After the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero in September 2014, the Mexican government and the legal representatives for the students and their families requested technical assistance from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In November 2014, the three parties signed an agreement that led to the formation of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes). This Group of Experts is tasked with reviewing and investigating the case of the disappeared students from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, but its work could have broader implications for changing how Mexico handles other cases of disappearances, which have skyrocketed in recent years. On March 1, 2015, the Group of Experts traveled to Mexico to begin its work.
The agreement for technical assistance represents an opportunity for internationally renowned experts in human rights and criminal investigation to help resolve the case of the disappeared students. As established in its mandate, the Group of Experts is charged with three principal objectives: the development of search plans to find disappeared persons (based on the principle that they should be presumed alive until their death has been proven); technical analysis of the lines of investigation to determine those criminally responsible; and technical evaluation of Mexico’s Comprehensive Plan for Attention to the Victims (Plan de Atención Integral a las Víctimas) to determine whether it meets the needs and demands of victims.
While the focus of the technical assistance is on the disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, the work of the Group of Experts should also help Mexico address more systemic problems. The Group of Experts will formulate recommendations for the Peña Nieto administration to strengthen the country’s institutional capacity to effectively search for and find disappeared persons, and to investigate cases of enforced disappearances (those in which state agents are actively involved). Such changes are sorely needed: over 23,270 persons disappeared in Mexico between 2007 and 2014 (an average of 13 people disappeared per day in 2013 and 2014). Since the students’ enforced disappearance in September 2014, the families of 375 other individuals have come forward to report the disappearance of a loved one in the same region within the state of Guerrero.
The Peña Nieto administration’s response to this growing crisis has been insufficient. Since 2013, Mexican authorities have located just 102 people (72 alive and 30 dead) who had been reported disappeared or missing, and very few Mexican officials have been effectively investigated and sanctioned for their participation in acts of enforced disappearance.
IACHR Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza explained the ambitious goals of the Group of Experts on November 18, 2014, when the agreement for technical assistance was made official:
“We believe this is a key moment in the contemporary history of Mexico since it represents an opportunity to attack the root of this structural problem that has represented a tragedy for each of the thousands of victims of forced disappearances that have taken place in recent years, for their family, for their loved ones and for all Mexico. The Commission wants to be part of this historic moment in order to assure that this opportunity is not wasted and to take advantage of its transformative capacity of a reality that has to change urgently. That’s why we sign this agreement. Because the Commission is convinced of the urgent and vital need to end forced disappearances, and that the breakpoint is not next month or tomorrow, but today.”
By January 16, 2015, the IACHR had selected the five individuals that would make up the Group of Experts: Carlos Martín Beristain (Spain), Angela Buitrago (Colombia), Francisco Cox Vial (Chile), Claudia Paz y Paz (Guatemala), and Alejandro Valencia Villa (Colombia), and on February 11 and 12, at the IACHR headquarters in Washington, DC, the Group held its first meeting in which it established a plan of action, determined internal norms and procedures, and set the dates of its first visit to Mexico. The Group’s mandate is initially for six months but may be extended as needed in order for the Group to complete its objectives.
Upon arriving in Mexico, the Group of Experts traveled to Guerrero to meet with the family members of the students. Civil society organizations, both nationally and internationally, welcomed the start of the Group, highlighting the Group’s legitimacy and the vast experience of the experts. After their first meeting with the experts, the students’ family members also expressed their confidence and hope that the experts would be able to help determine what happened to their sons.
On March 4, the Group of Experts met with Mexico’s newly appointed Attorney General, Arely Gómez González, who assured the Group that the government’s investigation into the students’ disappearance was not closed (in contrast to statements made by her predecessor, Jesús Murillo Karam, who on Janurary 27, 2015 announced that the government had already reached the “historical truth” of the case) and committed to collaborating with the Group in an open and transparent manner. The Group was presented with the government’s facts of the case and promised full access to any information needed.
Continuing with a productive first week in Mexico, on March 5, members of the Group met with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) to discuss areas for collaboration and to exchange views on the state of the investigation. CNDH president Luis Raúl González Pérez pledged his support for resolving the case, and both parties agreed on the importance of establishing open and permanent lines of communication on the progress made in the investigation.
In line with the statements made by the new Attorney General, the Mexican government asserted previously that it welcomes the “support, review, and suggestions” of the Group of Experts. Nonetheless, the Peña Nieto administration has also reacted adversely to international criticism of its investigation into this case. On February 7, 2015, the internationally recognized Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF), which has served as an independent expert for the family members of the students, and whose contributions the government initially welcomed, made public its assessment of the government’s investigation asserting that it was too soon to close the investigation given the amount of evidence that still needed to be analyzed. The rapid response from the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) to this assessment attempted to discredit the EAAF rather than acknowledge any failures or outstanding issues in its investigation.
The assistance offered by the Group of Experts could help bring us closer to knowing what happened to the 43 students, but its work will also have broader implications. The Group’s recommendations should help authorities identify measures it can take to more effectively search for the disappeared, investigate and sanction those responsible, and provide justice to their family members. Their arrival in Mexico presents a unique opportunity for the Mexican government to demonstrate that it is ready turn the page on impunity. As the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts continues with its mandate, it is important that Mexican authorities support the work of the group, provide it access to relevant evidence and to key government officials, and strive to implement its recommendations. Anything less would only further put into doubt the Peña Nieto administration’s commitment to justice and human rights.