For a year, the case of the 43 forcibly disappeared students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico has garnered national and international outrage and has been at the center of discussions regarding Mexico’s human rights crisis. The tragedy of 43 students disappeared at the hands of Mexican police and the Mexican government’s gravely flawed investigation of such a high-profile case has further undermined trust in the rule of law in the country. With over 25,000 disappearances in Mexico since 2007, including hundreds in Guerrero alone, the case of the 43 disappeared students has become an emblematic case to rally behind and demand not only justice in this case but government action to address the broader issue of disappearances in the country.
Since the attacks on the students on the night of September 26, 2014, the Mexican government has largely sought to move past the case as quickly as possible and with little regard for the suffering of the victims and their families. The Mexican government presented its “historic truth” of what happened to the students in January 2015, asserting that the disappeared students were cremated at a trash dump. This theory was quickly rejected by the students’ families and later by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes) appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at the request of the students’ families, their legal representatives, and the Mexican government, to provide technical assistance in the investigation of the case. In a September 2015 report on the preliminary conclusions of their investigation, the Experts concluded that there is no scientific evidence to substantiate the government’s theory of the case.
A year without answers and without trust in the government to deliver those answers has had a significant emotional and psychological toll on the students’ families. In their report, the Experts highlight the anxiety, frustration, and constant uncertainty that the victims’ families have been living through for a year, as well as the exhausting sense of urgency they feel to do more to help recover their loved ones. In the words of a parent of one of the disappeared students: “…Sometimes we want to close our eyes and never wake up, but we say…they tell us: ‘you have to be strong, you have to try your hardest because your son has disappeared and if you don’t look for him, who will?’” (See page 272 of the Experts’ report).
Amidst this tragic loss and important search for answers, what has come to receive less focus is the horrific nature of the attack itself and an understanding of all those who were affected. The events that took place on the night of September 26, 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero constitute a large-scale and brutal attack by Mexican authorities against citizens. Apart from the 43 forcibly disappeared students, six people were extrajudicially executed that evening and more than 40 people were injured, some gravely, including a student who has been in a coma since the attacks. More than 110 people, including students, teachers who came to their aid, members of a soccer team, and passersby, were attacked that night. And by extension the incident affected the more than 700 immediate family members of those who were disappeared, killed, injured, and attacked.
All of these victims are seeking and deserve justice. As we commemorate the anniversary of the September 2014 attacks in Iguala, Guerrero, we remember all those who were affected by the violent events. The path toward justice for the victims begins with an honest look at the attacks. To this effect, WOLA has prepared a summary of the events that took place that night, based on the report by the Group of Experts.
On September 26, 2014, students studying to be teachers at the Raúl Isidro Burgos school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were attacked multiple times and in various locations in Iguala, Guerrero. The students had gone to Iguala to commandeer buses—a common practice among these students, and one that had previously never been met with such a violent response—in order to travel to a demonstration in Mexico City. After the students left in five buses from the Iguala bus terminal, three of the buses were stopped near the city’s main square and fired upon by municipal police from Iguala and the neighboring town of Cocula. The police shot at the buses, the students, and the drivers, in an attack that lasted about an hour. Three students suffered gunshot wounds, including Aldo Gutierrez, who received a bullet wound to the head and has been in a coma since the attack. Approximately 21 students were removed from one of these buses, beaten, and later loaded into police cars and disappeared.
As one student recounts, police continued to shoot at the students, even as the students made attempts to help Gutierrez: “When we realized that Aldo was still showing signs of life, still convulsing, we wanted to help him, but every time we tried to lean out, they fired on us, they didn’t let us. …I personally made three attempts to get close to him, so I could help him, and on the third try I managed to reach him along with two other classmates… I reached where the body was lying, grabbed my shirt and put it on his head, using pressure to control the bleeding. When the police told me, ‘Get on the ground, we’re going to kill you,” is when I told [my classmates] let’s go and we started to run and they started shooting at us” (See page 55 of the Experts’ report).
In another area of the city, along the highway, municipal police intercepted a fourth bus of Ayotzinapa students, firing gunshots into the air and yelling death threats to the students and the driver. Using tree branches to break through the bus windows, the police filled the bus with tear gas and pepper spray in order to force the students off the bus. Students were then beaten, detained, loaded into police cars, and disappeared. The bus driver is the only known survivor of this attack; he was beaten by municipal police and sprayed in the face with pepper spray. As the driver later told investigators, “We heard shots as we arrived at the bridge that leads to the highway and at that moment I stopped because a blue patrol car, whose number I didn’t see, came out in front of me and I wasn’t able to move around it, then about 20 police officers, most of them wearing masks, got out of the cars and several more shots were heard. They slashed my tires using knives and yelled, ‘We’re going to kill all of you,’ and one of them approached me and said, “Even you, you son of bitch,” while pointing a gun at my chest through the window. While the students worked to stop the police from entering the bus, one of them said, ‘Remember friends, all of this is for Ayotzinapa’” (See page 62 of the Experts’ report).
A fifth bus of students was intercepted by Federal Police who, with their weapons pointed, ordered the students off of the bus and then had the driver take the bus to a nearby toll booth. After being removed from the bus, the group of 14 students fled and hid in the surrounding hills. Later, while walking toward the Iguala city center to regroup with their classmates, the students were stopped by municipal and ministerial police who, after attempting to run them over with their vehicles, chased the students on foot, firing shots as the students fled. This encounter demonstrates the extreme level of persecution authorities displayed toward the students that night, pursuing them and attacking even as the students fled.
Many bystanders were also affected by the police’s violent actions that evening. Around 11:30 p.m., a bus carrying a youth soccer team, Los Avispones, was fired upon by municipal police while leaving Iguala after a game; the Experts conclude that this bus was likely mistaken as having been one of the buses containing the Ayotzinapa students. One player, David Josué García Evangelista, was killed in the attack, and the bus driver, Víctor Manuel Lugo Ortiz, died shortly after arriving at the hospital. Many of the Avispones were injured, including a coach who suffered two gunshot wounds to vital organs. Two taxis passing by the scene of the attack were also fired upon, resulting in more serious injuries and the death of a passenger, Blanca Montiel Sánchez, and also demonstrating the indiscriminate nature of the attack.
Back in the city center, the students who were not arrested by police regrouped, joined by teachers and older classmates to whom the students had reached out during the attacks, as well as by members of the press and others who had heard about the attack on the students. A press conference was to take place but it was interrupted when several vehicles approached and masked men fired heavily into the crowd at about 12:45 a.m. on September 27. The crowd dispersed chaotically, trying to avoid the gunfire. One of the bus drivers observed the whole scene: “…about an hour and a half after [the first attack], students were gathered in small groups around the area of the attack and the stranded buses and I was outside my bus observing the situation, and all of the sudden I heard a burst of gunfire, it came down on everyone gathered in this spot, and everyone began to run, I also saw the lifeless body of a person go down about five meters away from me. When the attack was over, there was no one left, everyone fled, I just saw two lifeless bodies in the street, getting wet because it was raining…” (See page 99-100 of the Experts’ report).
Two students were killed during this attack, Daniel Solís Gallardo and Julio César Ramírez Nava; both had arrived in Iguala to help their classmates involved in the first series of attacks. Autopsies revealed that Solís Gallardo and Ramírez Nava were shot at close range. Many more were seriously injured, including some teachers. The following morning, the body of Julio César Mondragón was found on the street and showed clear signs of torture; he had been separated from a group while running from the gunfire at the press conference.
In their report, the Experts emphasize the large-scale and indiscriminate nature of the police attacks against the students, those who came to their aid, and others who were passing by. The attacks on the students’ buses each lasted for about an hour, and were carried out in a coordinated and simultaneous manner. The Experts also highlight that “none of the other security forces that were aware of the incidents or that were present at one of the incidents as it took place and witnessed the level of aggression and human rights violations, acted to protect the students” (See page 325 of the Experts’ report).
At the one-year mark of this brutal attack, the Mexican government must fulfill its obligation to provide comprehensive attention and reparation to all those who were affected by the horrific events on September 26 and 27, 2014. President Peña Nieto has expressed his commitment to the victims, saying: “I reiterate the invariable and permanent willingness to be close to the parents of the victims and continuously support them.”
Concrete steps President Peña Nieto and his government can take to truly demonstrate this stated commitment to the victims and bring them truth and justice include: supporting the Executive Commission for Attention to Victims’ (Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Victimas, CEAV) plan to provide reparations to the victims and their families and ensuring it is sufficiently comprehensive; acknowledging and apologizing for the grave flaws in the Mexican government’s investigation of the case and treatment of the victims of the attack and their families; implementing the recommendations included in the Experts’ report, such as continuing the search for the students, opening new lines of investigation, investigating authorities for obstructing the case and for failing to assist the students, and addressing enforced disappearances in Mexico; and assigning a new team of investigators within Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) who are open to exploring new lines of investigation in their work with the Group of Experts.
The victims, their families, Mexican society, and the international community deserve to know the truth about what happened the night of September 26 and to see those responsible brought to justice. The next steps taken by the Mexican government in this investigation will be a clear sign of whether it is truly committed to combatting the impunity that prevails for human rights violations in Mexico, or whether it will continue to only make hollow promises of justice.