By Isabel Leask-
On the 26th of September 2014, the disappearance and suspected murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, resulted in a case that became a symbol of national injustice. Despite the government at the time claiming to have unearthed the “historic truth”, today, almost six years later, nobody has been held accountable for the crime and many questions remain unanswered. Amidst Mexico’s catastrophic drug war, the failure of the country’s justice system to penalize criminals is a recurring phenomenon. However, the Ayotzinapa case has sparked unprecedented protests concerning the systemic impunity that is plaguing Mexico and the increasingly blurred lines between organized crime and state corruption.
Who are the Ayotzinapa 43?
‘Los 43 de Ayotzinapa’ refers to the group of 43 trainee teachers from the Ayotzinapa Normal School (Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa) who disappeared on the night of the 26th of September 2014. In Mexico, ‘Normalista’ or Normal schools are rural teaching centres established during the Mexican Revolution era of 1910-20 in line with the attempt to improve education levels amongst indigenous and ‘campesino’ (rural farmer) communities. Due to their strong affiliation with leftist politics and social movements, the students of these schools have traditionally led marches and demonstrations against state repression, often resulting in violent clashes with police.
On the day of their disappearance, the 43 Ayotzinapa students, alongside others from the school, travelled to the city of Iguala with the intention of occupying several buses which were to be used to transport them to Mexico City a few days later. This was part of an annual tradition in which the students would partake in a march in the capital commemorating the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968 which had tragically-and paradoxically- involved the mass killing of students by state authorities. On their way back from Iguala, the students in the buses were intercepted by municipal police officers and a violent confrontation ensued. This is the last time the 43 students were seen alive.
A “Historic Truth”
The events that followed remain unclear and conflicting versions exist to this day. According to the official government investigation carried out by Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, the students were arrested and transported to a police station in the nearby town of Cocula. Allegedly, the group was then handed over to a local drug cartel known as the ‘Guerros Unidos’ (United Warriors) who took the students to a landfill site, brutally murdered them and incinerated their bodies. In December 2014 and September 2015 remains identified as belonging to two of the students- Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz and Alexander Mora Venancio-were found at the Cocula site, which according to the government, reinforced the credibility of the official investigation. In what seemed like a suspiciously eager attempt to bring the Ayotzinapa case to a close, Mexico’s Attorney General at the time branded this version of events as the “historic truth”, arresting several police officers and suspected members of the ‘Guerreros Unidos’ cartel.
In line with his campaign promise, the current president, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reopened the Ayotzinapa case after he entered office in 2018 and created a special commission to handle the investigations. However, of the 142 suspects arrested for their links with the case, including government officials, less than half remain in custody. To this day, Mexico’s justice system has failed to hold anyone accountable.
From the outset of the government’s investigation, the families of the victims along with journalists, human rights groups, and forensic teams have disputed the “historic truth” theory. In 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights set up the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to investigate the Ayotzinapa case. In a follow-up report published in 2017, the GIEI outlined the “investigative irregularities” in the official investigation which included allegations of torture to attain confessions from suspected members of the ‘Guerreros Unidos’ cartel, the discarding and planting of evidence, and the failure to record potential leads in the case file. These concerns have been shared by the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and both groups claimed there is not enough evidence to indicate that the bodies were incinerated, especially as nobody in the area reported a fire substantial enough to burn 43 bodies on the night. In July of 2020, the case took another turn after the identification of bone fragments belonging to a third missing student - Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre- were found in a different location from the rest. While not far from the site of the Cocula landfill (800 metres) a report by EAAF stated that these bone fragments had not been exposed to fire, confirming that not all of the bodies of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students were incinerated at the landfill site.
“It was the State”
So, what really happened on the night of the 26th of September 2014 if the official narrative is acutely flawed? Why would 43 young trainee teachers have been murdered by a cartel for hijacking a few local buses? And how complicit is the Mexican state in their disappearance? There have been many theories as to why the Ayotzinapa students were attacked in the first place. Many claim that their left-wing activism had already made them targets of state violence, certainly, the 26th of September did not mark the first time that security forces had been sent to repress Ayotzinapa protests. On the night of their disappearance, however, there were reports that the mayor of the town at the time, José Luis Abarca, was particularly angered by the students' activism because his wife was holding a function in the town which he did not want the students to disturb. This hypothesis became even more plausible after the Mayor and his wife mysteriously fled the town of Iguala, shortly after the students' disappearance came to light. Whether the Mayor was directly involved in the disappearance is a theory that has never been proven, however, many people, including the families of the victims, have long believed that the government officials and the military played a part.
The Ayotzinapa case has caused a huge outcry in Mexico and around the globe, causing thousands to take to the streets in demand of justice. Amidst these protests and marches, the chilling cry of “¡fue el estado!” (it was the state!) can frequently be heard emanating from the crowds, and has become a phrase that continually resurfaces in public spaces and protest art across the country.
This accusation links to independent investigations of the Ayotzinapa case, which place the Mexican State at the heart of the crime. One of the journalists who has dedicated extensive research to this particular theory is Anabelle Hernández who has since had to flee to the U.S due to the death threats she received for her coverage of the case. In her book, A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing 43 Students, Hernández has found evidence to implicate state officials as well as the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Mexican Army in the disappearance and later, murder of the students. Hernández claims the buses occupied by the students were laden with over two million dollars’ worth of heroin which was going to be shipped to the US. She argues that government officials were aware of this and dispatched the army as well as organized criminals to “deal” with the students. Many believe the students were ,in fact, murdered and possibly cremated in the local military base, before false evidence was planted in the Cocula landfill site. According to Hernández, the students were unaware that the buses were filled with narcoticas at the time and were tragically, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mexico’s Culture of Criminal Impunity
The ineffectualness of Mexico’s justice system to penalize criminals is not a new phenomenon. The country has a long history of political corruption and the systemic violation of citizens human rights’ by state authorities, especially prevalent during the seven decade- long rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (1929-2000). During Mexico’s so-called “Dirty War” of the 1960s and 70s, hundreds of people disappeared or were tortured by government forces in line with the U.S government’s interventionism in Latin America- the objective being to root out communist threats. More recently, Mexico’s catastrophic drug war which officially began in 2008, has resulted in the disappearance of over 60,000 people, and has led to the military and police gaining increasing powers to crack down on organized crime. This has exacerbated human rights abuses and perpetuated the culture of impunity that characterized Mexico’s “Dirty War”, especially within the political arena.
Despite the uncertainty that clouds the Ayotzinapa case, it is clear that great lengths have been taken to prevent the truth from coming to light, and that the horrendous crimes committed on the night of the 26th September contained a strong political dimension, whether at a local, state or national level. It is time there was a refocusing of the investigation on the most recent evidence and the role of state authorities in the case, in order to combat systemic impunity and finally give the families of the Ayotzinapa 43 the justice and closure that they deserve.
NPR Interview with Anabel Hernández:
Hernandez, Anabel. (2018) A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing 43. Verso Books.