NYT: Experts Reject Official Account of How 43 Mexican Students Were Killed
By PAULINA VILLEGAS
In print on September 7, 2015
MEXICO CITY — An international committee of experts reviewing the case of 43 missing college students whose disappearance last fall traumatized Mexico said Sunday that there was no evidence to support the government’s conclusion that the students were executed by a drug gang that then burned the bodies to ashes in a garbage dump.
Not only did physical evidence contradict the government’s version of what happened to the students, but the review showed that federal police and soldiers knew that the students were being attacked by the municipal police and failed to intervene.
The report’s conclusions were a sharp rebuke to the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which had sought to put the case to rest. Its release could rekindle the widespread anger and incredulity that flared in the weeks after the students vanished from Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero last Sept. 26.
That episode helped shatter the image that the president had worked hard to establish — as a modern young reformer poised to turbocharge Mexico’s economy, and it thrust the nation’s chronic afflictions of organized crime and corruption back into the public consciousness.
“We ask the Mexican authorities to clarify the disappearance of the students and to make a general reassessment of the entire investigation,” said Carlos Beristain, one of the five members of the panel appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States.
“The brutal actions shows the extent of impunity in which the state security forces acted along with organized crime,” added Mr. Beristain, a Spaniard who has worked on many human rights investigations in Latin America that involved disappearances.
After the report’s release, Mr. Peña Nieto said on Twitter that he had ordered investigators to take into account the experts’ recommendations.
Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gómez, called the committee’s work “crucial” and added that prosecutors would carefully analyze the findings and ponder whether to incorporate them into the inquiry.
She said that the report’s recommendation for a second forensic investigation at the dump site would be carried out with a new team of “high-quality and prestigious experts.”
According to the government’s account, about 100 students who attended a teachers college in the town of Ayotzinapa went to Iguala to steal buses for transportation to a demonstration.
The authorities say that Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered his police force to subdue the students. Three students were killed by the police. Forty-three others were taken off the buses and turned over to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, that was allied with the mayor, according to the official account.
Six weeks after the disappearance, the Mexican authorities said that the students had been taken to a garbage dump in the neighboring town of Cocula, killed, and cremated in a giant pyre of wood and tires doused with gasoline.
Yet the clearest sign that the government’s version was not true came from the dump itself, according to the report.
“The students simply were not burned in that place,” said Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer and another member of the panel. The intense heat needed to burn 43 bodies would have blackened the surrounding vegetation, and, José Torero, a leading fire expert engaged by the panel, agreed that there was no evidence to support the government’s scenario.
The report concluded with a strong recommendation that the Mexican authorities reconsider the entire case based on the investigation’s “clear shortcomings” and “serious inconsistencies.”
That investigation, the report charged, took a haphazard and improvised approach, and much of the case that resulted was based on testimony from police officers and gang members, who later claimed that they had been tortured.
The report did not establish where the students went or even whether they were killed. Only one body has been identified, from a bone that the authorities said was found near the dump. The other 42 should still be considered “disappeared,” the report’s authors said.
Many other questions remain unanswered. Recordings from C4, the communications system that coordinates information for local, state and federal police, as well as the army, were not available to explain critical lapses as events unfolded on Sept. 26 and in the early hours of Sept. 27. Videos from security cameras were lost, and in one case erased. Clothing left behind by the victims was not tested until last month. The dump and other potential crime scenes were left unguarded for days.
Human rights activists who have been following the case offered searing assessments.
“This report provides an utterly damning indictment of Mexico’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “Even with the world watching and with substantial resources at hand, the authorities proved unable or unwilling to conduct a serious investigation.”
Santiago Canton, the executive director of RFK Partners for Human Rights at Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in an interview that “lives could have been saved and this could have been prevented.”
The report also suggested a possible motive — something that the government had not been able to establish with any specificity.
The region around Iguala is a key source of heroin for the American Midwest, and evidence in a Chicago drug case showed that traffickers use long-distance buses similar to the ones taken that night to smuggle the drug.
One of the five buses that the students took was not examined until months later.
The panel rejected possible motives suggested by the authorities, including that some of the students belonged to a rival narcotics outfit.
At a news conference on Sunday evening, María de Jesús Tlatempa, the mother of one of the missing students, said, “We are the victims of our own government because they lied to us.”
During the news conference, a chant rose repeatedly: “Alive they took them, alive we want them back.”