WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


31 Aug 2022 | Commentary

Ayotzinapa Case: Key Points to Understand the Mexican Government’s New Actions

  • On August 18, 2022, the presidency of 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), an inter-institutional body created by the Mexican government, published a report confirming that the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero in the Ayotzinapa case was a crime of the State. Among other topics, the COVAJ presidency reveals information on military participation in the disappearances and elaborates on the participation of high-level authorities in the fabrication of the so-called “historic truth”. 
  • On August 19, former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam was arrested for his role in constructing the false “historic truth” of the case. He is now on trial for enforced disappearance, torture, and obstruction of justice. The National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) also announced that it has obtained 83 additional arrest warrants in the case. 
  • The arrest and prosecution of Murillo Karam represent the highest-level legal action against a former official for the Ayotzinapa case. However, the FGR’s success will not be measured by the level and number of people charged, but by the judicial rulings handed down and the information obtained to contribute to access to truth and justice. 
  • Mexican authorities must now ensure that these new actions translate into real progress in explaining what happened to the students, continuing the search, punishing the perpetrators, and contributing to ending the crisis of more than 100,000 disappearances in Mexico. 

This September 26 will mark the eighth anniversary of the Ayotzinapa case, in which Mexican security forces and criminal actors forcibly disappeared 43 teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero, in events in which six other people were killed and others seriously injured. Since the night of the disappearances in 2014, the students’ families have led a long struggle for access to truth and justice. The Ayotzinapa case is part of a disappearance crisis that has surpassed 100,000 victims in Mexico. 

The case has focused national and international attention on the human rights situation in Mexico. In addition to being accompanied by respected Mexican human rights organizations, it has led to international investigation and technical assistance, including the appointment of an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI) to assist in the investigation at various stages since 2014. After officials of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration sought to conclude the case by fabricating a false version of eventsknown as the so-called “historic truth”and after a May 2018 federal court ruling that concluded that the criminal investigation had not been prompt, effective, independent, or impartial and that ordered the creation of a truth and justice commission for the case, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised that his government would take the necessary steps to provide truth and justice to the families. Within days of taking office in December 2018, he created 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) for that purpose.

Now, a month before the eighth anniversary of the disappearances, various federal institutions have taken new and high-profile actions in the case, including the publication of a report by the presidency of the COVAJ and the arrest of former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. Such actions constitute the most recent signs of the López Obrador administration’s willingness to seek the truth and of advances in the criminal investigation. While the false version created by the former Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) sought to limit responsibility for the crimes to criminal groups and local authorities, in the last two years the National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) has charged several former high-level federal officials and has now announced the issuance of 83 more arrest warrants, including against military officers, in addition to having been able to identify the remains of two of the students in 2020 and 2021. At the same time, the new actions in the case raise the need to ensure that these steps translate into real progress in explaining what happened to the students, continuing the search, punishing the perpetrators, and setting precedents that will contribute to ending the disappearance crisis.

Here, three key conclusions about the case:

1.COVAJ presidency’s report confirms that Ayotzinapa was a crime of the State, provides data on military involvement and participation of high-level authorities in the fabrication of the so-called “historic truth”. 

On August 18, 2022, Undersecretary of Human Rights Alejandro Encinas presented the COVAJ presidency’s report. The 97-page report and its eight annexes analyze the events of the night of September 26, 2014 and the fabrication of the false version of the case espoused by the PGR. They also summarize the search and identification efforts for the missing students. Several conclusions of the new report warrant attention. 

  • Ayotzinapa was a crime of the State. The report confirms that authorities from different government agencies participated in the students’ disappearance, making it a crime of the State. Although this reality was known, it is relevant that an official report by the Mexican federal government recognizes it. 
  • Authorities at all levels were aware of the students’ movements on the night of September 26. The new report coincides with the GIEI in reaching this conclusion, stating: 

…federal, state, and municipal authorities (Sedena [Defense Ministry], CISEN [Center for Investigation and National Security], Federal Preventive Police, Guerrero government, State Police, among others), were informed and following the students’ actions…

This demonstrates responsibility by action, omission, or negligence in authorities’ activities during the persecution, violence, and disappearance of the students in Iguala. 

The report also highlights that both SEDENA and CISEN were tapping the communications of members of the criminal group Guerreros Unidos around the time of the events, including communications between members of the criminal group and municipal authorities.

  • New revelations about the army’s participation. As had been reported in 2019, the new report highlights that a SEDENA soldier was working undercover in the Ayotzinapa school and regularly informed his superiors of the students’ activities; he is now among the 43 disappeared victims. Through this and other sources, military authorities were aware of the students’ movements on September 26. However, they did not take action to search for their missing soldier. This is in addition to other revelations made by the GIEI in recent months that implicate SEDENA and the Mexican navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) in different parts of the events of September 26 and/or in the subsequent construction of the “historic truth”. The military has also been reluctant to hand over all its information on the case, even after López Obrador instructed it to do so in a 2018 presidential decree. However, the most striking revelation about military involvement is the conclusion, announced by Undersecretary Encinas, that an Army colonel allegedly ordered the killing of six of the 43 students, who are thought to have remained alive for up to four days after they were disappeared. This is the first time that authorities publicly state that members of the military ordered part of the enforced disappearance itself. 
  • Progress and pending tasks in explaining the events of September 26. In contrast to the “historic truth” (according to which all the students were taken to the Cocula landfill, incinerated, and their remains thrown into a river), and as the GIEI had previously indicated, the COVAJ presidency finds that the 43 students were taken to different places in different groups with the participation of a series of actors. The report concludes that there is no indication that any of the students are alive today and that it is necessary to continue searching in various municipalities of Guerrero in the hopes of finding the students’ final whereabouts and identifying them (to date, only three of the 43 have been identified). Reacting to the report, the GIEI stated that it had not had access to all the materials cited in the COVAJ presidency’s reconstruction of the facts. The students’ families and their representatives call for all new evidence to be made available to the GIEI as soon as possible so that the experts can review it.
  • The “historic truth” was “a concerted action of the organized apparatus of power.” The report concludes that the authorities who participated in the implementation of the “historic truth” were: 

…the federal Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam; the Deputy Attorney General of SEIDO [Special Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime], Rodrigo Archundia; the acting head of SEIDO, Hugo Ruiz; the head of the Specialized Unit for Kidnapping Crimes, Gualberto Ramírez Gutiérrez; and the Director of the AIC [Criminal Investigation Agency], Tomás Zerón, who has reported the participation of authorities at the highest level of the federal government. 

Additionally, the report lists numerous officials who served as operational liaisons for the investigation at the time, including Admiral Marco Antonio Ortega Siu, head of SEMAR’s Special Operations Unit, and Omar García Harfuch, then-commissioner of the Federal Police in Guerrero and now Mexico City’s Citizen Security Minister. As described below, several of the individuals mentioned in the extract cited above currently have arrest warrants against them for crimes related to the case.  

  • The change in federal administration and the creation of the COVAJ have brought greater access to and analysis of evidence in the case. However, certain obstacles have also accumulated that make it more difficult to fully solve the case and break the pacts of silence between perpetrators. The report explains that, during the current federal administration, tens of thousands of documents related to the case have been received (from 15 institutions) and digitized. The information and evidence includes testimonies, videos, audios, transcripts, reports, messages, and other materials. At the same time, the report points out that delays and reluctance to hand over information have persisted in some federal institutions, such as SEDENA and different offices of the FGR.

The report also highlights obstacles that have accumulated over time in the search for truth, including the fact that 26 key people linked to the case have died due to a combination of natural causes, accidents, and violence, including a 2021 case in which the COVAJ presidency explicitly states that members of the FGR executed the person in an arbitrary use of lethal force. These deaths further hamper investigation efforts already affected by obstacles and missed opportunities resulting from the initial manipulation and falsification of the criminal investigation during the Peña Nieto administration. As noted by the GIEI in March 2022: 

A lot of time has been lost. Much evidence, obtained before the creation of the UEILCA [Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case of the FGR], was rejected because it was obtained under torture. The destruction and loss of information… have made all the work more complicated and seriously compromise the possibilities of a full resolution of the case. 

  • There is a better flow of information from the United States to help solve the case. At the international level, the report highlights that, following a May 2021 request by López Obrador to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. authorities have sent the UEILCA additional evidence from their investigation of the Guerreros Unidos criminal group’s activities in the United States, including records of communications around the dates of the students’ disappearance. These advances in bilateral collaboration are important to provide data that could help solve the case.

2.Authorities place former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam on trial and announce 83 additional arrest warrants. 

On August 19that is, one day after the publication of the COVAJ presidency’s reportthe FGR and SEMAR personnel arrested former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam on charges of enforced disappearance, torture, and obstruction of justice, all for his role in the implementation of the “historic truth”. The charges state that Murillo Karam impeded a proper search and investigation by espousing a false version of the case, knowing that this version came from statements fabricated under torture and not from a real investigation of the facts. On August 24, Murillo Karam was placed on trial for all three crimes. 

Murillo Karam’s arrest and prosecution represent the highest-level legal action against a former official in the Ayotzinapa case and produced extensive media coverage. The challenge now will be to ensure that such high-profile actions are supported by solid evidence and arguments by the National Prosecutor’s Office. The history of the Ayotzinapa case is a reminder that arrests and the opening of criminal proceedings do not constitute or guarantee justice: more than 100 people were detained in connection with the case during the Peña Nieto administration, but due to lack of sufficient or lawful evidence (recalling that such arrests correspond to the “historic truth” stage of the case and a high percentage of those detained were subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment), many of the accusations have been falling apart in court. 

The creation of the UEILCA in 2019 has marked a clear advance in the handling of the criminal investigation, including willingness to investigate high-level officials and members of different government agencies. The UEILCA has obtained arrest warrants against (among others):

  • Tomás Zerón, former head of the Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal, AIC) of the PGR, for torture and enforced disappearance, among other crimes (Zerón is a fugitive in Israel, although federal authorities have communicated with him to seek to negotiate his collaboration in the investigation);
  • Gualberto Ramírez, former anti-kidnapping chief of the PGR, for torture (fugitive);
  • Carlos Gómez Arrieta, former head of the Federal Ministerial Police (Policía Federal Ministerial), for torture (currently on trial);
  • Captain José Martínez Crespo (the first military officer tied to the case to be placed on trial).

In addition to the above, a few hours after Murillo Karam’s arrest, the FGR announced that it had obtained 83 new arrest warrants in the case against “20 military commanders and troops of the 27th and 41st battalions in the city of Iguala, as well as five administrative and judicial authorities of the state of Guerrero; 26 police officers from Huitzuco; six from Iguala, and one from Cocula; as well as 11 state police officers from Guerrero and 14 members of the criminal group Guerreros Unidos.” These combined actions by the FGR can be seen as the institution’s answer to the prior administration’s manipulated investigation; that is, through these actions, the FGR seeks definitively to distinguish itself from the irregularities of the PGR and to show that it is correcting the course of the case. 

However, the FGR’s success will not be measured by the level and number of people charged, but by the judicial rulings handed down and the information obtained to contribute to real access to truth and justice. In Mexico, where there are almost no examples of high-level officials convicted and punished for serious human rights violations, it is even more important that this case sets the precedent of an investigation that leads to convictions against the relevant perpetrators supported by solid evidence, showing that society can and should expect such an outcome from the criminal justice system in other cases as well. In this context, some analysts have already raised concerns about the hasty arrest of Murillo Karam and the strength of the FGR’s legal case against him (regardless of his actual role in the case). Among others, some of the authorities who prepared and presented the accusations against Murillo Karam do not belong to the UEILCA, and the head of the UEILCA was notably absent from the initial hearings, prompting questions from the students’ families and the accompanying organizations. As for the 83 arrest warrants, this announcement reproduces a pattern in which, in high-profile cases, arrest warrants are announced before they are carried out, instead of prioritizing the secrecy of the proceedings and the actual detention of individuals. It remains to be seen to what extent the warrants lead to arrests and trials. 

3.Conclusions as the eighth case anniversary approaches, in a context of 100,000 disappearances and increasing militarization in Mexico 

Ayotzinapa is not a crime of the past: the students’ absence weighs on their families every day, as does the uncertainty about the fate and whereabouts of the vast majority of the disappeared victims. It is thanks to the tireless struggle of the families, accompanied by civil society organizations, that today there are specialized national and international bodies to seek truth and justice in the case and that the progress made so far has been possible. Through a range of actions, the Ayotzinapa families and thousands of other families of disappeared people throughout the country have denounced the disappearance crisis nationally and internationally and have promoted legislative, institutional, and practical advances in the search for the disappeared. This September 26, the families of Ayotzinapa will mark another year of dignified struggle, steps forward, and positive impacts, but they will also have lived another year without full access to truth and justice in their case. 

Meanwhile, the disappearance crisis continues. Justice in Ayotzinapa and other cases should include measures to end this crisis, punish material and intellectual perpetrators, and prevent future disappearances. In these areas, there is still much work to be done. Mexico now has a search infrastructure that did not exist before, and it has prioritized efforts to increase its human identification capacity both nationally and through international cooperation, including from the United States. As of today, however, a forensic crisis persists with more than 50,000 unidentified bodies throughout the country.  

Despite having a General Law against disappearances that orders the creation of databases to facilitate search and investigation efforts, key pieces of the law have not been implemented, including the creation of the National Forensic Data Bank. Impunity is the rule in the overwhelming majority of disappearances, as highlighted by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances after visiting Mexico in late 2021, stemming in general from the lack of proper investigation of these crimes by prosecutors’ offices. The Ayotzinapa case is one of thousands of cases that show the urgent need for decisive actions to implement the General Law and put an end to a disappearance crisis that should not exist. 

Finally, at the same time as evidence accumulates against the armed forces in the Ayotzinapa case, López Obrador continues to deepen militarization as his government’s security model. The president recently announced that he wants military deployment in policing tasks to continue after 2024. Further, even though he has not obtained the constitutional reform that he would need in order to achieve his goal of formally incorporating the country’s already militarized National Guard (policing force) into SEDENA, López Obrador said that he would seek this same institutional change through a reform to secondary laws or even through a Presidential Agreementthat is, he would disregard the Constitution in order to ensure that federal policing tasks are placed exclusively in military hands. López Obrador justifies increasing militarization by stating, among other things, that militarization is a way to avoid corruption. However, the advances in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case show that the participation of military forces in no way constituted a guarantee against violence or human rights violations. 


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