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23 Sep 2021 | Commentary

Seventh Anniversary of the Ayotzinapa Disappearances in Mexico: Advances and Challenges in the Search for Truth and Justice

This Sunday, September 26 marks seven years since the enforced disappearance of 43 students of the rural teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero. For their families, this seventh anniversary means another year without their loved ones, and without truth and justice: the fate of the 43 students remains unclear. Some of those implicated in the crimes are on trial, but no perpetrators have yet been convicted.

Nevertheless, the case continues to show advances. The Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case within the National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) has made progress including identifications of students and new prosecutions and warrants against federal authorities. These advances contrast starkly with the initial investigation of the case during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, which was plagued by abuses including torture, manipulation of facts, and publicly releasing false information.

Authorities must now consolidate steps forward while ensuring that the prior administration’s false investigation does not further set back access to justice for the students’ families. Resolving the Ayotzinapa case is crucial not only to bring truth and justice to the families of the 43 students, but also because this case can serve as a reference point for the investigation of others of Mexico’s tens of thousands of disappearance cases.

Significant events in the Ayotzinapa case over the past year include the following:

September 2020: President López Obrador reaffirms government support for the investigation

On September 26, 2020, the sixth anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a public ceremony with the families of the 43 students where he reemphasized the government’s support for the ongoing investigation. He apologized for the disappearances, declaring that they were “a great injustice committed by the State,” and affirmed that there would be no impunity for anyone involved. (As we summarized one year ago, the López Obrador administration has created an inter-institutional Commission for Truth and Justice to coordinate actions on the case between different government agencies, which includes families of the students and civil society organizations.)

2020-2021: New prosecutions of federal officials

Prosecutors successfully initiated trials against an Army captain in November 2020 and a Federal Police commander in January 2021. Such steps toward holding federal authorities responsible are highly significant given the past administration’s attempt to portray the Ayotzinapa crimes as the work of two municipal police forces, rather than recognizing the involvement of officials at all levels of government.

In April 2021, authorities issued a new warrant for Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the former head of the Criminal Investigation Agency of the Attorney General’s office (the FGR’s predecessor), for the torture of a person arrested during the original investigation in 2015 and later released because the evidence against him was generated illegally (Zerón is seen overseeing the torture in a video leaked to the public in July 2020). Zerón de Lucio also faces charges for the torture of other individuals as well as for enforced disappearance (for interfering with the investigation). He is in Israel, where he fled to evade justice. The Mexican government is currently pursuing his extradition with Israeli authorities.

To build on these steps to hold federal officials accountable, it is essential to bring all relevant federal perpetrators effectively to trial, as well as to identify the role of other municipal and state-level security and investigative officials and bring any corresponding charges. Ensuring successful prosecutions of key actors from all levels of government and from organized crime—some of whom have been identified since 2015—also requires investigators to take all necessary steps to overcome the impact and setbacks caused by the initial manipulation of the investigation. In particular, authorities must ensure that all charges are fully supported by lawful and objective evidence, and should proceed to bring charges in cases where such evidence already exists.

January 2021: Leaked testimony spreads confusion

In January 2021, the confidential testimony of a collaborating witness in the Ayotzinapa investigation was released in national media. This was concerning because it recalled the pattern of leaks in the investigation that occurred during the Peña Nieto administration. The leak publicly presented a version of the disappearance of the 43 students that cannot be taken at face value; as the families’ representatives at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Center Prodh) pointed out, no single witness statement can be considered sufficient to prove what happened to the students without corroboration by other evidence, particularly scientific evidence.

May 2021: U.S. and Mexican governments reinforce information-sharing relevant to the Ayotzinapa investigation

Given that the U.S. Department of Justice is prosecuting drug trafficking cases against members of Guerreros Unidos, the major criminal group implicated in the disappearance of the 43 students, López Obrador took advantage of a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris in May 2021 to ask that U.S. authorities share additional information that they have gathered on the group. This has led to strengthened bilateral information-sharing of potential relevance to the case.

June 2021: Search for victims leads to another identification

After the identification in July 2020 of the remains of student Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre, discovered in the area known as Barranca de la Carniceria, investigators sent additional remains from that location to the University of Innsbruck in Austria in February 2021. The DNA analysis of those remains led to the identification in June 2021 of student Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz. These identifications are notable because the place where both remains were discovered is different from the supposed crime scene described in the original investigation, confirming mistruths in the initial version presented to the public. These identifications also prove that new discoveries are possible in the case despite years passing since the disappearances. 

July 2021: New revelations about the use of spyware against victims

A media investigation released in July 2021 confirmed that parents of the 43 students were on the list of potential surveillance targets of the now-infamous Pegasus spyware, used by the Mexican government to spy on human rights activists, journalists, and others during the Peña Nieto administration. Previously known targets of such surveillance include members of Center Prodh and of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI), the group of five renowned human rights and justice experts named in 2014 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to assist with the Ayotzinapa investigation. The FGR’s investigation into the illegal Pegasus surveillance has not yet yielded results.

September 2021: Continuing international technical assistance

On September 6, 2021, Mexican officials met with Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Mexico rapporteur of the IACHR, and agreed to maintain the IACHR’s international technical assistance in the case, as well as proposing to continue with the support of the GIEI. The GIEI played a fundamental role not only in investigating the case during its initial stages, but also particularly in exposing the abuses and lies of the original criminal investigation. The expert group’s return to continue assisting on the case during the López Obrador administration came at the request of the families.

The IACHR’s and the GIEI’s roles are in addition to other forms of technical support and collaboration by international actors. In addition to the examples already mentioned above, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has provided crucial forensic support in the case since 2014.

The fight for truth and justice for disappearances in Mexico: beyond Ayotzinapa

Much remains to be done to ensure truth and justice for the Ayotzinapa disappearance victims. At the same time, the advances seen in the Ayotzinapa case point to practices that should be replicated in the investigation of other patterns of disappearance. Center Prodh identifies factors including political support, coordination of different institutions in the search and investigation, openness to international technical assistance, dialogue with the victims, and respect for the role of civil society as key reasons that progress in the Ayotzinapa case has been possible.

Recalling that more than 92,000 people remain disappeared and missing in Mexico—a number that continues to grow—the need to improve the investigation of disappearances is urgent. Mexico has a legal framework meant to do just that: the landmark General Law against disappearances, in force since January 2018. However, authorities frequently fail to comply fully with this law.

WOLA’s 2021 campaign For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin analyzes the investigation of disappearances throughout Mexico from 2018-2020, during the first three years of the General Law. By compiling and contrasting data from official sources, WOLA found that only 3.5% of the over 23,000 people disappeared in those three years were classified in the country’s National Registry of the Disappeared as victims of the disappearance crimes defined in the General Law. This reflects both a failure by authorities to upload information to the National Registry—preventing it from fulfilling its potential as a search and investigation tool—and a real gap between disappearance victims and criminal investigations. Prosecutors’ offices in a range of states reported opening far fewer investigations for disappearance crimes than the number of people disappeared in their territory from 2018-2020: a series of offices reported a dozen or fewer such investigations in a context of hundreds or thousands of disappeared people, meaning that many disappearances may be incorrectly classified or are not treated as crimes. Further, many prosecutors’ offices lack the investigative infrastructure or are otherwise not complying with the General Law in their treatment of disappearance investigations. The fact that the majority of disappearances in Mexico go unpunished perpetuates the ongoing disappearance crisis.

Mexico’s disappearance crisis is accompanied by a forensic crisis. A recent report released by the Mexican Movement for Our Disappeared (Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México, MNDM) concluded that there were more than 52,000 bodies in public cemeteries and other institutions that have yet to be identified. The recently inaugurated Extraordinary Forensic Identification Mechanism (Mecanismo Extraordinario de Identificación Forense, MEIF), proposed by families and civil society and created by the Mexican government, will harness independent experts’ knowledge and assistance from international bodies to tackle the enormous backlog of unidentified human remains in the country. This model represents the potential of collaboration between national and international actors in this arena, but its ultimate success will depend on receiving full cooperation from relevant authorities, particularly prosecutors’ offices. Simultaneously, the need to improve Mexican institutions’ forensic capacity continues, beyond the actions of the MEIF.

Finally, and of particular concern this year, family members searching for disappeared loved ones—who are led in particular by women and often grouped in the many family collectives that have sprung up across the country—are suffering increasing attacks. The past months have witnessed the killing of multiple family members of the disappeared. Other family members have denounced threats and intimidation, including recently by security forces. Such cases highlight authorities’ obligation to protect families (who are both victims and human rights defenders) and demonstrate the risks that family members searching for truth and justice may face.


Discovering the full truth of what happened to the 43 Ayotzinapa students seven years ago requires continued domestic political will, strong actions by prosecutors, and attention and support from international actors. There is still a significant road ahead: while advances such as identifications of students were possible thanks to the resources, coordination, and international assistance seen in the current Ayotzinapa investigation, the majority of the disappeared students have yet to be found and the perpetrators have not been punished.

Despite the challenges it faces, the Ayotzinapa investigation contains several important examples of what an investigation into disappearances could and should look like, a crucial message in a country where hundreds of thousands of family members search for answers regarding the whereabouts and fate of disappeared loved ones. Recognizing the potential of the Ayotzinapa case to contribute to the mapping and prosecution of disappearances in Mexico, it is even more important for prosecutors and other authorities to reinforce their actions to ensure justice for the families of the 43 students.

The families of Mexico’s disappeared have led search efforts, proposed and constructed legal tools to tackle the disappearance crisis, and continue to work every day to uncover the truth behind disappearances. The Ayotzinapa investigation demonstrates that when the government responds to disappearances with political will, resources, technical assistance, and dialogue with victims, it is possible to move closer to justice. It is a lesson that should be applied throughout the country.