On the night of September 26, 2014, some 43 students from the rural teaching school of Ayotzinapa were disappeared in the city of Iguala, Guerrero while commandeering buses to attend a protest in Mexico City to commemorate the 1968 student massacre. The Peña Nieto administration – in a version of events that then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam deemed to be the verdad histórica, or “historic truth” – claimed that the students were arrested by the Iguala police and handed over to the police in the neighboring town of Cocula, who in turn handed them over to members of the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. The cartel members were then to have killed the students, burned their bodies in an all-night pyre in the garbage dump, ground their remains, and tossed them into the San Juan River.
This version of events was quickly debunked by national and international experts on multiple grounds: the amount of fuel that would have been needed to sustain the fire, the sight and stench that should have been visible and smelled for miles around, the drizzle that fell at periods throughout the night, the impracticability of disposing of so many bones without access to a crematorium (for Spanish speakers, I summarized these objections in a piece written six months after the disappearances that can be found here). And, crucially, the torture the alleged perpetrators of the crimes were subject to in order to extract from them the “historic truth.”
And now, over three-and-a-half years after the events and less than a month before the presidential election, a unanimous panel of judges on the nineteenth-circuit federal court has upended the government’s version of the events, ordering it to re-open the investigation and set up a truth commission made up of representatives of the victims’ families, members of the National Human Rights Commission, and the Attorney General’s Office. According to the judges, the original investigation was not “prompt, effective, independent and impartial” and, furthermore, there is “sufficient evidence to presume that the confessions and imputations against the accused were obtained through torture.” The Attorney General’s Office, then, will be required to issue new findings created by independent experts in conformance with the Istanbul Protocol, in addition to the truth commission to be set up to the human-rights violations against the accused, which include not only torture, but, allegedly, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
The ruling came as a massive blow to the Peña Nieto administration, which was left to fume that the requirement to reopen the case and set up a truth commission violates the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. An appeal to the Supreme Court – its only recourse – is likely, although not without risk, as it would further fuel suspicion that the government is willing to go to any length to continue to cover up the case. Meanwhile, complaints rolled across social media that the reopening of the case would allow the “criminals to go free”: a wounded cry of those who – absent any belief in a fair judicial process – want someone, anyone, to pay for the crimes, even if their confessions were extracted through torture or even, in the worst case, if they weren’t the actual perpetrators at all.
Another factor, too, is the question of the military’s participation. The army has a base right in Iguala, was in touch with the police on the night of the disappearances, and speculation about its further involvement ranges from assistance in the disappearances to the use of their crematorium (present on the base) to allow the bodies to be otherwise disposed of on – or in – their grounds. Despite constant demands from the victims’ families, they have, thus far, stubbornly refused to allow the base to be searched in any way. This ruling changes all that, requiring the base to be opened to investigation by the families and the members of the truth commission. Of course, they will have had ample time to dispose of any evidence they may have possessed. But it is a welcome – although very belated – recognition of the army’s subordination to civilian rule when it comes to investigating potential crimes, especially ones of this gravity.
Although political considerations are the last thing we should be worrying about in this context, this cannot be seen as anything more than a humiliation for the Peña Nieto administration – and by extension, for his anointed candidate, José Antonio Meade – just a few short weeks before the election. The ruling throws back into the headlines the highest-profile case of human rights violations in his term, reminding the public of the toxic combination of violence, impunity, ineptitude, and cover-up that has marked this case, and by extension, tarnished his entire government with a stain that it has never managed to expunge. And, at the worst possible time, the ghosts have returned to haunt it.
This article was originally published at mexelects.com.