Years later, the parents of the 43 missing students are no closer to answers.



Why Can't the Mexican Government Solve The Case of 43 Missing Students?

It’s been over a year and half since busses full of students from a leftist college in Ayontzinapa were attacked outside the city of Iguala, Mexico. While returning from a political protest, some of the students were killed by cartel members, others ran for their lives, and 43 were left unaccounted for. In the time since the Iguala attacks, the narrative surrounding the story has been considerably muddied. And, if the weekend reports from independent experts are anything to go by, it won’t be cleared up anytime soon. For a case described by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “crucial test for the willingness and the capacity of the Mexican State to deal with serious violations of human rights,” they’ve clearly failed.

The report from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, which was released yesterday, and the report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which came out last year, directly contradict the established history put forth by President Enrique Peña Nieto‘s administration, and cast doubt on the entire investigation. Troublingly, the reports add more questions to a tragedy that already has evidence of torture, governmental cover ups, and collusion between cartels and state officials. After Iguala, here are just some of the unanswered questions this Human Rights quagmire has left us with.

Why were the students attacked?

A crime needs a motive, and, as of yet, there are conflicting reports as to why these students were so brutally attacked. The state maintains that the attacks were carried out by members of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang, who mistook the students for a rival group, the Rojos. Municipal police members, in the pockets of the Unidos cartel, held the busses before handing students over to the gang members. The missing students were then executed, incinerated, and dumped in one of the many mass graves in the Guerrero region. As a result of the investigation, 22 municipal police officers and eight cartel members have been arrested.

This narrative, however, has been challenged from all angles. Both groups of experts have described the scenario as an impossibility. Though the story was defended by former Attorney General Murillo Karam as “the historical truth,” it hasn’t held up to scrutiny as a timeline, nor as an evidence-backed claim. Though around 130 bodies have been found in clandestine graves around Iguala, none of the cremains have matched up with the missing 43. Instead of identifying bodies, the investigation has just added more to the count.

The Police Force stands nearby one of the Iguala grave sites
The police force stands near one of the Iguala grave sites, where officials have been searching for the missing 43.

The main source for the government’s account comes from the testimony of three Unidos members who were arrested after their attack. However, the independent report reveals a campaign of torture by police that suggests these accounts and others were made under extreme duress. One suspect told the Associated Press that he’d been electrocuted, water-boarded, and asphyxiated “for hours” during detention. That’s not a confession, that’s a plea.

Why has the government been uncooperative during the investigation?

The most recent independent study hypothesizes that the students inadvertently rented busses used by cartels to traffic heroin. However, this narrative isn’t sufficiently substantiated, in part due to an extra layer of obfuscation added by Mexican government. Though President Nieto publically committed to resolving the Missing 43 case, his administration has resisted cooperation with several independent review teams. According to reports, requests for documents were purposely abandoned in bureaucratic hell. Experts were uniformly denied access to military reports, despite the fact that the presence of soldiers was verified at several of the students’ last known locations. Speaking to The Washington Post, Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, described the report as “devastating,” saying that “it’s shown to what extent this government was willing to go, not to find the students, but to impose a fiction that it calls a historic truth.”

As the allegations of corruption in the aftermath of the Missing 43, peaceful and violent protests erupted nationwide. Amid burning rubble and bleeding protesters, there is little doubt that Nieto’s administration has frustrated the Mexican people.

Signs from a protest in Mexico City reveal the names and faces of the 43
Signs from a protest in Mexico City reveal the names and faces of the 43.

Will Mexico be able to get drug money out of politics?

So far, the response to the Missing 43 has addressed the case symptomatically. The mayor of Iguala and his wife, with clear political ties to the cartel, were arrested. Members of the Guerreros Unidos gang, including its leader, have been specifically targeted and detained. However, these strategies do little to address the larger problems of governmental transparency, human rights violations, and cartel money in politics that have plagued Nieto’s presidency.

Since his administration began work on the case, Nieto's approval rating has plummeted
Since his administration began work on the case, Nieto’s approval rating has plummeted

On one end, the police force’s cat-and-mouse with the cartel has resulted in overwhelming violence. On the other end, the closed-door agreements between police and drug gangs helped cause this tragedy in the first place. One of the few established facts regarding the Missing 43 case is that the students went from being held by local police to being terrorized by drug cartel members. If Nieto and his administration cannot adequately remove gang interests from the political system, cartel crimes will continue to disrupt Mexico, leaving missing bodies and unanswered questions in their wake.

Images via Reported.ly, BBC, AP, The Guardian.

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