On April 24, 2016, the Group of Experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to provide technical assistance in the investigation of the case of the 43 disappeared students in Mexico presented its final report. While the report provides some new details about the investigation, it primarily focuses on the many lines of investigation that have not been fully explored in the case, and highlights the various ways the Mexican government impeded the investigation and obstructed justice, including the strong possibility that evidence was tampered with and suspects were tortured to coerce confessions. The Mexican government’s narrow focus on supporting its original theory about what happened to the 43 disappeared students is at the root of many of the obstacles the Experts faced in their work to uncover the truth.
In their previous report from September 2015, the Experts scientifically disproved the Mexican government’s theory that the 43 disappeared students were killed and burned at a trash dump, finding no evidence to support this version of events and recommending several new lines of investigation to pursue instead. In February 2016, a second outside report by a team of Argentine forensic analysts (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) also concluded that there is no scientific evidence to support the government’s original theory. Despite the conclusions of these two reports, the Mexican government continued to insist on this theory. Meanwhile, many other more credible lines of investigation proposed by the Group of Experts remain unexplored, such as the possibility that the students intercepted a bus used to transport heroin as a potential motive for the violent and coordinated attacks against them. In their final report, the Experts’ affirmed that the recommendations outlined in their September 2015 report regarding the investigation, the search for the students, and ways to address disappearances in Mexico, still stand.
In the months after the Group of Experts debunked the Mexican government’s official version of the students’ disappearance, the members of the Group were subject to targeted media campaigns attempting to discredit their previous work and personal characters. These defamation attempts continued leading up to the presentation of the final report, and highlight a pattern of intimidation and criminalization faced by anyone seeking to uncover the truth of the case.
Below are six key points outlined in both of the Experts’ reports that merit further investigation.
In addition to the recommendations from the Experts’ September 2015 report, their final report outlines 22 ways the Mexican government can improve how it conducts criminal investigations. The Experts’ collaboration with the Mexican government on this case allowed them to identify structural weaknesses and investigative deficiencies in Mexico’s criminal justice system. These deficiencies impede successful criminal investigations and make the process unnecessarily cumbersome for prosecutors, witnesses, victims, and others involved. Some of the weaknesses the Experts identified include:
Representatives of the Mexican government were notably absent from the event where the Group of Experts presented their final report. Hours later, the human rights prosecutor for the PGR, Eber Betanzos Torres, whose office has been in charge of the investigation since November 2015, issued a public statement in response to the report. Betanzos affirmed that the case remains open, that the PGR is pursuing all lines of investigation, and that the government will not allow those responsible for these crimes to go unpunished.
Betanzos recognized the work of the Experts and affirmed that President Peña Nieto had instructed the PGR to analyze the Experts’ contributions and recommendations to enrich the investigation into the events of September 26-27, 2014. In spite of the positive views about the Experts expressed in the statement, it is also a justification of the PGR’s investigation without any recognition of the multiple flaws in how they have handled the case.
The statement describes all of the actions carried out by the government to investigate the case and claims that the PGR has always given the Group of Experts full access to the information they requested. Betanzos lists the results of the PGR’s work, including the detention of 123 people allegedly linked to the students’ disappearance and other crimes committed during the attacks, the collection of hundreds of testimonies, forensic work and searches. Betanzos also refers to the third external specialist study of the trash dump, the preliminary results of which were presented to the public on April 1, 2016 without the consent of the Experts and without a consensus about the findings amongst the six specialists who were part of the group. The PGR’s statement repeats these experts’ preliminary findings about the trash dump which, as WOLA has summarized previously, states that there is evidence a fire did indeed occur in the trash dump and that the remains of at least 17 people have been found, but which provides no information to prove that a fire occurred on the evening of September 26 or that the remains belong to the students. The PGR’s statement also justifies the government’s refusal to allow the Group of Experts to be present in further questioning of Mexican soldiers who were present during the different attacks against the students. Betanzos further affirms that the PGR has already investigated the fifth bus and found no irregularities in its construction and that the bus’ route was limited to Guerrero and the neighboring state of Morelos.
It is interesting to note that the PGR’s statement reads almost like a point-by-point rebuttal of every issue raised by the Group of Experts in their report. To each flaw or recommendation identified in the report, the PGR responds by affirming that the government is either continuing to pursue the proposed lines of investigation, declaring that they have carried out the Experts’ requests and found no evidence relevant to the case, or actively challenging the Experts’ findings, as is the case of the trash dump.
On April 16, 2016 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights announced that they would not renew the Group of Experts’ mandate because of the Mexican government’s refusal to have them continue with their work. The Commission also made it clear that the objectives of the assistance provided by the experts have not been met and that they would create a special monitoring mechanism for the case. As the Commission works to develop this mechanism, it is essential that it have the support of the Mexican government. Without this, any role the Commission may have will continue to face the same obstacles in uncovering the truth as the Group of Experts experienced.
Even with the Commission’s assistance, it is, and always has been, the Mexican government’s responsibility to lead the investigation into the attacks that occurred on the evening of September 26, 2014 and the enforced disappearance of the 43 students. It is also their responsibility to deliver results. As one of the Experts, Alejandro Valencia, affirmed during Sunday’s presentation, “the search for the 43 students should not stop because of the basic fact that they still have not been found.”
The Mexican government has affirmed that it will continue with the investigation and ensure that those responsible are sanctioned. In its statement expressing support for the Expert’s work, the U.S. Department of State voiced its expectation that the Mexican authorities would indeed“continue their efforts to bring the perpetrators of this terrible crime to justice.”
To demonstrate its commitment to the case, the Mexican government should implement the recommendations made by the Group of Experts in both of their reports. This includes not only pursing the lines of investigation the experts proposed, but also investigating the Mexican officials responsible for obstructing justice in the case, continuing with reforms to strengthen Mexico’s criminal justice system and passing and implementing the general laws on torture and enforced disappearances. The government should also take steps to guarantee the safety of the surviving students, the victims’ family members, as well as their legal representatives from the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center. This should include a thorough investigation into the illegal wiretapping and publication in the Mexican media of private telephone conversations between the families and their lawyers.
If the Mexican government persists with its original, disproven version of what happened to the 43 students, it will be clear that it has no real interest in truth and justice in this case, but rather that their priority is covering up their own responsibilities in the case and their inability to carry out an effective criminal investigation, even in the case that the government itself has deemed the “most exhaustive criminal investigation in the history of Mexico’s justice system.”
For More WOLA analysis on the case of the 43 disappeared students, see: