WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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26 Sep 2023 | Commentary

Ayotzinapa 9 Years Later: Pending Tasks in the Search for Truth and Justice

Nine years after the enforced disappearance of 43 teaching students from the Ayotzinapa school and other serious human rights violations committed on September 26, 2014 in Guerrero state, Mexico, the families of the victims continue their fight for truth and justice.

The case has set precedents in terms of institutional responses to disappearances, from the international technical assistance of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI) appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to the creation of a special investigative unit in the National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) and the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa case (Comisión para la Verdad y Acceso a la Justicia del caso Ayotzinapa, COVAJ). 

However, the last year also saw the resignation of the case’s first special prosecutor amid undue interference from other levels and areas of the FGR; criticism following the publication by the presidency of the COVAJ of unverified screenshots of alleged telephone messages; and now the departure of the GIEI from Mexico following the refusal of the armed forces to share or even acknowledge the existence of all the information they have on the case.

Below are four areas where action is needed to advance access to truth, justice, and non-repetition in the Ayotzinapa case and in the disappearance crisis in the country: 

  1. Investigation and litigation 

In the second half of 2022, the National Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had obtained 83 arrest warrants in the case (against military and civilian authorities, as well as private individuals), only to request and obtain the cancellation of 21 of those warrants weeks later. In mid-2023, in response to the demands of the families and the GIEI, most of the canceled warrants were reactivated and several military officials were arrested, including General Rafael Hernández Nieto, former commander of the 41st Infantry Battalion. Hernández Nieto is under house arrest during his trial as opposed to being imprisoned, a benefit that appears to be due to his identity as a military officer, raising concerns about the influence of the armed forces’ power on the criminal proceedings.

In June 2023, the former anti-kidnapping chief of the then-Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), Gualberto Ramírez, was also arrested and charged for his role in the fabrication of the so-called ‘historical truth’ of the case, including for torture.

These arrests and criminal proceedings are in addition to the trials already underway against a wide array of private individuals and State agents, including other military officials and the former Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam. The course of these trials will be a key test for the case, since no one has yet been convicted for these crimes.

Meanwhile, another key figure in the case remains at large in Israel: the former head of the Attorney General’s Office’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal, AIC), Tomás Zerón. The Mexican government has been requesting his extradition since late 2021.

  1. Departure of the GIEI and the role of the armed forces

At the end of July 2023, the GIEI announced its departure from the case, largely due to the armed forces’ refusal to hand over all information in their possession about the events.

In its sixth and final report, the GIEI provides information about the events of September 26, 2014, and the role of authorities from different levels of government before, during, and after that night. The information regarding the armed forces is especially striking, including data on the collusion of sectors of the Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) with criminal groups in Iguala, the lack of action by SEDENA to protect the students during the events, and SEDENA’s concealment to date of information and materials on the case and the actions of its members.

SEDENA denies even the internal investigation it conducted on the case (in which it took dozens of testimonies), as well as the existence of its Regional Intelligence Fusion Center (Centro Regional de Fusión de Inteligencia, CRFI) in Iguala in 2014, despite documentation of its existence and actions. The GIEI observes:

“The messages from 2014 from the Iguala CRFI are multiple, and some of them refer to communications and messages that speak of the possible fate of the students and communications between probable perpetrators of the events.”

The GIEI also points to a pattern of “malicious concealment” by SEDENA personnel during the investigation:

“The versions of the events of September 26 and 27, 2014 have varied over time and adapted to the revelations made by the GIEI or the UEILCA. The members of the army interviewed initially gave a version of the events that did not correspond to the truth of what happened nor to their movements, showing a collective, internally congruent version, but avoiding revealing significant facts, despite the fact that, as witnesses, they had the obligation to tell the truth. This prevented access to relevant information not only about their real actions but also about what happened to the students.”

The GIEI’s report also examines the actions of the Ministry of the Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), including the detention and torture of suspects in naval facilities, the deaths of some detainees, and irregularities and concealment of information about the role of SEMAR in the days after the disappearances, involving such key issues as the search for and recovery of human remains. The GIEI highlights the omissions in the information provided by SEMAR during the investigation: 

“From the evidence that has been obtained from the year 2022 to today, we can say that the actions of the Navy were very different from those acknowledged in [its] responses. In other words, the Navy carried out numerous actions that have not been known or accounted for in the investigation and were carried out by order of the coordination of the Navy General Staff.”

In addition:

“[Navy personnel] have information about the possible perpetrators and the whereabouts of the students, information that has been requested by the GIEI since the end of 2022 and reiterated in March 2023. The response finally provided, on July 14, 2023, alleges that there is no more information in SEMAR’s files.”

The information presented in the GIEI’s last report complements data analyzed in previous reports on the various roles of both SEDENA and SEMAR. In addition to their relevance to the Ayotzinapa case, the GIEI’s findings constitute an important window into military human rights violations and practices that hinder transparency, in a context in which the Mexican government is assigning more and more civilian tasks to the armed forces. This increase in military power is advancing without robust civilian controls and despite examples, including but not limited to the Ayotzinapa case, that show the military’s failure to comply with presidential instructions.

Added to this context are the alarming revelations of recent months that show that human rights defenders representing the Ayotzinapa families, as well as Undersecretary of Human Rights Alejandro Encinas (president of the COVAJ), were spied on in 2022 with Pegasus malware, operated in Mexico by the SEDENA.

In a relevant step, following the latest evidence of concealment of information by SEDENA, the families of the victims filed a constitutional challenge in August 2023, in which a federal court has ordered SEDENA not to destroy documents in its files related to the Ayotzinapa case. At the same time, it is concerning that president Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated on September 21, in response to the GIEI’s findings and the families’ demand that the military hand over all its information, that SEDENA has already shared all the information it has. 

  1. Search and identification

As seen in the foregoing updates, multiple institutions have yet to share all relevant information that could contribute to clarifying not only the facts of September 26, 2014, but crucially, the fate of the disappeared students. Knowing the whereabouts of the students is a fundamental demand of their families. Nine years later, the government has identified the remains of three of the 43 disappeared victims; the last year has brought no new identifications.

It is essential that the relevant authorities immediately share all records in their possession to ensure access to all the sources of information that could facilitate the search for the students. It is also important that authorities use the available information to plan search operations and to make appropriate use of available technologies to maximize the likelihood of findings.

  1. Mexico’s disappearance crisis

The Ayotzinapa case is one of the best-known faces of Mexico’s disappearance crisis, which currently encompasses approximately 111,000 disappeared and missing people in the country, according to official figures. The vast majority of cases remain in impunity.

Regarding the search for and identification of the disappeared, during the López Obrador administration Mexico has taken steps to improve its forensic identification capacity, such as through the creation of the National Human Identification Center (Centro Nacional de Identificación Humana, CNIH) and the strengthening of regional capacities, such as through Coahuila state’s Regional Human Identification Center (Centro Regional de Identificación Humana, CRIH). 

These efforts have been supported by international technical assistance, as well as international cooperation from other countries, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In contrast to the above, the National Forensic Data Bank (BNDF), coordinated by the National Prosecutor’s Office, is still not operational, although it has finally been created in response to the demands of the families and following a constitutional challenge filed by the sister of a disappeared person.

Much remains to be done to strengthen the search for the disappeared, including improving immediate search responses and increasing the capacity of the country’s search commissions. Meanwhile, family collectives, generally led by women, continue to conduct field searches throughout the country, often in precarious and risky conditions. In recent years, multiple searchers have been murdered, including several in 2022 and 2023. 

Finally, in recent months López Obrador has raised serious concerns among the families of the disappeared by announcing a new “census” to try to locate people by going to their homes or asking their relatives if they have returned. In addition to the risks of re-victimization that any such proposal brings, López Obrador has made it clear that, in his opinion, the number of disappeared persons during his term is too high, and that the purpose of the census is to lower that number, which has raised alarm about the possibility of lowering the count without a clear methodology, that is, without reliable evidence of the location of the people in question.

Amid tensions over the new census, National Search Commissioner Karla Quintana resigned last month. According to anonymous sources consulted by the media, the resignation came in response to pressure to find a way to reduce the official count of the disappeared. In this context, it will be important for both Mexican civil society and the international community to monitor the outcome of the new census and to call on Mexico to focus its efforts on improving the search for the disappeared and ending the crisis, not on politically motivated initiatives.