Ayotzinapa: a Historic Lie

During the night of September 26-27, 2014, a large group of students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college in the State of Guerrero, Mexico, were attacked by security forces in the city of Iguala as they were trying to commandeer several buses to attend the annual October 2nd protest march in Mexico City, which commemorates the 1968 massacre of hundreds of protesting students by the military. In the recent attacks in Iguala, six people were killed (including three students), around 20 people were injured, and 43 students were forcefully disappeared.

Massive protests soon followed, especially in Guerrero and Mexico City, and smaller protests were held in many Mexican cities and even in other countries, urging the government to do justice, uncover the truth and find the disappeared students. Some of these protests were in turn repressed by security forces, after allegedly being infiltrated by government provocateurs. With this mounting pressure, the Guerrero State governor was forced to resign, although that didn’t quell public anger. In November 2014, internal and international pressure forced the Federal Government to allow an independent investigation organized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which would begin in March 2015. The group conducting this investigation was named the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), and was led by five experts on human rights of various nationalities: Carlos Beristáin (Spain), Ángela Buitrago (Colombia), Francisco Cox Vial (Chile), Claudia Paz y Paz (Guatemala), and Alejandro Valencia Villa (Colombia).

For its part, the Federal Government’s investigation was led by then attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam – a veteran of the ruling right-wing PRI party. This investigation pointed to the responsibility of the municipal police and government, in cahoots with the local Guerreros Unidos drug cartel. The Iguala mayor – of the center-left PRD party – and his wife were soon arrested and await prosecution for ordering the attacks. However, the government investigation presented contradictory motives for the attacks. First, it stated that they were ordered by the Iguala mayor and his wife because they feared that the Ayotzinapa students were going to boycott a political event. This motive had to be altered after it was revealed that the political event was already finished when the students had arrived in Iguala. The other motive was that the Guerreros Unidos cartel had confused the students with members of a rival cartel.

As for the whereabouts of the disappeared students, the government investigation explained that they had been abducted by the municipal police, handed over to members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, killed, and incinerated in a garbage dump. Their remains were then allegedly put into plastic bags and dumped in a river. However, these remains were too badly burnt to be identified by DNA analysis, except for a jawbone fragment of one of the students. On January 27, 2015, the attorney general insisted in a press conference that this was the “historic truth”.

The family members of the missing students never believed this narrative – nor did much of Mexico’s population. Protests demanding justice continued, and the family members of the missing students, together with their surviving classmates, even organized an international caravan – travelling to many European and Latin American countries, as well as to the US and Canada – to inform the public on the Ayotzinapa case and to put pressure on the Mexican government. Soon after giving his “historic truth” press conference, Jesús Murillo Karam was removed from the attorney general’s office and transferred as head of the inconsequential Secretary of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development – he was recently removed from that office as well.

The government’s insistence on portraying the event as entirely the responsibility of the municipal police and authorities, in collusion with a local drug cartel, was criticized by the parents of the disappeared students, their classmates, and many activists, public intellectuals and human rights organizations. One of their main demands was and continues to be that the federal police and the military also be investigated. The possible involvement of federal police and military forces was not far-fetched; however, the attorney general denied the idea. In fact, Proceso magazine had revealed that these security forces were well aware – in real time – of the students’ presence and movements in Iguala, as well as of the attacks. According to Proceso, several witnesses also confirmed that federal police and military forces were present on the streets of Iguala during the attacks, and had even come in contact with the students – however, their involvement, either by not preventing or by participating in the attacks, wasn’t clear.

On the other hand, doubts were raised early on as to the veracity of the incineration and garbage dump theory. Experts from the National Autonomous University and from the Autonomous Metropolitan University had stated that to burn 43 bodies in the garbage dump, 33 tons of wood or almost one thousand car tires were needed. All this burning material wasn’t available in the small garbage dump near Iguala, and would be next to impossible to obtain in just a few hours. These experts declared that even with that amount of burning material, the open air environment of the garbage dump would probably impede the temperature of the fire to raise high enough to fully incinerate the bodies and destroy the DNA. The experts also stated that if car tires had been used, there would be dozens of kilos of leftover metal, which were nowhere to be found.

On September 6, 2015, the GIEI offered a press conference to present preliminary results of the independent investigation. The GIEI confirmed much of the information contained in the Proceso reports, as well as the doubts raised by the experts from the National Autonomous and Autonomous Metropolitan universities, refuting the possibility that the students were incinerated in the garbage dump. Several results of the GIEI investigation stand out:

  • The amounts of wood or car tires needed to burn the bodies would have been enormous (over 30 tons of wood or 13 tons of car tires), and were not available in the small garbage dump. There wouldn’t even have been enough fuel to burn one body.
  • Even with the necessary fuel, burning the bodies would have taken over 60 hours, not 12, as the government’s investigation claimed.
  • The flames would have burnt the garbage and vegetation near the fire, which was not the case. There are only signs of small fires in the garbage dump.
  • The smoke from the fire would have reached over 300 meters in height and would have been seen by people in the neighboring villages.
  • The incineration and garbage dump theory was the result of confessions made by some of the detained suspects (over 100 in total), but many of these detainees were tortured by authorities during their interrogation, which casts doubt on the veracity of their confessions.
  • Public and private cremation facilities should be investigated.
  • Federal police and military forces were monitoring the student’s movements in real time, were fully aware of the attacks, were present in the streets of Iguala that night, and had come in contact with some of the students.
  • The motive for the attacks explained in the official investigation is ruled out, since all of the security forces were well aware of the identity of the students.
  • One of the possible motives for the attacks that should be investigated is the commandeering of the buses, since there are indications that bus services in Iguala are used to move opium paste and drug money.
  • There is evidence that has been destroyed, including highway video footage.
  • The GIEI has been repeatedly denied the possibility of interviewing members of Iguala’s military battalion.

The government has been unwilling to recognize the implications of the GIEI’s revelations. The President declared that he had instructed the attorney general’s office to “take into account” the information presented, as if the revelations only completed the official version of the events, instead of rejecting it. For its part, the attorney general’s office insisted that they were sure that the students’ bodies had been incinerated in the garbage dump near Iguala.

These revelations by the GIEI represent yet another blow against the current government, led by President Enrique Peña Nieto – elected in 2012 –, which has been marred by corruption scandals, accusations of human rights violations and media censorship, bad economic results, an increase in poverty, and massive protests against its aggressive neoliberal reform agenda and its handling of the Ayotzinapa case. The main corruption scandals were revealed by journalists, and include alleged financial irregularities in the President’s political campaign and the purchasing of two mansions by his wife and his finance secretary, presumably at a price below market value, to a businessman that had won important contracts with the government. The possible corruption cases were quickly brushed off by biased investigations, whereas the journalists that revealed them were soon fired, sparking protests and accusations of government reprisals and censorship. Severe human rights violations have also been recorded, including 22 alleged extrajudicial killings by the military in Mexico State and possible similar attacks by the federal police in the State of Michoacán. As far as the economy is concerned, economic growth has been mediocre (1.4% in 2013 and 2.1% in 2014), the Mexican peso has strongly depreciated against the US dollar (a 40% decrease from 2012 to 2015), and poverty has risen (the percentage of people living under the poverty line rose from 51.6% in 2012 to 53.2% in 2014, which represents an increase of 3.2 million people).

Calls for the President’s resignation and for his arraignment on corruption or human rights violations charges have been constant since 2014 and are growing. The recent resignation and arrest of Guatemala’s President on corruption charges is undoubtedly becoming an object lesson for many Mexicans who are fed up with their government. However, Mexico’s justice system is so corrupt and broken that seeing the President on trial seems impossible. An impeachment process is also far-fetched, since the PRI and its allied parties hold the majority in Congress. Public anger is nevertheless mounting, and many in Mexico are looking for ways of radically changing the country’s institutions. Two factors could set the stage for important political, social and economic changes: the increasing popularity of a new left party, MORENA, which is leading the polls for the 2018 presidential election, and the rise in radical social movement activity – including, to name the most significant, the movement linked to the Ayotzinapa case, the peace movement against the drug war, self defense forces and community police fighting drug cartels and corrupt police forces, the teachers’ unions which are protesting the neoliberal education reform agenda, and a movement, led by prominent activists close to liberation theology, to establish a constituent assembly to write a new Constitution. So far, these movements have acted more or less independently, but there have been calls for unification, and the movement linked to the Ayotzinapa case could very well become the federating factor, as prominent peace activist Javier Sicilia has been suggesting.

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Matthew Lorenzen can be reached at: matthewjlorenzen@gmail.com.

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