By Daniella Burgi-Palomino, April 27, 2016
On Sunday, April 24th, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), which has been accompanying the case of the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college since March 1, 2015, held a press conference to release their second and final report. The six-month extension to the GIEI’s mandate is scheduled to end officially on April 30th and appears unlikely to be extended further. Members of the press, civil society organizations, the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), James Cavallaro, and the families of the disappeared students attended to hear and support the Experts’ work. Mexican government officials were noticeably absent despite invitations sent to Under Secretary of Human Rights Roberto Campa, Under Secretary of Human Rights in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Miguel Ruiz, and the Deputy Attorney-General for Human Rights Eber Betanzos Torres. The 608-page report released new details and evidence further disproving the government’s version of the events of September 26 and 27, 2014 and shedding light on inconsistencies in the government investigation that point to a concerted effort to cover up or manipulate information.
“The Mexican government seeks to hide the involvement of high-level authorities in this crime at all costs, but their ‘historic truth’ is no longer even a possibility. The Experts’ new report is definitive; there are no arguments that allow the government’s version to stand anymore. Efforts to prove otherwise must be questioned and investigated immediately,” stated Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Senior Associate for Mexico, the Border and Migrant Rights for LAWG.
LAWG reiterates its solidarity with the work of the GIEI and the recommendations it issues in this report. LAWG urges the international community to likewise hold the Mexican government accountable for releasing concrete next steps for the follow-up of this case. Despite the official end of the GIEI’s mandate, LAWG supports the immediate implementation of a special follow-up mechanism with support from the IACHR for as long as needed to ensure clarification on the inconsistencies in the investigation, prosecution of all state and non-state actors involved in the crime, and reparations to the family members of the students. The Ayotzinapa case must not be left in impunity. Actions taken to address the irregularities in this case will have an important impact on the thousands of other unresolved cases of enforced disappearances in Mexico.
What the new report highlights:
- Magnitude of geographic scale of the incidents: The geographic location where the attacks against the students happened is no longer limited to the stretch of the Iguala-Chilpancingo highway where the students commandeered the buses, and where they were stopped and attacked on multiple occasions. The Experts found evidence that the attacks expanded to locations such as Mezcala, Huitzuco, and the Crucero de Santa Teresa in an approximate perimeter of 80km (50 miles). The Experts signaled the importance of investigating the collusion of corresponding law enforcement authorities from these locations.
- Strong, networked coordination among various authorities: The Experts found decisive evidence to implicate federal, state, and municipal police and members of the 27th military battalion in the crime, including their direct participation in the attacks against the students alongside members of organized criminal groups or their collusion via omission or neglect of students seeking help. The evidence points to a strong information network in existence the night of September 26th to track the movements of the students and stop them from exiting the city of Iguala. Such a network would have made it impossible for any law enforcement agent in the area to be unaware of the attacks. The Experts analyzed testimony by the law enforcement officials and compared them to witness and survivor testimonies and the communication system utilized by defense authorities in Mexico, the “C-4”. The evidence pointed to the police and military failing to help students seek medical attention or arriving at crime scenes very shortly after attacks, implying prior knowledge or direct involvement in the attacks, and confirmed participation of new members of the police and military in different locations of the attacks.
- Serious inconsistencies, delays remain unresolved in the investigation and need follow-up:
- Students’ cell phones still active after the supposed time they were killed: After analyzing telephone signals from the students’ cell phones and antennas from the area, the Experts found evidence that at least six of the students’ cell phones were active in the hours and days after the supposed time that they were killed during the early morning of September 27th. In particular, one of the students’ mothers received a text message from her son at 1am that morning asking for money to be placed on his account, providing direct evidence of the fallacy of the government’s theory.
- Lack of progress and inconsistencies in the investigation of the fifth bus and the possibility of its link to heroin trafficking to the United States: In their first report from September 2015, the Experts had pointed to the need to investigate a fifth bus that carried members of the soccer team Los Avispones, which was left out of the official government version, had it been attacked like the others, and had possible link to heroin trafficking to the United States.In this latest report, the Experts found conflicting witness testimonies regarding the route and driver of the bus. In addition, the Experts also requested an international investigation with the U.S. government into the possibility of the link between this bus and heroin trafficking. Because international assistance for this part of the case was not requested until months later in February 2016, the experts were not able to make progress on this aspect for the release of this report, but they made sure to highlight the need for urgent follow-up.
- New evidence pointing to the possible tampering of crime scene by Mexican government officials: The government’s theory regarding the attacks against the students focused mainly around the alleged incineration in the Cocula trash dump and the remains dumped in the San Juan River. Mexican forensic authorities supposedly found a bag in the river containing the only physical remains that matched with the DNA of one of the students. According to the government version, the bag was found by divers on October 29, 2014. However, in this new report, the Experts reveal a video and photos provided by independent reporters demonstrating the presence of Mexican government forensic investigators and officials, including the head of criminal investigation, on October 28th collecting evidence and walking around the scene with one of the key suspects. The supposed bag containing remains appears since that day in the videos and photos. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) was not allowed access to the San Juan River on October 28th. These government visits were not included in any official files on the case, pointing to serious irregularities and the possibility of government officials tampering with possible evidence and taking measures to remove it from the official records.
- Lack of access to the interviews with the 27th military battalion: While the Experts made more than twelve requests to the Mexican Attorney General over the course of their mandate to be present to interview the members of the 27th military battalion, they were never allowed access. The Experts did, however, include the questions they would have asked the military in their new report and demanded a follow-up to questioning their participation.
- Attention to victims: Attention to victims on the part of the government has been characterized by a tendency to re-victimize and stigmatize victims amidst an existing bureaucratic system.After months of requesting it, the autopsy of one of the students found assassinated, Julio César Mondragón Fontes, was finally completed, proving the egregious attacks he was subject to on September 26th. The GIEI hopes that his autopsy will be included as a part of the official files of the case.
- Lack of will to utilize a range of tools in the search for the students: The Experts point to the Mexican government’s failure to utilize tools such as satellite images and laser technology, among others, to locate the students.
- Affirmation of evidence of torture among the detained: The Experts make note that they had access to the medical records of several of the detained individuals, of which 80% of them noted physical injuries. For the period covered in this report, the Experts analyzed 17 of these cases pertaining to individuals, including members of the criminal group Guerreros Unidos and local police from Iguala and Cocula. They found that all of these identified evidence of torture according to international standards. They also discovered that the medical analyses carried out on the detainees did not meet guidelines established in the Istanbul Protocol for responding to allegations of torture.
- No scientific evidence for a fire of the magnitude necessary to incinerate 43 students: The Experts include in this new report an analysis of the report presented on April 6th, in violation of an agreement with the GIEI, by the PGR and the special team mandated to carry out a follow-up study to investigate the possibility of a fire at the Cocula trash dump. Its conclusions were that the government’s report was vague in its details, lacked professional rigor, provided insufficient evidence in a total of 9 pages, 3 of which were dedicated to the actual analysis and research carried out, and did not provide any new sustainable evidence to sustain the government’s theory.
- Smear campaign against Experts: The Experts highlighted the defamation campaign that has been carried out against them by individuals in the past few months, stating that it demonstrated that “certain sectors are not interested in the truth or in effective collaboration to address human rights violations in Mexico.”
- 22 recommendations to address the investigation of human rights violations and reform the criminal justice system in Mexico: These include important suggestions by the Experts for the new General Law on Disappearances currently under review in the Mexican Senate as well as on reparations to victims of human rights violations in Mexico, processing and analysis of witness testimony and key evidence, coordination among agencies carrying out investigations, access to information on cases including by civil society organizations and victims and the incorporation of international standards in the apprehension and processing of suspects.
Reactions to the Report:
- Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto responded to the GIEI´s second report in three tweets on April 24th, thanking them for their work, saying the Attorney General´s office would analyze the report “to enrich its investigation,” and that the Attorney General’s office would continue working until there is justice.
- While other Mexican government representatives likewise did not attend the GIEI press conference in person, on behalf of Mexico’s PGR, Deputy Attorney-General for Human Rights Eber Betanzos Torres gave his own press conference. He reiterated the government’s commitment to the families, human rights, and punishing all those responsible in the case, and thanked the Experts for their report and recommendations, promising that the government would analyze them and take them into consideration for its investigation. However, he returned to reiterating the government’s version of the Cocula theory.
- The following day, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement commending the GIEI’s work and asserting, “We trust the Mexican authorities will carefully consider the report’s recommendations, evaluate suggested actions to address the issue of forced disappearances, provide support to the victims’ families, and continue their efforts to bring the perpetrators of this terrible crime to justice.”
- The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights praised the GIEI on April 26th, and went a step farther in expressing concern and recommendations: “We are however concerned about the many challenges and obstacles reported by the experts that may have prevented certain lines of inquiries from being further explored, including regarding the roles and responsibilities of the military and other official authorities. We call on the Government to ensure effective follow-up to the investigation report and to tackle the broader structural challenges it has exposed.”
- UN Human Rights experts expressed support for the Experts and concern for the work yet to be done in the investigation.
- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power issued a statement on April 27th further encouraging the Mexican government “to collaborate fully with any follow-up mechanism that may be established in the Inter-American Commission, and to conduct the thorough and impartial investigation that the victims and their families deserve.”
- The families of the students reiterated their thanks for the Experts’ work, hope that the end of the GIEI mandate would not mean the end to the justice and services they deserve, and criticism of the government for not allowing the GIEI to fully carry out its task.
For more information, see LAWG’s resource page on the Ayotzinapa case here.