WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

28 Jun 2018 | Commentary

Arbitrary Arrests and Torture in Mexico’s Ayotzinapa Case

Human Rights Violations in the Investigation: United Nations Report

In a report titled Double Injustice: Human Rights Violations in the Investigation of the Ayotzinapa Case, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlights several shortcomings in the Mexican government’s investigation into the September 2014 enforced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The report reveals that there are strong grounds to believe that at least 34 individuals prosecuted in connection to the students’ disappearance were arbitrarily detained and tortured to coerce confessions.

The OHCHR found that the Mexican government has not fully adhered to the recommendations made by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to provide technical assistance to the Mexican government on the investigation. The report furthers the work of the Group of Experts and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) to document serious human rights violations committed by Mexican authorities in the context of the investigation.

Through interviews with detainees, witnesses, and authorities, as well as the analysis of judicial files and medical records of physical injuries sustained by the detainees, the OHCHR identified “a consistent pattern of human rights violations and an almost uniform modus operandi” regarding how people were arbitrarily detained and tortured to extract information or confessions. The report also documents various cases in which there were significant delays in bringing detainees before a public prosecutor, thereby placing them outside the protection of the law.

The types of torture found by the OHCHR include electrical shocks, sexual assault and rape, threatening to kill the detainees and their family members, boxing the ears, placing a plastic bag over a suspect’s head to simulate asphyxiation, and waterboarding. According to the report, these abuses have yet to be properly investigated or sanctioned, and there is strong evidence pointing to Mexican authorities attempting to cover them up.

The report highlights that all of the human rights violations it documented occurred after October 2014, when the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) took over the investigation. The OHCHR found that of the torture victims, 23 were allegedly tortured by federal investigative police within the PGR’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal).

While in 2016 the PGR’s Inspector General’s Office appeared to make a genuine effort to investigate the involvement of several public officials in the arbitrary detention and torture of the detainees, this investigation was thwarted when the inspector was forced to resign. The PGR’s final report on the internal investigation only found minor faults in the Ayotzinapa investigation.

The Mexican government responded to the OHCHR report on the day of its release, criticizing its findings and stating that Mexican authorities are indeed following up on the GIEI’s recommendations and making progress on several lines of investigation. However, the statement failed to address the numerous concerns outlined by the OHCHR in the report, including the fact that the Mexican government has yet to exclude confessions and evidence obtained through torture in the Ayotzinapa investigation, or to properly investigate and sanction the public officials responsible for the human rights violations discussed in the report.

Building on the GIEI’s findings and the OHCHR’s analysis of the Ayotzinapa investigation thus far, the report lays out 15 specific recommendations regarding how the investigation should be carried out going forward. These include, among others:

  • Identifying and sanctioning those responsible for the human rights violations committed in the context of the investigation, as well as those responsible for any cover-up activities, and thoroughly investigating command responsibility for these abuses;
  • Excluding or declaring null and void any evidence in which there are credible grounds to believe that it was obtained through torture;
  • Adopting legal reforms to guarantee the independence and autonomy of the PGR, including internal oversight bodies and accountability processes;
  • Ensuring the prosecuted persons’ right to due process, including access to judges and public defenders;
  • Designing and implementing the National Program to Prevent and Punish Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (as stipulated by Mexico’s new General Law on Torture).

Background on the case

In September 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in southwest Mexico were traveling on five commandeered buses to a demonstration in Mexico City when they were attacked by local police forces working in collusion with a criminal organization in the town of Iguala, state of Guerrero.

The students took different routes when leaving the bus station and were traveling in three separate groups. In a series of coordinated attacks, all three groups of students were pursued and intercepted by security forces in the area. Police officers used lethal force on the students, killing six people and injuring over 40 more.

Among the victims were the Ayotzinapa students, passersby, members of a youth soccer team, and teachers and other individuals that came to the students’ aid. The tortured body of one of the students was found on the street the following day. During the night’s succession of events, 43 of the students were “forcibly disappeared”—they were detained by police officers and never seen again.

Given the magnitude of the case and the international outcry it generated, the Mexican government agreed with the legal representatives of the students’ families to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to appoint a group of independent experts to provide technical assistance in the investigation into the students’ disappearance. A group of five international criminal justice and human rights experts, called the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), worked on the case from March 2015 until April 2016.

The GIEI concluded that forensic evidence ruled out the Mexican government’s explanation of what happened to the 43 students—that they were taken to a trash dump in the nearby town of Cocula, Guerrero where they were murdered and incinerated by an organized crime group. However, despite these findings, the Mexican government has refused to discard this theory of the case. In their final report, the GIEI revealed that Mexican authorities participated in grave misconduct in order to create evidence to back this trash dump theory of what happened to the students, including tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, and using torture to obtain testimony from suspects.

In July 2016, the Mexican government, the legal representatives of the students’ families, and the IACHR agreed to a Special Follow-Up Mechanism for the Ayotzinapa Case, charged with monitoring how the Mexican government is making progress in the investigation and following up on the GIEI’s recommendations.

The Follow-Up Mechanism conducted its fourth official visit to Mexico in November 2017 and expressed concern about the Mexican government’s lack of progress in pursuing several important lines of investigation outlined by the GIEI, and about the fact that the students’ whereabouts remain unknown and that not a single person has been prosecuted for the crime of enforced disappearance in relation to the case. The Mechanism carried out another visit to Mexico in February 2018.

View the executive summary of the OHCHR’s report in English.

View the full report in Spanish.