After the abrupt departure of a panel of international experts exactly 5 months ago, the Mexican government has done nothing to rectify its botched handling of 43 students from a small, rural college in mountainous Guerrero state who were “disappeared” one tragic night in September 2014.
Evidence uncovered by the experts, set forth in a 605-page report, repudiated the government’s version of what happened — yet failed to answer the most pressing questions: Where are the 43 young men? How was such a massive attack possible? Why did it happen?
Unfortunately, these questions may never be answered. The experts said they couldn’t resolve the case because of the government’s sustained campaign of harassment, stonewalling and intimidation against them.
“The conditions to conduct our work don’t exist,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, a panel member who earned international recognition for prosecuting a former Guatemalan dictator on charges of genocide. “And in Mexico, the proof is that the government opposed the extension of our mandate, isn’t it?”
The pressure on the investigators — described by four of the five panel members in interviews with The New York Times — undermines promises by the Mexican government to cooperate fully and uncover what happened to the students, one of the worst human rights abuses in the country’s recent memory.
The episode was labeled by Amnesty International as “another dark stain in the Mexican government’s atrocious human rights record”.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, a Director at Amnesty International, noted that “by refusing to follow up all possible lines of investigation, manipulating evidence, failing to protect and support the student’s relatives and rejecting the request to extend the (investigators’) mandate… the Mexican authorities are sending the dangerous message that anyone can disappear in Mexico and nothing will be done about it.”
She’s not the only one who believes this.
Did the old PRI ever disappear?
When Peña Nieto and his team speak about free trade, it’s hard not to sense an elephant in the room. You can smell it, almost taste it. For despite their bold reforms, the nation’s top officials still think and act in old ways.
In the case of the “Missing 43”, for example, the federal government focused its entire investigation on the complicity of local police. In a word, they blamed it on the locals. To increase their credibility, the government invited experts to independently verify its conclusions.
The problem arose when evidence gathered by the investigators, including the testimony of students and other eyewitnesses who survived the attacks, confirmed that “other authorities, including federal police and locally stationed military units, had either participated in or closely observed the actions taken against the Ayotzinapa students that night.”
At this point, the Mexicans realized that their version of events (what the nation’s then-public prosecutor called “the historic truth”) had major inconsistencies. At that point, “the government attempted what seems to be an increasingly common pattern — kill the messenger,” said Tony Payan, an expert on Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The investigation “has only created more confusion. And that may be what the government wants.”
Despite promises that it would aid in making all necessary evidence and witnesses available, the Mexicans reneged on the deal. They refused interview requests for high-ranking officials. They prohibited contact with the military. Worse still, Mexico’s major TV outlets began running stories maligning the character of the investigators.
“After our report, it was pretty clear the relationship had changed,” said Francisco Cox, a Chilean human rights lawyer and a member of the group of experts. “They still thought that we would sustain their version of what had happened.”
Perhaps the most direct example of government pressure came in the form of a criminal inquiry opened into Emilio Álvarez Icaza, the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the international body that appointed the experts.
In the end, the experts went home. But their findings – two major reports issued by forensic specialists at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – contradicts the government, which many suspect of covering up what actually happened on the night in September 2014 when the 43 college students were abducted by the police and never seen or heard from again.
Although prosecutors arrested over 100 people in connection with the case, none have been convicted. Dozens of key witnesses used by the government to support its claims were tortured, casting doubt on the reliability of their statements and likely making them inadmissible in a courtroom.
There were other major flaws in the official investigation: dates were muddled, records missing. An investigating prosecutor signed documents in two different places on the same day.
What the findings describe is not uncommon in Mexican criminal investigations, experts say.
In sum, the “Missing 43” has become an emblem of what many regard as government impunity and state collusion with criminal groups that has led to either the murder or disappearance of tens of thousands of people since Mexico declared its war on drugs over a decade ago.
The sealed-lip discipline now on display by Mexican officials shows, if anything, that adherence to the old PRI code – resolute silence and non-interference in the unlawful acts of comrades – is still alive and kicking. This is how the PRI has always acted in times of crisis.
The only difference is that now, with the internet and 44 free trade pacts under its belt, Mexico is being subject to different standards.