WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Apr 2016 | Commentary | News

Case of the 43 Disappeared Students: Key Points from the Group of Experts’ Final Report

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.

Read WOLA’s press statement on the Group of Experts’ final report

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.

Key Points that Require Further Investigation

Below are six key points outlined in both of the Experts’ reports that merit further investigation.

  • The Mexican government tampered with evidence. Evidence was tampered with at the San Juan River crime scene, where the government supposedly uncovered trash bags containing the charred remains of some of the students. The only identification of a disappeared student, Alexander Mora, was made based on a bone fragment allegedly found there. The government reports that the bag containing his remains was officially recovered on October 29, 2014; however, photo and video evidence provided by journalists from Guerrero shows forensic analysts and senior investigators from the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) with one of the suspected perpetrators at the river a day before the bags were officially reported. None of this activity was documented in the government’s case files. The independent forensic experts accompanying the case from the EAAF were not informed when the government uncovered the bags on October 29, 2014 and cannot verify the chain of custody.
  • Students’ cell phones show activity in the hours and days after they disappeared. Contrary to the Mexican government’s version of events, which stated that the disappeared students’ cell phones were destroyed at the trash site where they were killed and cremated, an investigation into the students’ cell phones revealed activity long after they were allegedly killed. For example, one of the disappeared students texted his mother at 1:16 a.m., an hour after the government says the students were killed and burned in the trash dump. Additionally, the cell phones of some of the suspected perpetrators enable investigators to track their movements on the night of the attack through antenna towers in the area. These lines of investigation involving cell phones have yet to be fully explored.
  • Suspects were tortured. The medical reports show nearly 80% of the suspects detained in connection with this case had injuries indicative of torture or mistreatment. The Group of Experts analyzed the cases of 17 of the detainees whose testimonies are key to supporting the Mexican government’s theory about the trash dump and found signs they were tortured. This raises serious concerns that Mexican officials coerced confessions to support their theory of what happened to the students.
  • Security forces from all three levels of government were present during different attacks on the students. The Group of Experts uncovered additional evidence that revealed the involvement of municipal police from the towns of Iguala, Cocula, and Huitzuco, state police, federal police, and federal investigative police. Soldiers from the 27th Batallion in Iguala were also aware of the attacks on the students and present at some of the crime scenes.  As the Experts noted previously, in spite of being aware of the prolonged attacks against the students, no security force intervened to protect them.
  • The military did not fully cooperate with the investigation.Despite the fact that soldiers were present at some of the crime scenes, including when the crimes were occurring, the Mexican government did not require the military to submit evidence or cooperate with the Group of Experts. Although soldiers provided several testimonies to Mexican investigators, the Experts had requested the opportunity to be present in follow-up interviews to corroborate information and gather more details of the events of the evening. The military also has key evidence from the night the students disappeared, including photos and videos of crimes as they occurred, and radio communications of soldiers reporting to their superiors about what they witnessed that they have not provided to the PGR. In their final report, the Group of Experts included a list of questions that the government should use to follow up with the military about the case.
  • The government did not thoroughly investigate the possible connection to transnational drug trafficking. Only four of the five buses the students used on the night of the attack were included in the federal government’s original investigation. On the night of the attack, federal police intercepted the fifth bus, offloaded the students, and escorted the bus away from Iguala. The federal government omitted this bus from its initial investigation despite testimony from the students regarding its existence, its inclusion in case files from Guerrero state authorities, and video footage of the bus. The fifth bus seen on video surveillance cameras during the night of the attack and described by the students does not match the bus that authorities later presented to the Group of Experts to examine. In their September 2015 report, the Experts hypothesized that this missing fifth bus could have contained hidden drugs or money belonging toGuerreros Unidos, an organized criminal group that is known to use commercial buses to traffic drugs. This hypothesis was not fully explored by the Mexican government. Although in September 2015 the Experts asked the PGR to request information from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding a case in Chicago against members of the Guerreros Unidos for using buses to transport heroin to the city, this request was not made until February 2016 and the Mexican government is still waiting for information from the DOJ. Recently the government claimed that the students riding on this fifth bus stopped it and disembarked by their own volition, however, no information was provided regarding why the students allegedly exited the bus or where they went after this.

Recommendations to Improve Mexico’s Investigative Capacity

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:

  • The overreliance on confessions as evidence.The system prioritizes confessions by suspects and does not place enough value on objective, scientific evidence.
  • The failure to transcribe testimonies.Investigators do not transcribe their questions or the exact responses given by witnesses or suspects when documenting testimonies. Rather, the testimonies are recorded as a summary, which is written by the investigator and approved by the witness or suspect.
  • The lack of independent forensic services.Mexico’s state and federal attorney general’s offices are responsible for carrying out forensic analyses in criminal investigations. This does not allow for independent and impartial investigations, as there is often pressure to support an official version of events.
  • Success is measured by the number of suspects arrested, but not necessarily convicted. Rather than measuring success based on whether the case was resolved and the events fully clarified, the system focuses on the number of arrests as an indicator of success. This leads to a worrisome trend of arresting in order to investigate, rather than investigating in order to arrest.
  • The failure to investigate the supervisors of security agents implicated in crimes.The majority of criminal investigations in Mexico are focused on the material authors of the crime. When this involves public servants, investigators fail to investigate the chain of command and the responsibility of supervisors in permitting, supporting, or failing to intervene in criminal acts or human rights violations.
  • The failure to use currently existing technology to search for disappeared persons.  Current technology exists, such as the LIDAR surveying technology, which could help identify alterations in the terrain and possible gravesites.  Improved satellite imagery would also be important.
  • Excessive bureaucracy and formality in investigations. Although Mexico is transitioning to an adversarial judicial system, many states and the federal government continue to rely on a written legal system, which requires documentation of any procedure.  Excessive paperwork can hinder the process and makes it difficult to understand the content of a criminal investigation. The Experts highlight that in the case of Ayotzinapa, the file has 188 volumes, each having between 500 and 1,500 pages. They affirm that in many files the information is repeated.

The Mexican Government’s Response

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.

Next Steps

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 indeedcontinue 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.”

Read the Group of Experts’ reports on the investigation.

For More WOLA analysis on the case of the 43 disappeared students, see: