and also that the students were armed. One man said he was forced to name colleagues at the school where he taught as criminals and read off a list prepared by the navy, whose personnel interrogated him.
When Mexico's attorney general declared that Abarca had ordered the attack, he said that a radio operator at the Iguala police station named David Hernández Cruz provided that information. According to Proceso, no one by that name works there. Further, the magazine says that the students arrived in Iguala two hours after Abarca's wife finished a presentation she was giving that night, which casts doubt on the claim that Abarca ordered the attack because he wanted to keep the protesters from disrupting that presentation. (Abarca and his wife fled when the news about the disappeared students exploded, but were later found and arrested.)
The students have not been found, though Mexican authorities have discovered mass graves and examined the remains for possible matches. An independent forensic team from Argentina confirmed that one bone fragment it tested belonged to one of the missing students, Alexander Mora, but clarified this month that it was given the remains by the Mexican government; it did not find the remains in the field. Mexico's attorney general said in early December that 80 people had been arrested in connection with the Iguala disappearances, including 44 municipal police officers from Iguala and neighboring Cocula.
In the new report, students who survived the attack described the clothing and gear the police officers were wearing as they shot at the three buses full of students. They wore bulletproof vests, kneepads, helmets, elbow pads, and ski masks, the students said, and one patrol car had a machine gun mounted on it. The Proceso reporters say their investigation revealed that local police do not typically have that kind of gear. A representative of the students provided the two reporters with 12 videos, some of which they released with the excerpt of the article on Saturday. In one of the videos, students are heard saying, "The police are leaving... the Federales [federal police] are staying, they're going to want to hassle us," followed immediately by, "Why are you shooting at us?" In another video, a student is on the phone calling an ambulance and stops to ask the police, "Why are you picking up the bullet casings?" The speaker can't be seen in the dark video, but the man recording the events on his cell phone screams, "Why are you picking them up?! You know what you did, you fucking dog!"
The disappearance has drawn extensive international coverage, but it is not the first time the Mexican federal police have attacked normalistas—the term for teaching students with a political edge—from Ayotzinapa. Normalistas attend teaching colleges in some of the poorest rural areas in the country and have a history of criticizing the government, often staging demonstrations to demand education reform. Because they have few resources and many have to travel great distances to attend college, normalistas often panhandle and hijack buses. That's what the students were doing when police attacked them in September, the Proceso article suggests; they were not on their way to a protest. In 2011, federal police shot at students from Ayotzinapa, killing two, during a demonstration after the group blocked a federal road.
On Sunday—the same day Proceso released its story—VICE News reported that federal police attacked students and the parents of some of the missing as they prepared for a solidarity concert in Guerrero's capital, Chilpancingo.
The report alleges that the attack on the students in September "was directed specifically at the ideological structure" and student government at the institution. Adding to the confusion on Tuesday was another new report, this one in El Universal, which claimed that citizens in a neighboring town were force to cooperate with the Guerreros Unidos cartel in disappearing the students that night. And an independent probe put out last week suggests the government's claim that the students' bodies were incinerated in a neighboring town is implausible.
Mexican outlets are demanding a response to the evidence of federal forces' participation in the incident. The government is still investigating the mass disappearance while holding Abarca in a maximum-security prison and continuing to detain his wife as it builds a case against her. Suffice it to say the search for the truth about exactly what happened to these 43 students is far from over.
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