World News

Mexican Court Orders New Inquiry Into Disappearance of 43 Students

Posted June 5, 2018 1:55 a.m. EDT

MEXICO CITY — A federal court in Mexico ordered the government on Monday to investigate the 2014 disappearances of 43 college students again, but this time under the supervision of a truth commission to be led by the nation’s top human rights body and parents of the victims.

The order came in response to legal motions filed by several defendants accused of taking part in the students’ violent abduction, which took place in September 2014 and quickly became an international scandal for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The suspects accused the government of using torture to force confessions, an accusation that the United Nations also made in a recent report.

But rather than simply validate the allegations of torture, the three judges of the 1st Collegiate Tribunal of the 19th Circuit unanimously delivered a broad and sweeping indictment of the entire case, describing it as “neither prompt, effective, independent nor impartial.”

They accused the nation’s attorney general’s office of ignoring lines of evidence that contradicted its theory of the case, and they ordered the creation of a so-called truth commission to oversee the new investigation.

The body would be led by the victims’ families and their representatives as well as members of the National Commission for Human Rights, in addition to the government’s own prosecutors. It would also allow for the inclusion of international experts in forensics and human rights.

The ruling shocked lawyers representing the families of the disappeared — not only because it validated years of painstaking effort to seek an impartial inquiry in the face of government intransigence, but also because it cannot be appealed.

“I can’t think of a historic precedent for this,” said Mario Patron, the head of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, the group representing the families of the missing students.

Patron, who had no idea the ruling was coming and spent several hours with his group’s lawyers reviewing the 1,200-page decision on Monday evening, added, “The truth is that it’s a massive blow for this government.”

The federal attorney general’s office replied late Monday that it was still reviewing the ruling but that it disagreed with the judges, and with their understanding of the separation of powers and faculties of the prosecution.

After four years of clinging to a version of events that few shared, the government was ordered to scrap its entire case and start over, but this time with a guarantee that the victims’ relatives and human rights advocates can direct the lines of inquiry.

The disappearance of the students at a rural teacher-training college, who were abducted in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, by police officers working with criminal gangs, has become a symbol of the violence, corruption and impunity that plague Mexico.

As their whereabouts is still a mystery — the remains of just one have been identified — the case has become a stand-in for those of tens of thousands of Mexicans who have vanished in the drug war. The sheer scale of the tragedy forced a public reckoning, if not a legal one, on the toll inflicted by the nation’s violence and broken rule of law.

From the beginning, shortly after the government began its investigation, officials hewed to a single narrative, one that families, human rights lawyers and international officials openly questioned.

In that version, infamously dubbed “the historic truth” by the attorney general at the time, the students ran afoul of a drug gang and were kidnapped by the police working on behalf of the criminal group. The students were then killed, and their bodies burned in a nearby dump, which explained why the government found practically no remains.

But that account never really explained the motive for the violent abductions, which left six people dead and 40 wounded at the scene. It ignored facts both material and suggestive, including the impossibility of creating enough heat at an outdoor dump to completely incinerate so many bodies or any indications that governmental complicity went higher than the municipal level.

The case seemed to catalyze the long-standing mistrust that Mexicans feel for their government, stirring an uproar that included marches of a half-million people down the capital’s main avenue. Eventually, the government was forced to allow an international panel of experts to travel to Mexico to assist in the investigation.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States, appointed a panel of lawyers, investigators and human rights specialists from across the Spanish-speaking world to look into what had happened.

But from practically the moment the group arrived, it clashed with the government. Officials denied its members access to crucial information, they claimed, or delayed their requests indefinitely. The experts were not allowed to interview military officials who were in the area when the abductions occurred.

In report after report issued by the group’s members, the government’s narrative began to unravel. The group hired fire experts to testify to the impossibility of the government’s thesis; it contradicted facts asserted by the government; and it asserted that suspects in the case had been tortured.

Angered by the panel’s work, the government abruptly ended its mandate, an official way of kicking the experts out of the country. It later came to light that both the experts and the lawyers at the center that represents the families were being spied on via government malware.

Since then, the case has languished, even as the families and the lawyers for the human rights center continue to demand justice, questioning the impartiality of the attorney general, who is appointed by Mexico’s president.

On the anniversary of the abductions, the families of the missing students and their supporters have continued to march for justice in Mexico City, but the numbers have grown thinner each year, and the pressure had eased on the government to resolve the case.

Though the government agreed to a follow-up mechanism, wherein the Inter-American Commission could continue monitoring the case, there have been few advances to speak of. The government has not changed its version of the case, despite evidence produced by the victims’ advocates to contradict elements of it.

Recently, the U.N. appeared to corroborate what many human rights groups had charged: that the government’s entire case was built on coerced confessions.

In response, the government said that the accusations of torture were under investigation.

But in their ruling on Monday the federal court’s judges agreed that the torture of suspects appeared designed to favor the government narrative of events. They agreed that the attorney general’s office acted neither impartially nor autonomously.

The court also criticized the government for failing to follow leads that did not accord with its version of events, including the potential complicity of federal forces in the disappearances.

“There is no sign that they even explored the lines of investigation that signaled participation of personnel from the Mexican army or the Federal Police,” the decision said. “And on top of that it also appears that they have not investigated the torture, which implies that the personnel to which those acts are attributed have not been investigated, among them, members of the Mexican navy.”

None of the previous investigations or protests have been able to summon government action. In this respect, the court’s action on Monday could be different.

For some, it is the first glimmer of hope since the international experts left.

“This is a historic decision that brings hope to the victims that they can trust again in the Mexican judicial system,” said Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer and a member of the international group of experts hired to help investigate the case in Mexico. “It is very satisfying to see a court of law validate our conclusions and agree that other lines of investigations should have been followed.” Still, Cox and others said they wondered whether a government on its way out — Mexico holds a presidential election in less than a month, and the governing party is running a distant third — would lift a finger to comply with the ruling.

The court gave the government 10 days to comply, a herculean feat even for a motivated state.

“I hope, for the rule of law in Mexico, that this decision is respected and executed in full by the government,” Cox said. “Anything short of that will cast doubt on the willingness of the Mexican authorities to follow the law.”