WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Sep 2017 | News

Update on Mexico’s Case of 43 Disappeared Students (September 2017)

In 2014, 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in the Mexican state of Guerrero were attacked by security forces and forcibly disappeared. After commandeering five commercial passenger buses in the city of Iguala to use for students to travel to a demonstration, the students were intercepted, attacked, and detained by security forces in the area. Since then, the remains of one student have been located and identified, but the whereabouts of the other 42 victims remain unknown. September 26, 2017 marks the third anniversary of the students’ disappearance. Below is an update on the investigation into the case for 2017.

March: IACHR holds hearing on Ayotzinapa case during 161st Ordinary Period of Sessions

In a March hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Mexican government again stated that its main theory about what happened to the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa is that they were killed and burned at a trash dump by members of an organized criminal group, despite the fact that this theory had already been discredited by numerous scientific analyses.

April: IACHR Follow-Up Mechanism to Ayotzinapa case makes second visit to Mexico

During its second visit to Mexico in April, the Follow-Up Mechanism appointed by the IACHR to monitor the investigation expressed concern about the government’s insistence on validating the trash dump theory and urged the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) to thoroughly pursue the various other lines of investigation indicated by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) established by the IACHR to provide technical assistance to the government in the investigation. During the visit, the PGR presented a timeline for addressing the Group of Experts’ recommendations and agreed to report on progress made in the lines of investigation by October.

May: Family members of the disappeared students meet with Mexican Attorney General

On May 31, family members of the missing students met with Attorney General Raúl Cervantes Andrade to request that the PGR’s investigation timeline be expedited in order to show concrete advances in the investigation by August, given that over a year and a half had already passed since the Group of Experts released its first report on the case in September 2015. Together with members of the Follow-Up Mechanism, the families urged the PGR to promptly and thoroughly explore the lines of investigation into:

  • The possible involvement of several security forces. There is evidence that security forces from all three levels of government were present in the area where the students clashed with local police and that they were aware of the attacks against the students but did not intervene to protect them. There is also evidence that some members of the Federal Police were involved in the students’ disappearance.
  • Telephone communications. Tracking and analyzing the students’ and suspected perpetrators’ cell phone data has led to a number of important advances in the case, including the confirmation that an additional police force, the Huitzuco Municipal Police, were involved in the students’ disappearance.
  • The possible connection between the students’ disappearance and the trafficking of drugs into the United States. In its first report, the Group of Experts highlighted the possibility that the students may have been targeted for unknowingly commandeering a bus being used to transport hidden drugs or money. The city of Iguala, where the students commandeered the buses, is an important hub for the northbound trafficking of heroin. As the Experts highlighted, there were contradictions in the PGR’s case file regarding one of the buses—the fifth bus—as well as discrepancies in the bus driver’s testimony. Their unintentional use of a bus transporting drugs may also explain why the students were met with such extreme violence to prevent the bus from leaving the city.
  • Using LIDAR technology, a remote sensing technology that may help to identify clandestine graves in the area, to search for the students.
  • Initiating federal criminal trials to investigate the deaths and injuries of others involved in the case. In the events leading up to the students’ disappearance, six people were killed and dozens were injured. Two of the students who survived the attack are still recovering from their injuries: Edgar Andrés Vargas suffered a bullet wound to the jaw and Aldo Gutiérrez Solano remains in a vegetative state. To date, the PGR has not assumed jurisdiction over any of these cases.

July: IACHR holds hearing on Ayotzinapa case during 163rd Special Session

At the IACHR’s “Special Follow-Up Mechanism for Ayotzinapa, Mexico” public hearing in July, the Mexican government reported that it had not yet made any further progress in determining the whereabouts of the students or identifying those responsible for their disappearance. However, Mexican officials reported advances in the lines of investigation into:

  • Telephone communications. The Mexican government recognized that investigations into the students’ cell phone activity revealed serious flaws in its original theory of what happened to the students. Nine of the 43 students’ cell phones were active after midnight on September 26, 2014, when—according to the government’s official version of events—the phones had already been destroyed at the trash dump where the students were allegedly killed and incinerated by the Guerreros Unidos organized crime group. The PGR has documented that some of these phones were active for weeks and even months after the students’ disappearance. It is important to investigate who used these students’ phones and how they had access to them as this may provide information that could assist in determining the students’ whereabouts.
  • The possible connection between the students’ disappearance and the trafficking of drugs into the United States. Mexican officials confirmed that the fifth bus did not take the route that authorities originally claimed and that the bus was intercepted by police before leaving the city. This adds further evidence to the possibility that the students were attacked because they had unintentionally commandeered a bus involved in a drug trafficking operation. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating a case in Chicago involving the Guerreros Unidos and the use of commercial passenger buses to transport heroin and cocaine from Mexico to Illinois. The Mexican government took several months to request international legal assistance from the U.S. on this aspect of the investigation.

In the context of the hearing, the IACHR announced grave concerns about alleged spying attempts against members of the Group of Experts while they were still operating in Mexico. These allegations were later confirmed by the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab in a report made public by The New York Times. Citizen Lab’s forensic analysis show that the investigators were targeted by Pegasus, an advanced spyware sold exclusively to governments under the condition that it only be used to combat terrorists and criminals. The spyware infects targets’ cell phones by sending a malicious link that, when opened, turns the phone into a powerful surveillance device. A phone belonging to the investigators received at least two infection attempts using such links in March 2016, shortly after the Group of Experts had criticized the Mexican government for obstructing their investigation, and as the investigators were preparing their final report. Several staff members from the organization that provides legal representation to the students’ families, the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, Centro Prodh), including a U.S. citizen, were also subject to this spyware. Available documentation shows that a number of Mexican government agencies, including the PGR, have acquired the Pegasus spyware.

August: IACHR Follow-Up Mechanism to Ayotzinapa case makes third visit to Mexico

In August, the Follow-Up Mechanism conducted its third official visit to Mexico. The delegation visited the “Raúl Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College” in Guerrero—the school the victims attended—and met with the students’ families, who reiterated their frustration with the lack of progress in the case.

During the visit, the Mechanism staff also met with officials from the PGR and the Ministry of the Interior, who informed the IACHR of the steps they are taking in the investigation, including:

  • Appointing a team of over 90 people dedicated exclusively to the investigation.
  • Identifying additional potential persons of interest. The identification and arrest of these individuals could help produce valuable information regarding the students’ disappearance. However, authorities have yet to arrest these potential suspects or the federal police officers identified as allegedly being involved in the events. Furthermore, authorities have yet to press charges that are based on a new narrative about the students’ disappearance, rather than the government’s “historic truth”.
  • The ongoing use of LIDAR technology. The PGR reported that it will use the remote sensing technology to expand its search for the students and that authorities will work jointly with a multidisciplinary team of experts proposed by the family members to analyze the images and conduct on-site visits to the potential clandestine graves. However, the Mexican government has yet to create a database for graves in the state that could be replicated in other states, as the Follow-Up Mechanism has recommended.
  • Attending to the surviving victims. The closest hospital to Aldo Gutiérrez Solano’s family is located six hours away from their home, which has placed a tremendous burden on his family. The Mexican government has committed to make arrangements to set up a medical treatment facility for Aldo near his rural hometown of Tutupec, Guerrero and it recently signed an inter-agency agreement to achieve this. However, no steps have been taken to build the facility or to develop a plan to guarantee that Aldo receives full medical attention.

In a press release following the visit, the IACHR urged the Mexican government “to expedite the work of searching for the disappeared students” and to make progress on the issues outlined above, including the utmost importance of investigating the possible connection between drug trafficking and the use of commercial buses in the case. The Commission also expressed concern about the Mexican government’s lack of progress in enacting a General Law against Enforced Disappearances. In July 2015, a constitutional reform was approved that gave the Mexican Congress six months to approve the law. By January 2016, the deadline to approve the law had expired. Since then, discussions about the law have been long and complicated, with civil society organizations and family members of the disappeared struggling to ensure that their input is included in the final version. The IACHR urged the Mexican government to take concrete steps in developing a law that meets international human rights standards, enjoys the support of families and organizations representing the disappeared, and includes provisions that ensure effective implementation of the law.