Mexico’s Missing 43

It has been a year and five months since 43 Mexican students disappeared after a clash with police 26 September 2014. Despite multiple investigations being launched to determine the events of the night they disappeared, their fate remains contested and the incident is regarded as the largest stain on Mexico’s human rights record in recent years. As the most recent report on the matter has directly challenged the official government line without providing answers of its own, it appears that the students’ disappearance will continue to dominate both domestic politics and affairs on the global stage for Mexico for some time to come.

Image courtesy of A Jones © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of A Jones © 2014, some rights reserved.

On 26 September 2014, the students in question, who hailed from an all-male teacher training college in the town of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, had planned a bus trip to Mexico City. The journey was organised as a tribute on the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre that took place in the capital. On the return journey, the students were stopped by municipal police who claimed that they had hijacked their buses, an accusation later denied by surviving students. Fighting broke out and three students were killed along with a woman in another vehicle and the driver and a passenger on a separate bus that had been mistakenly fired upon. What happened next is hotly debated, but what is known is that 43 of the remaining students have been missing ever since.

The official government report on the evening’s events states that corrupt members of the police force passed these students on to a drug gang named Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors. The report states that it was members of this gang that took them to a local rubbish dump before killing them and burning the bodies. Seventeen pieces of charred human remains were found at the rubbish dump. Some of these were identified as belonging to one of the missing students, Alexander Mora, and used as evidence to substantiate the government’s account of events. At the time of the government report’s release, the handling of the situation by Mexican authorities was condemned by US President Barack Obama, who stated that police behaviour of this kind did not belong in civilised society. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised to bring up Mexico’s human rights record when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto visited the UK in March 2015. It was clear that the incident had damaged Mexico’s international image.

Further investigation, however, has suggested that the official government report may be a cover up of far more ingrained corruption within the Mexican political and justice systems. In September 2015, a year after the events took place, the independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report of its own. The government account was brought into question when this investigation concluded that it was a physical impossibility for the bodies of all 43 students to have been cremated at the site of the rubbish dump. Not only that, but the evidence of remains traced back to the students may not have been found at the dump, and was possibly placed there at a later date. Those at the Commission also highlighted how the army had been alerted to the clash between police and students on the night of the events, and that the 27th Battalion had been stationed in Iguala and were monitoring the movements of the students. Suspiciously, the government refused to allow these soldiers to be questioned by anyone other than government prosecutors when these details first came to light. Lastly, the report suggested that torture techniques may have been used on witnesses. Later, this allegation was acknowledged as true when the federal attorney general admitted that at least one suspect had been tortured before confessing to playing a role in the murder of the students. As a whole, the commission’s findings clearly point to the possibility of a cover up in the official government report. The fact that evidence may have been tampered with or ignored in such a high profile case suggests corruption even at the highest level of the Mexican authorities.

The families of the missing students, in addition to members of the public, had already expressed disbelief at the formally acknowledged explanation of what happened on 26 September. The publication of the commission’s contradictory report, therefore, only increased the extent of public protest and the number of disbelieving voices in the media. There were calls for a wider investigation into the roles of the government, police and army in the disappearance of the students. Thousands participated in a march in Mexico City marking the anniversary of the disappearances. Meliton Ortega Carlos, whose son Mauricio is one of the missing students, said at the march that, ‘We believe that the objective of the government is that we’ll forget the case once enough time passes…[But] until there is justice we will continue fighting.’

This new report caused international and domestic outrage. The United Nations called for the commission’s recommendation of a further, more detailed, and transparent investigation into the night’s events to be carried out by the Mexican government immediately. Under the glare of both the domestic and international media spotlight, the government then went on to re-open its own investigation in October 2015, and the fresh enquiry is still ongoing. While these developments are welcome, it is not clear how much headway will be made. Recent research carried out by another team of independent investigators has not only backed up the findings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but also called into question the government’s current investigation. Argentine forensic experts concluded 9 February 2016 that there was no reliable biological or physical evidence to support the claim that the students had been killed or their bodies burned at the rubbish dump. Furthermore, the experts argued in their report that the government would, ‘waste time searching the rubbish dump,’ and should instead focus on new lines of investigation.

Whether this advice will be heeded remains unclear, but with three investigations into the events of 26 September 2014 completed and a fourth underway, it appears the Mexican public might be as far away from finding out the truth as ever. After all, neither of the two independent investigations into the disappearance of the students has been able to deduce an alternative explanation of what happened that night or where the students are now. In the mean time, protests have continued and tensions reached boiling point during the Pope’s visit to Mexico in mid February. While there were many calls for Pope Francis to address the plight of the students and their families, he only spoke more generally about the issue of violence. As a result, many protestors chose to boycott a Papal Mass on 16 February at Venustiano Carranza stadium in Morelia. At the event itself, the crowd, which included many important members of the clergy, counted down the number of victims, beginning by shouting out 43 and making their way to zero. It appears that despite some international condemnation of the government’s response to the students’ disappearance, the general public are still unsatisfied with how international figureheads have failed to really push for reform and resolution in Mexico’s justice system.

Perhaps the latest government report will provide some long-awaited answers, but as Meliton Ortega Carlos mused at the anniversary protest in September, this case has arguably acted as a symbol for the much wider issue of corruption in Mexico. In total, an estimated 100,000 people have died in the state in fighting between the government and drug cartels since 2006. The recent Papal Mass protests demonstrate that it is likely to take more than improved investigation techniques in this one instance to make the Mexican public forget about this blot on their government’s human rights record. Arguably, it is time for the international community to be more vocal in support for reform of government practices in a country where the people refuse to let their voices be drowned out in their calls for justice for the 43.