On Government Lies, Human Bonfires and the Search for Truth in Mexico

“Tell us the truth about what you find, even though it hurts, make sure it’s the truth”

-Families of the 43 Disappeared Students of Ayotzinapa to the Group of Experts

It was always too cut-and-dried to believe.

On Jan. 27, then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam came out with the government’s version of events in Iguala, Guerrero on the terrible night of Sept. 26 when six people were murdered and 43 students disappeared. In a press conference Jan. 27, Murillo Karam declared his conclusions to be “the historic truth.”

His narrative went like this: The students on the buses were taken by corrupt local police in Iguala, delivered to the criminal group Guerreros Unidos, executed and burned to ashes at the town dump of Cocula nearby.

The motive given was a little less clear, but had to do with feuding drug cartels, a case of mistaken identity, and a despotic mayor in cahoots with organized crime.

This version is based almost entirely on testimony from members of the criminal organization. Following the announcement of his conclusions, Murillo Karam effectively called off the search for the missing students, rhetorically buried the 43 and closed one of the most egregious and embarrassing cases in the history of Mexico.

But history has a way of coming back to bite. A group of five prestigious experts named by the Interamerican Human Rights Commission to investigate the assassinations and disappearances of the students delivered a report Sept. 6 that shattered the government’s version. The 560-page report, presented to a packed audience of families, reporters and supporters, cited numerous flaws, contradictions and omissions in the government investigation and conclusions.

With the expert’s report, the “historic truth” presented by the Peña Nieto administration will be remembered as the historic lie.

The government’s central thesis that the bodies were burned has gone down in flames. Forensic experts consulted by the Interdisciplinary Group found that a fire capable of destroying 43 human bodies beyond recognition (according to the Attorney General the ashes yielded only one DNA identification, later followed by a second following release of the report) would be so huge it would have required massive amounts of fuel and burned a far larger area, among other anomalies. The report states:

“…we have arrived at the conviction that the 43 students were not incinerated in the Cocula town dump. The confessions of the alleged perpetrators on this point do not correspond to the reality of the evidence presented in this study.”

That alone is serious. Several of the criminals who confessed have claimed that they were tortured in custody. This is common practice in Mexico to close cases.

Then add to the debunked account of the human bonfire: ballistics tests that were never performed, destroyed and “lost” evidence including surveillance videos and police recordings of the moment of the attacks, bungled autopsies, witnesses who can’t get their stories straight, armed forces who consider themselves above the law and refuse to be questioned, inexplicable cruelty in letting victims bleed out without medical attention, and a host of other acts so systematically inept that incompetency is no longer a viable excuse and a clear pattern of suppression of truth emerges.

Why was the government in such a hurry to close the case by shunting the blame off to organized crime? Why insist on a “historic truth” that was not only untrue, but also demonstrably lacking in coherency and common sense?

The experts’ report doesn’t explain this haste, but it confirms it. It throws out the motives that Murillo Karam had presented to the public. The first claim, that the mayor thought the students were planning to disrupt his wife’s political event, falls when the team of experts shows that the event was well over by the time the students arrived. The second, that Guerreros Unidos thought the buses held members of a rival gang, is also rejected:

“This possible motive is based solely on declarations of suspects and does not consider that the different authorities were informed hours before of the presence of students asking for money, who were not carrying arms and who planned, after taking the buses, to leave the city.”

In other words, the Iguala police who carried out the crime “knew they were students.”

The inescapable conclusion is that the authorities at the highest levels have something to hide and reasons not to uncover the truth. Moreover, from the outset they viewed the entire case as a problem of damage control rather than truth-seeking.

Just days after the report came out, the Peña government announced that a second victim had been identified. It looked like a move to bolster its ruined theory. A group of Argentine forensic experts that has participated in investigations immediately questioned the finding, claiming that the DNA match for the second student, Jhosivani Guerrero, is low and that, like the first remains identified, the remains were not found at the dump, but supposedly in a bag in a nearby river. Since the forensic experts were not invited to accompany government investigators as agreed on, they will not vouch for the origin of the remains.


Protests Refuse to Disappear

What none of the reports consider is the tens of thousands of Mexicans that have taken to the streets, carrying photographs of the missing students and making their cause their own. The government wanted Ayotzinapa wiped off the map– the school, its rabble-rousing youth, and later the movement and its calls for justice.

Recall that the Peña administration faces a critical moment in its reform plan, the historic moment when it auctions off Mexico’s natural resources to transnational bidders. These investors need to see stability and rule of law. Not teaching college students with their faces ripped off.

Ayotzinapa revealed the underbelly of the Mexican political system right when it needed to put forth its best face.

The reforms are a critical backdrop for the crime. As Vidulfo Rosales, human rights activist and lawyer for the Ayotzinapa families explains:

“It’s a student sector that protests, that goes out in the streets and that also trains critical teachers… And today they’re seriously questioning the structural reforms, seriously questioning the unjust state of affairs. They’ll be professors who go out and establish relationships with the communities, and contribute to the awakening among the people so that later they can defend themselves from injustice. And obviously this makes the state uncomfortable, and that’s why there is a systematic attack against them.”

Forced disappearance is a crime of the state to hide other crimes. Odorless and disembodied, it dissolves into oblivion when the loved ones are forgotten or ignored.

The experts’ report recognizes this:

“Forced disappearance of persons is a strategy to erase the footprints of the crime, sowing confusion and ambiguity as a form of avoiding investigation, the knowledge of facts, and to eliminate legal protections for the victims. Whether carried out by agents of the state or by other individuals with their support or acquiescence, it extends the terror of suffering the same fate to all those who identify with the victims.”

The marches and demonstrations in Mexico and worldwide are the only barrier to getting away with what student survivor and spokesperson Omar Garcia calls “the perfect crime.”

“Forced disappearance is the commission of the perfect crime, one in which the families are left in suspense, like on pause, with their pain and their aspirations and frustrations. But they never lose hope…”

The expert report will give new impetus to the organizing for truth. Throughout the country and in countries all over the world, groups have formed to demand justice in the Ayotzinapa case with the cry of “It Was the State!”

The mass forced disappearance has also spawned groups of family members who have begun to search for their missing loved ones among the official count of 25,230 disappeared in the country. After receiving only disdain and indifference from government offices, they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

They never give up. These men and women uncover clandestine graves every week in Sinaloa, in Veracruz, in Chihuahua and, of course, in Guerrero, where the group “The Other Disappeared” sets out every Sunday with shovels in hopes of finding sons, daughters, brothers and husbands.

They have recovered more than a hundred bodies so far in the hills around the teaching college, a deceptively tranquil-looking landscape sown with corpses. Many risk coming face to face with the criminals or the corrupt officials who murdered their relatives. Some have been assassinated, like Miguel Jimenez Blanco, who helped found the group of citizen searchers in Iguala and was shot to death on August 8 of this year.

These groups will mobilize on Sept. 26 to remember the crime and demand the return of the students. They will again cry “It Was The State” and call for justice. The Peña Nieto government will make a statement about resolving the case. Thousands will yell, “They were taken alive; We want them back alive”.

Their demand strikes a universal chord heard by mothers whose worst fear in life is the loss of a child, activists who work for justice, Mexicans living in the country or outside its borders.

And it is not a remote issue for US citizens. Besides Mexico’s proximity and shared history, the US government props up the Peña presidency even as his administration lies to hide the truth about the students. The Merida Initiative has provided $3 billion dollars to train and equip the same security forces that murder, traffic, extort and rape.

Not always, not everyone and not everywhere, but often enough to reveal a structural problem.

When the thousands march in Mexico City on the 26th, millions more will be with them. If not in body, at least in spirit.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .