WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 Feb 2016 | Commentary | News

Forensic Study Refutes Mexican Government’s Version of the 43 Students’ Disappearance

A team of Argentine forensic experts found no evidence to support the Mexican government’s version of what happened to the 43 forcibly disappeared students from Guerrero, Mexico. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF), which conducted a forensic study of the trash dump where the students were allegedly killed and burned, concluded based on scientific evidence that there had not been a fire powerful enough to have incinerated the students. In fact, they found no evidence to suggest that the students were even present at the trash dump.

The EAAF began its work in October 2014 at the request of the students’ families and their legal representatives. The EAAF’s study is consistent with the findings outlined in a September 2015 report by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes). The Group of Experts—which, at the request of the Mexican government, was appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to provide technical assistance in the investigation—also concluded that it was scientifically impossible for the students to have been burned at the trash dump.

The goal of the EAAF’s study was to determine whether the evidence collected from the trash dump supports the theory that the 43 disappeared students were killed and burned at the site. The short answer is no. In fact, the study uncovered numerous inconsistencies in how the Mexican government arrived at this theory. Below are the main findings of the EAAF’s report.

  • The level of damage found at the trash dump does not correspond to the level of damage expected if 43 bodies had been burned there. Plants that were dated to have started growing before September 2014 (when the students are said to have been burned) would not have survived the fire, yet only one plant sample collected showed minimal signs of fire damage and the remaining samples showed no signs of fire damage. Similarly, tree stumps analyzed at the location where the Mexican government claims the students were burned showed little to no signs of fire damage.
  • Multiple fires have occurred at the trash dump over the course of many years, and thousands of small bone fragments were recovered at the site. The EAAF recovered thousands of small bone fragments, belonging to at least 19 individuals, that had endured severe fire damage; however there is no evidence linking these remains to the 43 students. Through satellite imagery and soil samples, the EAAF concluded that multiple fires have occurred at the trash dump since at least 2010; however, there is no evidence of a fire large enough to incinerate 43 bodies. Rather, the EAAF concluded that the trash dump has been the site of previous incinerations of human remains over time.
  • The bullets and casings recovered at the trash dump do not correspond to the firearms that the alleged perpetrators claim to have used to kill the students. Testimony given by the alleged perpetrators specifically mention the use of hand pistols (.9mm and .38 super) and the use of one AK-47-type rifle to kill the students. However, 87% of the bullets and casings recovered at the scene do not correspond to the weapons mentioned in the testimony; only 16 casings correspond to the weapons specified. Additionally, the casings were not recovered at the location where the alleged perpetrators said they shot the students.

Furthermore, the EAAF highlights two serious concerns that call into question the Mexican government’s handling of evidence and protection of a scene under criminal investigation.

  • Between at least November 7 and 28, 2014, the trash dump was left completely unguarded and open to public entry. Photos circulated on the internet show members of the general public at the trash dump during this time. This is concerning as evidence could have been harmed or manipulated.
  • On November 15, 2014, investigators from Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office conducted an inspection of the trash dump without notifying the EAAF. During this inspection, the government investigators recovered 42 bullet casings that were found grouped together in conditions that suggest that the casings were deliberately placed in a specific location. The EAAF also states that the casings were found in an area of the trash dump that had already been inspected by the EAAF and government investigators prior to the November 15 discovery.

Following the release of the EAAF’s report, the Mexican government announced that it will continue to move forward with its plans to conduct a third forensic analysis of the trash dump. WOLA supports the findings of the EAAF, as well as those of the Group of Experts. Rather than spending time and resources to conduct yet one more scientific analysis of the trash dump, the Mexican government should focus on pursuing the lines of investigation proposed by the Group of Experts in its September 2015 report, and on searching for the students. The truth about what happened to the 43 disappeared students will not be found in the trash dump.

Click here to read the executive summary of the EAAF’s report (Spanish only).

Click here for more WOLA analysis and resources on the Ayotzinapa case.