September 26, 2020 marks six years since 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College were forcibly disappeared by Mexican security forces in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero. In the past year, Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) has made important progress in advancing the investigation. However, there is still much to uncover about what happened to the students and their whereabouts.
As the students’ families recognize six years without truth and justice in the case, the Mexican government must expand its efforts to search for the students, investigate those responsible for the disappearances, and ensure that those who obstructed justice in the case are held responsible.
A New Administration Brings a New Approach
Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador emphasized securing justice in the Ayotzinapa case throughout his campaign for office, and on his third day as president established the Commission for Truth and Justice for the case in compliance with a federal court ruling. The commission—chaired by Alejandro Encinas, the Interior Ministry’s undersecretary for human rights and migration—includes representatives of the students’ families and several civil society groups. Separately, the National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR) led by Alejandro Gertz Manero established a special unit focused on the investigation, led by Omar Gómez Trejo and a team of prosecutors.
Since then, the Ayotzinapa case has seen important advances. In March of this year, the FGR’s unit issued arrest warrants for four government officials and a marine for torture and obstruction of justice in the investigation; four of the five accused are currently detained. These arrests—alongside the June arrest of a leader of Guerreros Unidos, the criminal group involved in the students’ disappearance, and the issuing of arrest warrants against 46 municipal officials from Guerrero—has lent significant momentum to the investigation. .
There is still an outstanding arrest warrant for Tomás Zerón, who led the Criminal Investigations Unit in the then Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) at the time the students disappeared. Zerón is implicated in overseeing teams responsible for torturing suspects in the case; he is also facing charges of forced disappearance, altering the crime scene, and manipulating evidence. He is believed to be in Israel, and the Mexican government has alerted the Israeli government to seek his arrest and extradition.
Another example of the Peña Nieto administration’s gross mishandling of the investigation is that to date, 78 suspects have been released due to irregularities by government officials when detaining and processing them. This includes serious abuses like torture. As a result, Mexico’s justice system has had to release detainees who could likely provide information about the truth of what happened to the 43 students. The cases against other detainees in custody could fall apart for similar reasons.
The FGR special unit should also continue to investigate the role of state officials in the students’ disappearance, including Mexican soldiers and federal and state police agents. To establish a clear understanding of what took place six years ago, the FGR must guarantee that the special prosecutors’ unit will maintain the independence and resources critical to its success so far.
The FGR has also been leading efforts with the Commission for Truth and Justice and other actors to search for the students’ whereabouts, uncovering additional bone fragments sent for analysis at Innsbruck University in Austria. These efforts led to the recent identification of the remains of Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre, the first identification of one of the 43 disappeared students in five years. These remains were not found at the location Peña Nieto officials claimed that the students were killed, further evidence that the PGR’s original investigation was tainted with irregularities and lies.
The commission also continues to coordinate the technical assistance provided by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes, GIEI) from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which has been critical for the case.
Mexico’s Broader Disappearance Crisis
The horror of Ayotzinapa is emblematic of a larger crisis of unsolved disappearances in Mexico. As of July 2020, Mexico’s National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda, CNB) had registered more than 73,000 disappearances in the country, primarily occurring since 2006, and the number is trending up in recent years. While the government increased the search commission’s budget for this year, it is not enough to address the overwhelming number of cases facing Mexico.
Nevertheless, recent months have seen some critical developments to address Mexico’s disappearance crisis. After more than a year of work, on August 27, Mexico’s National Search Commission approved the standardized Protocol for Searching for Disappeared and Missing Persons, an initiative developed jointly by state commissions, families of the victims, experts, civil society organizations, and international bodies. The protocol is important because families have pointed out that most of the search commission’s work has focused on searching for clandestine graves and remains, rather than policies that emphasize prompt and timely responses to disappearance cases.
One potential obstacle in moving forward with searching for the disappeared is that the FGR and state prosecutors’ offices abstained from voting on the protocol. Gertz Manero himself has challenged the protocol, arguing that missing people do not inherently have the right to be searched for as they are not in a position to demand it. His position was widely condemned by families of the disappeared and other government officials.
Despite the mixed messaging from the FGR, the Mexican government has moved forward in its efforts to search for and identify disappeared persons. In response to the thousands of remains and hundreds of thousands of bone fragments that remain unidentified, the government signed off on creating an Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification in December 2019. Supported by families of the disappeared and Mexican organizations that accompany them, and with international support from sources including USAID, the mechanism is a promising addition to the country’s efforts to identify the backlog of unidentified remains. Additionally, on August 26 the Mexican government inaugurated the first Regional Identification Center (Centro Regional de Identificación Humana) which is tasked exclusively with searching for and identifying disappeared persons; it will be working parallel to the Extraordinary Mechanism. While these are essential steps forward, challenges remain: Mexico lacks a centralized forensic database, and continues to rely on prosecutors to cooperate with these efforts.
In a welcome sign of support, President López Obrador continues to meet with the families of the Ayotzinapa students to hear their concerns and provide information on developments in investigation and search efforts. At the last meeting on September 11, López Obrador stated that the updates provided to the families in that meeting will be released publicly on the date officially marking six years since their disappearance, September 26.
Apart from the president’s commitment, the progress made in the investigation is due to the continued efforts of the students’ families, the organizations that accompany them, special prosecutor Omar Gómez, and the work within the Commission for Truth and Justice. The case illustrates how resources and political will can begin to show results for families of the disappeared. Still, this high-profile case faces many challenges in providing answers about what happened to the students, as well as investigating and prosecuting those responsible.
Even as the government creates new mechanisms for searching for the disappeared and identifying remains, the resources invested up to this point are not enough to meet the challenges Mexico faces. While progress on the case of the 43 disappeared students is paramount, the Mexican government should not lose sight of the fact that this case occurred in the context of a much broader disappearance crisis in the country. Families of all the victims of disappearances deserve the same sense of justice and closure the government hopes to offer to the families of the 43 students forcibly disappeared six years ago.
To learn more about the case, read WOLA’s resource page here.