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Cover-up and Lie: The Peña Nieto Government’s Response to the Case of the 43 MIssing Students of the Ayotzinapa School

On September 26, six persons were assassinated and 43 students abducted by local police and forcibly disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, a city of 110,000 located about 80 miles south of Mexico City. The case has sparked widespread demonstrations in Mexico and around the world calling for the safe return of the students, justice and the resignation of government officials involved, including President Enrique Peña Nieto.


Five busloads of students were attacked throughout the night of September 26 and predawn hours of September 27. Survivors, testimony of suspects and the Federal Attorney General’s Office confirm that members of the Iguala police force opened fire on the students in the initial attack, followed by attacks with the apparent involvement of members of the organized crime group Guerreros Unidos.

The students were mostly freshmen from the Rural Teaching College “Raúl Isidro Burgos”. The college trains young men from poor, rural, often indigenous communities to teach in communities like their own and has a history of radical politics, student activism and a curriculum based on revolutionary ideals from its founding in 1926. Many people, including the students, believe that the clear profile of the school as a leader in the opposition to recent economic and political reforms led by the Peña government is the reason behind the attacks.

The government has arrested members of the local police and claimed that the then-mayor, in collusion with organized crime, ordered the ambush. The mayor, José Luis Abarca; his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda; local police and alleged members of Guerreros Unidos have been arrested. The Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam put forth the hypothesis (based on testimony from the drug cartel members) that the students were turned over to the neighboring Cocula police force, which turned them over to Guerreros Unidos. This group allegedly murdered the students and incinerated their bodies in the Cocula dump. Ashes found in bags in a nearby river have yielded a positive identification for just one student so far, according to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and other independent forensics experts. The EAAF expressly stated, however, that its members were “not present at the moment the divers and the [attorney general’s investigators] recovered the bag and did not participate in the finding,” suggesting doubt about the government’s claims and uncertainty about whether or not the government tampered or manipulated evidence in the case.


Events: While there is general agreement on the events before the disappearance, the Attorney General’s claims regarding what happened afterward have been contested by students, parents, forensic experts and a University of California investigative report. Several forensics experts assert that 43 bodies could not have been burned at the dump due to the degree of heat required, the lack of metal debris and the state of surrounding plant life. The UC Berkeley report interviewed witnesses and reviewed documents from the day of the alleged incineration and none reported an inferno of the size necessary to incinerate the bodies. The parents have accused the government of providing false information to call off the search for their sons alive and close the case before it goes any higher up.

Motive: The Attorney General claims that the mayor feared the students would disrupt a political event held by his wife and ordered the police to stop them. The students claim they didn’t even know about the event. Subsequent investigations show the event ended before the attack took place at about 9:30 pm. Evidence from police logs also shows that the police were monitoring the students since they left the school for Iguala and that the attacks in separate locations targeted the original student buses. Since local police, state police and the Army Battalion coordinate in the C4 Center that received the reports, these internal documents indicate a level of planning and coordination that calls into question the federal government hypothesis that the crime was the act of one angry and corrupted mayor and organized crime. As the motive of the mayor acting with the cartel to order the attack breaks down, it becomes more important to investigate the possibility of a political motive with knowledge and coordination at a higher level. This has seemingly been discarded by the government, leading to more suspicions and criticisms of the lack of transparency and good-faith effort to resolve the disappearances and the crimes.

Participation of Federal Police and Army: Survivor testimonies and the UC Berkeley investigation confirm that members of the Federal Police and 27th Army Battalion stationed very near the scene of the crime were present and had knowledge of the attacks before, during and after. Although the attacks lasted for hours and left dying and severely wounded youth, these forces did not intervene to stop the attacks or protect the students. Some testimony also indicates direct involvement of the Federal Police in the shooting.

Government response: President Enrique Peña Nieto’s immediate response was to insist that the Ayotzinapa case was a matter of state jurisdiction. His government did not take the case until Oct. 4. The state government failed to charge the mayor until Sept. 30, allowing him to time to escape although he was captured several weeks later.

Murillo Karam announced that drug cartel members arrested had led them to four mass graves on the outskirts of Iguala that held the bodies of the students, implying that the case was solved. After weeks of doubts and agonizing wait, forensics experts reported that none of the bodies matched the missing students. No explanation was given as to how — or why -the PGR had been given this misinformation and presented it as fact. Only a few of those bodies have been identified. Mistrust deepened and accusations of a cover-up increased as the parents continued to insist on a search for their sons alive, accusing the government of only seeking gravesites.

On Nov. 7, the Attorney General announced a second version, also from arrested suspects, that the students were murdered and killed in Cocula. It has not been scientifically confirmed. Relatives demand the search continue.

The government has alternately remained silent, given incorrect information or shown insensitivity in the face of this terrible crime. At the Nov. 7 press conference, Murillo Karam cut it off with “I’m tired now”, leading to the hashtag #YaMeCansé and USTired2. Peña announced that it was time to “get over it” on Dec. 4, provoking indignant responses from parents and supporters who proclaimed they would not get over their sons’ fate until they were home safe.

The UC Berkeley reporters cite documents showing that the Army base refused to allow an inspection as part of the investigation. As it is under President Peña, it is unclear why the battalion did not fully cooperate with the investigation.

Human rights violations, crimes and corruption

The above indicates the confirmed or suspected commission of the following crimes and human rights violations by the government:

  1. Homicide and attempted homicide by local police
  2. Homicide and attempted homicide by federal police (under the Secretary of the Government)
  3. Complicity of the Armed Forces. The Army did not intervene to protect the students when police opened fire. Although they were ostensibly there to fight the drug cartels, the Army apparently had a close relationship with the narco-mayor, having donated part of the land for the construction of his shopping center and attended his political events. The Army also tried to prevent wounded students from receiving medical attention at a local clinic, evicting them reportedly with insults and accusing them of breaking and entering, according to testimonies.
  4. Collusion of security forces and government officials with Transnational Criminal Organizations, including the mayor of Iguala, local authorities in neighboring municipalities and other officials that should be investigated.
  5. The governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre was forced to resign following widespread accusations of his protection of the corrupt officials and possible involvement in the crime. It is unclear if current investigations include his role.
  6. The Attorney General’s office received charges against the former mayor Abarca previously and did not act on them.
  7. Documents revealed in the UCB investigation showed evidence and formal accusations of torture used in interrogation of several alleged members of organized crime.
  8. The Iguala chief of police has not been captured, nor several of the cartel leaders implicated in the crime. The mayor of Cocula was released for lack of evidence, despite the fact that his police force is accused of handing the students over to Guerreros Unidos. Although many people have been arrested, there is evidence of torture to obtain confessions. Eyewitnesses contacted in journalistic investigations report that they were never contacted by government investigators. Bodies found in mass graves have not been explained and in many cases not identified. The population has lost faith in the will and capacity of the government to enforce the law.
  9. Enforced disappearance of at least 42 people
  10. Arbitrary detention, lack of due process, and the criminalization of social protest

The direct involvement of security forces – local police and quite probably federal police and army forces – and likely political motive behind the massacre and disappearances, as well as the pathetic response of the federal government, have proved the tipping point for Mexican society. Demonstrations of tens of thousands of people have been held in Mexico City and other major cities. Human rights organizations are demanding a thorough investigation, the safe return of the students and the withdrawal of military outposts. Citizen groups are taking over local governments, citing corruption of authorities.

The Mexican society is demanding justice. The US government can no longer turn a blind eye to cases like Ayotzinapa. The drug war policy of funding, arming and training corrupt police and armed forces has created widespread instability, violence and erosion of the rule of law and of human rights.