Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino
By Daniella Burgi-Palomino, April 14, 2016
Last week the Mexican government broke its agreement with the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) tasked with continuing the investigation into the forced disappearance of 43 students, by publicizing the results of a new study without consultation and shared analysis from the GIEI. The federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR) held a public press conference on a third study on the Cocula trash dump, the location where it alleges that 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college were incinerated, despite strong evidence to the contrary presented by independent experts. This action represents a further setback in the already deeply flawed Ayotzinapa investigation, a continued lack of transparency by Mexican government officials in their management of the case, and demonstrates their lack of will to collaborate with the GIEI to uncover the real truth about what happened to the 43 students.
The GIEI’s rupture of agreement with the PGR has a serious, detrimental impact on the possibilities for moving forward on the rest of their mandate which extends through April 30th, 2016. LAWG urges the Mexican government to allow the GIEI to move forward and present the final report of their work on April 24th without further complications and to take seriously its recommendations on the Ayotzinapa case and others that the group may make on urgent, necessary structural changes to address corruption, impunity and human rights violations in Mexico.
LAWG will be monitoring the next few weeks carefully to ensure that steps are taken to bring the victims truth and justice beyond the official end date of the mandate and to ensure that the case not rest in impunity. LAWG also urges the international community and foreign governments to denounce the current state of the Ayotzinapa investigation as a failure by the Mexican government to collaborate with international observers, and to continue to hold the Mexican government accountable for bringing truth and justice to the victims in this case and in the many others pending in Mexico.
Background & Agreements behind Third Cocula Study
More than one year ago, the Mexican government presented its “historic truth” in the case, stating that the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college were incinerated in the Cocula trash dump by organized crime factions on September 26 and 27, 2014. Since then, several efforts have been taken by governmental forensic teams and independent experts like the GIEI and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) to examine the evidence for this. The GIEI’s report in September 2015 and the EAAF’s report from February 2016 both refuted this theory citing a lack of scientific evidence to prove the presence of fires of a magnitude necessary to verify the government’s theory, and other inconsistencies such as a lack of physical remains found on the grounds of the trash dump.
Following these two reports, at the government’s request, a third and final study of the Cocula trash dump was to be undertaken by a new group of experts. According to the agreement signed between the GIEI and the PGR in October 2015, both parties agreed to jointly establish the methodology, select an expert team to carry out the study, and arrive at a consensus on the steps to be taken in the research.
The GIEI then signed a subsequent agreement with the PGR in February 2016 to determine the exact details of how the new study would be carried out. According to this more specific agreement, the new study would be carried out by five experts and the team would follow a series of steps on the release of the investigation, including providing a joint message in writing by the five team members on the results. All communication and decision-making on the study would be taken jointly by both parties and the results of the study would be sent simultaneously by the expert team to the PGR and the GIEI. Upon review of the results of the study, the GIEI and the PGR would jointly decide how to communicate the results to the public and to the victims’ families. The Mexican government and the independent experts further agreed that those investigating would maintain confidentiality regarding their work.
Break in the Agreement
The way in which the results of the study were communicated to the GIEI and the public between March 31st and April 1st did not adhere to these guidelines established in the February 2016 agreement. In a press conference held last week, the five members of the GIEI explained the events that unfolded regarding the release of the report and their reasons for breaking the agreement with the PGR.
On March 31st, the PGR submitted a preliminary document of two and a half pages to the GIEI summarizing the results of the study. On the following day, April 1, 2016, the PGR took the unilateral decision to hold a press conference to communicate the contents of the document without informing the GIEI. A written statement by all the members of the expert team was also never provided. Only one member of the expert team, Ricardo Damián Torres, spoke at the PGR’s press conference alongside Eber Omar Betanzos Torres, the Deputy Attorney General for Human Rights, Prevention of Crimes and Community Services. He stated that the new group of experts found “sufficient evidence…to say that there was a controlled large fire event in the place called ‘the Cocula dump.’” The text of the message communicated to the public was not shared beforehand with the members of the GIEI or the family members of the students. The decision to hold the press conference was taken even after the GIEI had directly expressed to the Attorney General its disagreement with the plan to share the results of the study.
It is unclear whether there was a consensus between all the members of the expert team on the results of the study because no further information has been provided according to the confidentiality clause of the agreements. The brief document presenting the results of the study is vague in providing scientific details and calls for further studies to confirm evidence, only heightening confusion around the overall situation and leaving gaps in what the team was supposed to address in the first place.
The GIEI has called the dissemination of such a report an “irresponsible” action against the rights of the victims to know the truth and the protocols establishing scientific evidence for such crimes. A day later, the EAAF supported the GIEI in reiterating its own results of its forensic studies on the trash dump and questioning the validity of the PGR’s third study.
Impact of the Break of Agreement on the Remainder of the GIEI Mandate
Following this break in agreement, the GIEI has stated that it will work until the end of its mandate, focus on its final report to be released on April 24th, work with the victims’ families, review the case files, and strengthen the new law currently under review to address disappearances at a national level. It will not work with the PGR on further matters regarding the Cocula trash dump. Family members of the disappeared have requested an extension of their mandate for as long as needed. And a clause in the agreement signed between the Mexican government, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and the Group of Experts establishing the GIEI’s workstates that their work can be extended until the goals of their mandate are met.
On April 15, 2016, however, the IACHR announced that given the Mexican government’s position not to extend the mandate of the GIEI and to end the agreement, it did not see the conditions in place to continue their mandate. Taking into consideration the requests of the family members of the disappeared students and the urgency to continue working on the case, however, the IACHR also communicated its decision to establish a special follow-up mechanism until the objectives and recommendations established both in the precautionary measure and in the GIEI’s report had been met. It will determine the specific terms of the special follow-up mechanism after consulting with the Mexican government and the GIEI in the near future.
To date, a mere six months before the two-year anniversary of this egregious crime, the families are still without an answer as to what happened to their sons and brothers. The goals of the mandate of the Group of Experts meant to help uncover the truth in this case have not been met because the government has not allowed the investigation to move forward. In failing to do so, the Ayotzinapa case has become a tragic example of the thousands of other cases of human rights violations left in impunity in Mexico.
The rupture of the agreement between the PGR and the GIEI has an impact that extends far beyond the investigation to uncover what happened to the 43 Ayotzinapa students. It demonstrates the Mexican government’s inability to be transparent and be respectful of the victims’ and their families in this investigation and so many other ongoing ones. More importantly, it highlights some of the entrenched weaknesses within the Mexican criminal justice system, including the government’s inability to execute forensic investigations according to international standards, conduct prosecutions for human rights violations, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Should these not be changed in the near term with specific and systematic reforms, progress in addressing impunity and corruption in Mexico will be close to impossible.
- For the GIEI statement on the rupture of the agreement, click here.
- For the EAAF statement on the rupture of agreement, click here.
- For LAWG’s update and denouncement of the ongoing defamation campaign against the GIEI, click here.
- For information on the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team’s in-depth report refuting the Mexican government’s Cocula trash dump theory, click here.
- For a summary and analysis of the GIEI’s September 2015 investigation report, click here.