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4 Apr 2022 | Commentary

Lies, Cover-Up, and Military Involvement: Third Expert Report Reveals Fresh Facts About Ayotzinapa Disappearances

On March 28, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes, GIEI) presented a new report that uses fresh evidence to reveal the scale of federal authorities’ efforts to invent a false explanation of what happened to 43 Ayotzinapa students who were forcibly disappeared in 2014. 

Among the most striking findings is the prominent role of Mexico’s armed forces. The experts found that military authorities were monitoring different aspects of the events as they unfolded and later participated in a series of irregular activities including altering a supposed crime scene and withholding case information in their possessionsome of which has not been turned over to the competent authorities yet despite direct instructions from Mexico’s president. 

The experts’ report also confirms that federal investigative authorities and others systematically tortured detainees to force them to support a fabricated version of events, as well as falsifying documents, phone calls, and other aspects of the original investigation.

The GIEI’s new findings are concerning not only because they show what one of the experts calls “the construction of a lie from the highest levels” in the Ayotzinapa case, but also in light of the increasingly central and dominant role of Mexico’s armed forces in policing and other government tasks. It is worth noting that forces implicated in irregularities in the Ayotzinapa case include Mexico’s navy, known for its collaboration with U.S. federal agencies in anti-crime operations in the context of the “war on drugs.” Meanwhile, the use of torture and falsification of evidence exemplifies wider practices by investigative authorities in Mexico and points to the need for accountability and improvements in investigative practices.

Justice for the Ayotzinapa case is essential for the families of the students and in light of a national disappearance crisis whose victims will soon number 100,000. The GIEI’s report contains recommendations that can help to guide the course of the Ayotzinapa investigation and address some of these wider challenges for security and justice in Mexico.

Background on the Ayotzinapa Case and the GIEI

The September 2014 enforced disappearance by Mexican security forces of 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ School (Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos) in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero, has become one of Mexico’s most well-known cases of large-scale human rights violations. In addition to the enforced disappearances, six people, including three bystanders, were killed and many more injured in the events. Seven and a half years later, following an initial attempt by Mexican authorities to construct a false version of the case, the investigation into these crimes has partially advanced and the remains of three students have been identified, but impunity persists and the full extent of what occurred and who was involved remains unknown.

On November 12, 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) signed an agreement with the students’ families and representatives and the Mexican government to provide technical assistance for the case. As a result, the IACHR formed the GIEI, a five-person team of internationally recognized human rights and criminal investigation experts that was tasked with assisting with the search for the students, the investigation into those responsible, the attention to the victims of the attack and their families, and the development of public policies regarding enforced disappearance. 

The Group of Experts worked on the case and presented two reports from March 2015 to April 2016, when their mandate was not renewed by the Mexican government. In subsequent years, the IACHR continued to monitor the case through the Follow-Up Mechanism to the Ayotzinapa Case under a new agreement with the Mexican government, the students’ families, and their representatives.

In 2019, under the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the students’ families made an additional request for the GIEI’s assistance on the case, which the federal government transmitted to the IACHR. Two of the five original experts returned in 2019; in 2020 four members of the GIEI resumed work on the case in a technical cooperation agreement that continues to this day. 

Key Points from the New Group of Experts Report

On March 28, 2022, the Group of Experts presented their third report on the case, largely based on an analysis of declassified documentation ordered by López Obrador, as well as their work with the Special Unit for the Investigation and Litigation of the Ayotzinapa case (Unidad Especial de Investigación y Litigación para el caso Ayotzinapa, UEILCA) within Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR), led by Omar Gómez, and the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa case (Comisión para la Verdad y el Acceso a la Justicia en el caso Ayotzinapa, COVAJ), which is coordinated by Alejandro Encinas, the Undersecretary for Human Rights at the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB).

In their report summary, the experts emphasize that a lot of time has been lost, much evidence “was annulled because it was obtained under torture,” and that the destruction and loss of information “seriously compromises the chances of a full clarification of the case.” The experts affirm that “this new report shows, with other new evidence, the number of people and institutions involved at different levels in the case, which shows a structure that has permeated increasingly higher levels of responsibility.”

The main findings of the report and the experts’ key recommendations are summarized below.

Main Findings

1. The military was monitoring the students the night of their disappearance and did not share relevant case information with the authorities tasked with the investigation 

Since 2015, the GIEI had asked for access to military information and files related to the students’ disappearance on multiple occasions. Even though López Obrador had ordered Mexican agencies, including the armed forces, to provide this information to the COVAJ in a presidential decree published in December 2018, it was not until his direct intervention that the experts had access to some of this information more than two years later, in April 2021, while other military information was provided in November 2021 and some has still not been provided at all. The newly obtained files show that the military had been monitoring the organized criminal groups in the area around Iguala for at least a year before the students were forcibly disappeared and that the students were also monitored by the military, having been spied on by intelligence personnel for at least a decade. The military had even infiltrated the school with young people who were students but also intelligence agents, including one of those who was forcibly disappeared. 

Information that the military failed to provide to the GIEI and the UEILCA, either in documentation or in interviews with military authorities, could have assisted earlier in the investigation. The GIEI reports that the army, as well as Mexico’s former intelligence agency (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional, CISEN), had access to information in real time from intercepted telephone conversations (for which the GIEI could find no judicial authorization), yet this information was not provided to the authorities in charge of the search for the students and the investigation of the crimes. Soldiers were also present in areas close to where some of the students were attacked by the police, and although they presumably heard and saw things relevant to the investigation, this information had not been disclosed. Likewise, soldiers entered the police station where some students were temporarily held, but did not provide this information to the authorities. Military documents also question the decision to allow the GIEI to work in Mexico, suggest that anti-GIEI language be released publicly to disqualify the experts’ work, and refer to the organizations that represent the families of the Ayotzinapa students as being associated with “disruptive” actors. 

2. The government went to great lengths to create its “historic truth” and the Mexican navy appears to have played a significant role to support this version of the events

While the GIEI, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF), and others have provided extensive evidence to disprove the Mexican government’s “historic truth” about the studentsthat they were taken to the trash dump in Cocula, killed and their bodies incinerated, and their remains placed in bags that were dumped into the San Juan Riverthe experts’ latest report provides additional evidence that reveals the previously unknown scale of the cover-up.

The experts report that the investigation carried out by the UEILCA confirms that an anonymous phone call, allegedly made on October 25, 2014, which had supposedly resulted in actions by Mexican authorities that led to the discovery of the “historic truth” about the case, never existed. The call was fabricated by staff of the anti-kidnapping unit of the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR, which later transformed into the FGR) to justify the detentions of suspects announced by the government on October 27. This illustrates how this “truth” was constructed out of lies from the onset.

Moreover, the experts obtained access to information from the Mexican navy (SEMAR), including files classified as “secret”, that had details about SEMAR’s activities, especially between October 27-29, 2014 at the trash dump and in the San Juan River. Of particular interest is a video, taken by a navy drone, that shows Mexican marines at the trash dump of Cocula in the early hours of October 27 (footage can be seen starting at 1:03 of the GIEI’s press conference). In one image, trucks belonging to SEMAR park a short distance away from three white bags; in another, one of the SEMAR trucks is moved to block the entrance to the trash dump. There are several images of marines taking things out of the trucks and standing near the bags, one of a group of marines going down into the trash dump, and another of a fire that was started in one part of the trash dump. After the fire has started, an image shows that the three white bags have disappeared. About two hours after the marines begin their activities, Jesús Murillo Karam, the then-Attorney General of Mexico, arrives at the trash dump.

According to the government’s files, ballistic evidence as well as human remains were found in the areas where the marines were present, raising concerns about how they may have altered or, at a minimum, contaminated the scene. None of the information about the SEMAR presence at the trash dump on October 27 had been registered elsewhere. 

3. Investigative authorities fabricated evidence and systematically used torture to construct the false version of events

The expert report confirms the falsification of crucial documents in the case. These include the document that purportedly recorded the October 2014 search of the San Juan River by Mexican marines, where authorities claimed to have found a bone fragment from one of the disappeared students. As the UEILCA has documented, the PGR investigating agent who supposedly oversaw this search was in Mexico City at the time. Coupled with the series of irregularities and manipulation of the scene already described, this makes it impossible to know where the bone fragment—which does in fact match one of the students—was truly found.

The GIEI’s new report also documents even more extensively the systematic use of torture to force detainees to make statements supporting the fabricated “historic truth” version of events. The report highlights six initial detentions carried out between October 26 and 27, 2014, all without legal justification, by members of the navy, Federal Police, PGR, and/or army, which would be cited by authorities as key steps to discovering the historic truth. All six detainees were tortured. When then-Attorney General Murillo Karam and then-head of the PGR’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal, AIC) Tomás Zerón de Lucio gave a press conference in the afternoon of October 27 announcing the detention of criminals whose confessions formed the basis of the “historic truth”, the detainees had not even made their statements to the PGR yet according to the investigation file.

The GIEI’s report notes that the UEILCA, with support from the COVAJ, obtained more than 60 videos of approximately 50 detainees that, along with other evidence such as medical reports and statements, show how the torture of detainees in the Ayotzinapa case was a systematic practice used to force those detained to make confessions and/or accusations against other people. Institutions who participated in this practice included the PGR, the Federal Police, and CISEN, and torture was commonly carried out in naval bases and in the PGR’s anti-organized crime unit (Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada, SEIDO). The modus operandi used, as seen in the videos, included blindfolding, beating, and threatening detainees while holding them in inhuman conditions. (In July 2020, a video was leaked to the press showing that the head of the AIC, Tomás Zerón, had supervised some of the torture.)

In the words of the GIEI, “the use of torture meant it was impossible to know what could be the truth… The torture operated not only to distort the truth and cause impunity in the case, but also to set up obstacles for the new phase of the investigation. For this reason, combined with the time that has elapsed and the repeated refusal of multiple authorities to turn over information, the second phase of this investigation has turned out to be so complex.”

The GIEI’s Recommendations

Despite the challenges, the experts present important recommendations for the future of the case, including guaranteeing access to all available information on the case and strengthening the investigation, the search process, the investigation of torture, and support for the families. The experts reiterated the need to address all of their previous recommendations, including on ways to improve criminal investigations in the country, and to make progress in exploring the hypotheses about the case that they have presented in their three reports. Among other recommendations, in their new report the experts point to the need for authorities to:

  • Turn over all relevant information to the UEILCA and that the military, in particular, cease denying the existence of documents or information that in fact exist and have even been obtained by the GIEI.
  • Include the criminal liability of institutional chains of command when investigating and prosecuting the case.
  • Investigate from a logic of macro-crime rather than isolated events, acknowledging that authorities who collaborate with organized crime are part of the organized criminal structure under investigation.
  • The experts also recommend that the methods used in this investigation, including international technical assistance and the participation of various government agencies, civil society organizations, and victims, be applied in other cases of grave human rights violations.

Following the presentation of the GIEI’s report and in response to questions from the media, president López Obrador reiterated that his government is committed to uncovering the truth of the Ayotzinapa case and that the investigation is ongoing. Despite the GIEI’s affirmation that the armed forces had resisted providing information, López Obrador stated that the armed forces are turning over, or have turned over, all relevant information as instructed and that in his administration “there is no impunity for anyone” and “absolutely nothing is hidden.”

The Families of the 43 Call for Justice in Light of the GIEI’s Findings

In a press conference held the day after the GIEI presented its third report, the families of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students presented their position on the newly revealed information. The families indicated that they adopted and shared the GIEI report’s findings, expressing their pain and frustration at the scale and cynicism of authorities’ lies and manipulation of the investigation, including especially the participation of the armed forces during and after the initial facts, as detailed above.

They also pointed out that the new case information has only come to light thanks to the international assistance given by the GIEI, which, in turn, has been able to return and work in Mexico thanks to the insistence of the families themselves with the support of the organizations that accompany and represent them. Finally, the families reiterated that, even today, not all government institutions have made available all the relevant information in their possession.

In light of the foregoing, the families called for measures including:

  • A meeting with president López Obrador to discuss next steps.
  • The delivery of all relevant information by all authorities to the UEILCA.
  • A full investigation of the participation of military authorities in the case and cover-up, as well as accountability for other authorities, including of the highest level, who participated in these acts.

Finally, the families recalled that their case is emblematic of the much larger universe of nearly 100,000 disappeared people in Mexico. They expressed their solidarity with all the families of the disappeared, recognizing that it is the tireless search efforts and activism of the families that are necessary to bring hope and results in the current context.