WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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27 Mar 2020 | Commentary

Mexico Makes Progress in Investigating Torture and Obstruction of Justice in Emblematic Ayotzinapa Case

The special unit for the Ayotzinapa case within Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) scored an important victory on March 17, when a federal judge issued arrest warrants against five government officials and a former marine for torture, forced disappearance, and obstruction of justice in the case of the 43 students who were forcefully disappeared in September 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero. 

The decision to prosecute these high-level officials sends a clear sign of the commitment of López Obrador’s government and the FGR to forcefully investigate a case that has become emblematic of an ongoing crisis of violence, human rights violations, and impunity in Mexico.

To date, the FGR has detained three of the six accused: Ezequiel Peña Cerda, the current head of the FGR’s Criminal Investigations Unit (Área de Investigación Criminal, AIC), Ariel Agustín Castillo Reyes, a former member of the Mexican Navy, and Isidro Junco Baraja, the former director of special teams from the federal investigative police. All three men, and two former federal investigative police agents are accused of torturing Carlos Canto, a suspect detained during early investigations of the case in 2014. Peña Cerda and Castillo Reyes also face charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of authority.

The torture of Canto and other suspects detained in connection to the Ayotzinapa probe are not new revelations. Both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found strong grounds to believe that several suspects—including Canto—had been arbitrarily detained and tortured by federal agents. 

However, the allegations gained more momentum after a video of Canto’s torture surfaced in June 2019. Canto was released from jail last October after a judge determined that the evidence against him was obtained illegally, including through torture. Other suspects in the case, including individuals who are believed to have directly participated in the students’ disappearance, have also been released from detention for similar reasons.  

The other key arrest warrant is against Tomás Zerón, who led the FGR’s Criminal Investigations Unit at the time of the students’ disappearance. Zerón, who is wanted on charges of torture, forced disappearance, altering the crime scene, and manipulating evidence, is believed to have left Mexico; the Mexican government has alerted Interpol in case their assistance is needed to locate him. 

In April 2016, the Group of Experts, which provided technical assistance to the Mexican government in the Ayotzinapa investigation, released their final report on the case, revealing grave irregularities committed by authorities, including Zerón. The independent panel of experts unearthed a video showing Zerón accompanying a detained suspect, Agustín García Reyes, at the San Juan River—the only site where a bone fragment of one of the missing students was discovered and successfully identified. Zerón’s visit to the site on this day, in accompaniment with the detained suspect, was never documented in the government’s case files. The visit took place a day prior to the government’s official announcement of finding evidence at the river. 

A UN report found that Zerón also supervised staffers in both his office and the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime (Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada, SEIDO) who are implicated in the torture of at least 34 detainees connected to the Ayotzinapa case, including the detainee taken to the San Juan River

Since taking office, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has prioritized the case of the 43 students and has held regular meetings with the families. In his first executive action, he created a presidential commission for truth and justice charged with supervising the Ayotzinapa investigation, led by Alejandro Encinas, the Interior Ministry’s undersecretary for human rights and migration.

The presidential commission has signed cooperation agreements with both the IACHR and the OHCHR, which has included the participation of members of the Group of Experts. The presidential commission has also coordinated ongoing efforts to search for the students’ whereabouts, which has consisted of over 20 searches for possible clandestine graves and sending a small number of bone fragments to the University of Innsbruck in Austria to be analyzed for DNA. 

On June 26, 2019, National Prosecutor Alejandro Gertz Manero created a special investigative unit for the Ayotzinapa case, focused solely on investigating the 43 students’ disappearance. The detentions and arrest warrants discussed above are largely due to the work of Omar Gómez Trejo, the head of the special unit, and his team. Gómez Trejo is tasked with investigating the students’ whereabouts and those responsible for their disappearance, as well as obstruction of justice and other crimes committed by officials in the federal investigation into the case during former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term.  

Moving forward, the Mexican government should intensify efforts to locate and detain Tomás Zerón, as well as the other two fugitive suspects: Carlos Gómez Arrieta, the former head of Mexico’s federal investigative police, and Julio Dagoberto Contreras, who worked under Zerón. Apart from demonstrating that no official involved in the obstruction of justice in the Ayotzinapa case is above the law, information from these individuals may provide additional insight into what happened to the students the night they disappeared. 

López Obrador’s government and the FGR have demonstrated a strong commitment to providing the families of the 43 disappeared students with answers about what happened to their loved ones. These recent arrests are key steps towards securing justice, and they may bring investigators closer to at last finding the truth about the students’ whereabouts.