Ghosts of Iguala. Mexico: How 43 Students Disappeared in the Night

Ryan Devereaux, Ghosts of Iguala. Mexico: How 43 Students Disappeared in the Night. The Intercept, 4 May 2015. A two-part investigation by Ryan Devereaux and a photo essay by Keith Dannemiller. “The nightmare began just after sundown. At a dimly lit intersection in Iguala, police with automatic weapons surrounded three buses loaded with college students. The police opened fire. Screaming that they were unarmed, the students fled down darkened alleys, pounding on doors, desperate for shelter. Gunmen put the city on lockdown, stalking the streets in a drizzling rain.

By the time the gunfire finally stopped, two dozen people were wounded and six were dead at three locations, the youngest only 15 years old. One student was shot in the head, leaving him brain dead. A bullet ripped through the mouth of another. Two young men bled to death in the streets, left for hours without medical help. First light brought fresh horrors when the mutilated body of one of the students was discovered in the dirt.

Worse was yet to come. During the chaos, 43 students had been taken captive.

The crimes that began in Iguala on September 26, 2014 had reverberations throughout Mexico. Massive protests have roiled the country. Government buildings have been torched. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was forced to launch what his administration called the largest investigation in recent memory.”

Update: Ryan Devereaux, Independent Investigators Leave Mexico Without Solving the Case of 43 Disappeared Students. The Intercept, 25 April 2016. “The…first report [of the international panel of experts] was published in September of last year. The 560-page document meticulously deconstructed the [Mexican] government’s account and presented the events that night for what they were: a hyper-violent, coordinated, multi-pronged ambush of unarmed civilians at multiple locations resulting in at least six people dead, 40 injured, and 43 disappeared, carried out with full knowledge, if not outright participation, of security forces at all levels, including federal police and the military.

The experts had come to Mexico at the government’s invitation. With the authority to conduct an independent investigation and promises that the state would aid in making the necessary evidence and witnesses available, their presence offered a glimmer of hope that the most shocking crime in recent Mexican history might actually get solved. That hope soon crumbled though.

Following their first report [in September 2015], the experts’ relationship to the government turned cold, according to an account members of the panel provided to the New York Times. The government refused to make key interviews possible, including interviews with members of the military potentially present on the night of the students’ disappearance. Meanwhile, the experts themselves were attacked in media outlets close to the state, and an individual who appointed them became the target of a dubious criminal inquiry. Despite a sense that their job was not done, the experts were not offered an extension of their mandate. They are expected to leave Mexico in the coming days [late April 2016].”

Update: Kirk Semple and Elisabeth Malkin, Inquiry Challenges Mexico’s Account of How 43 Students Vanished. The New York Times, 24 April 2016.

See also: Francisco Goldman’s series in The New Yorker on the missing students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the state of Guerrero in Mexico.

More than seven months later [May 2015], the country is haunted by questions. What really happened that night? Where were the students taken and what was their fate? Though the government has provided its explanation, serious doubts surround the official version of events. While scores of clandestine graves have been unearthed in the southern state of Guerrero since then, the remains of just one student — nothing more than a small chip of bone — have been identified.

Having quickly pinned the crimes on municipal officials and their gangster accomplices, Mexican authorities have been accused of attempting to prematurely close the case. Parents of the victims have pointed to what they regard as evidence of broader government complicity in the terror of that night. Human rights groups, investigative journalists and ordinary citizens have rallied around them.

The following account is based on more than two dozen interviews with survivors of the attacks and family members of the disappeared, as well as Mexican historians, human rights activists, journalists and the statements of government officials. In addition, The Intercept has reviewed state and federal records, including communication reports by Mexican security forces and sealed statements from municipal police officers and gang members. The evidence reveals inconsistencies, obfuscations and omissions in the government’s account….

Ayotzinapa, which means “Land of the Turtles” in Nahuatl, is part of a network of normal schools established in 1926 to serve the sons and daughters of Mexico’s most impoverished communities, providing free and secular education to young people who go on to teach in remote farming regions. With a curriculum that fuses agricultural skills and radical politics, students of these schools — known as normalistas — have made for natural leaders in social justice struggles. For the better part of the last century, the schools’ history has been punctuated with violent, sometimes fatal, confrontations with the state….

Taking commercial buses — some call it commandeering, others call it hijacking — is integral to activism, education and fundraising at Ayotzinapa. In the absence of substantive financial support from the government, Ayotzinapa has never had enough money for an adequate fleet of vehicles to transport students to remote locations to observe schoolteachers at work and to attend protests. So the students make deals with local bus drivers and companies, taking charge of large passenger buses for days or weeks, often feeding drivers on their campus. The students insist the drivers are not exploited or abused, although some drivers and bus companies have disputed this.

In mid-September, normalistas gathered to discuss the logistics of an upcoming action. Each year on October 2, activists converge in Mexico City to commemorate one of the darkest days in the nation’s history: the 1968 massacre of students and civilians by government security forces in a section of the capital known as Tlatelolco. At the September meeting, according to Nexos magazine, Ayotzinapa was selected to take the lead in acquiring transportation….

In recent years, Iguala had become emblematic of broader trends across Mexico’s most lawless areas. The region known as Tierra Caliente, the Hot Land — which includes the states of Guerrero and Michoacán — is a place where economic despair has collided with the militarism of Mexico’s drug war. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón ordered Mexican troops into the streets of Michoacán to fight drug traffickers, unleashing a wave of violence. Amid widespread allegations of human rights abuses, popular support for government security forces began to plummet, and civilians took the fight against the region’s criminal groups into their own hands, forming armed community groups to protect their homes.

Guerrero is Mexico’s largest producer of opium paste, growing an estimated 60 percent of the nation’s poppies, making it a crucial supplier of heroin to the U.S. In 2009, the figurehead of the Beltran Leyva cartel, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a gun battle with Mexican security forces, and that same month, the two Pineda Villa brothers were assassinated. The Beltran Leyva cartel unraveled and the established order was upended. Now considered by many to be Mexico’s most violent state, Guerrero turned into an ever-shifting battleground where smaller groups fought for control of the lucrative heroin trade….

Part Two:

From the moment the students disappeared, their parents have demanded their return. Though it seems unlikely they are alive, their parents have drawn attention to inconsistencies in the official account of what happened, highlighting the government’s reluctance to tell the public everything it knows.

The Intercept has conducted a six-month investigation into the government’s case, based on a review of a portion of sealed files prepared by the office of Mexico’s attorney general — Procuraduría General de la República (PGR) — which includes statements by police officers and gang members allegedly involved in the events that night. The Intercept has also examined communication records from security forces in the area, conducted dozens of interviews, including with students who survived the night’s violence, and analyzed months of reporting by Mexican investigative journalists.

The investigation has revealed the federal government’s concerted effort to place blame squarely on municipal actors, despite ample evidence of a broader circle of responsibility. Senior officials in Mexico City have presented a narrowly tailored scenario of a mass kidnapping committed by local officials ending in murder carried out by gangsters in the Iguala area. But evidence buried in the state’s own files points to a case of enforced disappearance, which, unlike kidnapping, includes the involvement — either active or passive — of state actors, and can constitute a crime against humanity under international law.

Throughout the case, the Mexican government has leaned heavily on the statements of detained suspects rather than physical evidence. The approach has drawn skepticism in a country with a well-documented history of authorities using coercion or torture to extract false confessions. Statements in the federal file suggest the government has presented a skewed selection of evidence in its account of what happened — information that supports its narrative has been publicly presented, while details that contradict the official version have been downplayed.

The Intercept provided an extensive list of questions to the PGR and the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Despite repeated requests, neither the PGR nor the Embassy provided answers on the record to any of the questions, or made officials available to respond on the record.

Though there is still little clarity on the questions of why the students were disappeared, or where they were taken, statements in the federal investigation map out a criminal takeover of the region, exposing the corruption that has swallowed many of Guerrero’s governing structures….

As more and more unidentified corpses were exhumed last fall, while the international community looked on in horror, certain truths about the Mexican state were unearthed. Far from an isolated incident, the disappearance of 43 young men in one evening of violence was unique mainly in the attention it received. Their story is emblematic of the country’s crisis of unsolved disappearances, secret graves and the integration of organized crime into law enforcement and politics….

Forty years ago, Guerrero was the front line of Mexico’s Dirty War, waged by the military against left-wing guerrilla fighters, many of them graduates of schools like Ayotzinapa. Torture and extra-judicial killings — including dropping prisoners from airplanes — were committed with impunity.

With memories of state-sponsored violence embedded in Guerrero’s memory, it was little surprise that attention turned to the 27th Infantry Battalion, and that, in early January, protesters converged on the base. Nonetheless, the government stood firm.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that the army intervened,” Murillo Karam told reporters. “Not a single shred of evidence of the participation of the army.”

His statement was true to only a limited extent. A selection of military records, released to a handful of Mexican journalists in March under a federal transparency law, indicated that troops stationed in Iguala were aware of the students’ movements prior to their arrival in Iguala — well before the first shots were fired. The records also showed that the military communicated directly with the municipal police force that attacked and detained the students. Examined in detail by investigative journalist Marcela Turati of Proceso and reviewed by The Intercept, the records indicated that the military, though not a direct participant in the attacks, was aware of some of what was happening and did not intervene….

Iguala, the birthplace, of the Mexican flag and constitution, has been called Mexico’s “cradle of independence.” Following the students’ disappearance, an alternative title was spray-painted at the bus station where the violence began. “Cuna del narcogobierno,” it read — cradle of narco-government.

As municipal police were rounded up last fall, evidence of the narco-government became plain to see. At 6 a.m. on the morning of September 27, 142 members of Iguala’s police force were called in for questioning by state investigators and forced to turn over their weapons. Firearms belonging to 19 department employees tested positive for chemical residue indicating recent detonation, and 48 would eventually be among the 104 people arrested in connection with the case.

In nearby Cocula, 16 police officers would be swept up in the arrests. The statements of Cocula officers were among the federal files reviewed by The Intercept. The low-level cops said they worked shifts of 48 to 72 hours for monthly salaries of less than $400, just half of what some of their Guerreros Unidos counterparts claimed to make in a single kidnapping. Their statements — which portray a night of confusion, threats and cover-ups — provide a vivid portrait of the collaboration between organized crime and local security forces that had taken hold well before the students disappeared….

By the mid-1970s, at the peak of Mexico’s Dirty War, security forces had made hundreds of people disappear — suspected rebels and ordinary civilians alike. Three decades later, a new conflict emerged, tearing at the fabric of Mexican society, with citizens disappearing on an unprecedented scale.

On December 11, 2006, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón ordered thousands of soldiers into the streets of Michoacán, Guerrero’s neighbor to the northwest, in a declaration of open war against the nation’s entrenched drug-trafficking organizations. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the years since. Fueled by more than 2 billion dollars in U.S. equipment and training, Mexican security forces at every level have been accused of widespread human rights violations. Far from reducing violence, the campaign has splintered established cartels into smaller groups like Guerreros Unidos, and they have competed to control fractured territory.

The tally of known dead is only a partial count of the casualties. There are tens of thousands of others who have disappeared since the conflict began. More than 22,000 Mexican citizens are currently listed as missing, according to the government’s own tally, though the actual numbers are believed to be far higher. An estimated 70,000 Central American migrants have vanished while crossing the country since 2006.

Like the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, many of Mexico’s disappeared were last seen being loaded into police or military vehicles. In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch warned that Mexico was in the throes of “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearance in Latin America in decades.” The crime of enforced disappearance is prohibited under international law and according to the Rome Statute, which Mexico is party to, can constitute a crime against humanity when conducted in a widespread or systematic manner. In its report, published more than a year before the students were taken, Human Rights Watch exhaustively detailed how enforced disappearance has manifested itself in Mexico. The patterns laid out mirror realities in the Ayotzinapa case at virtually every turn….

Among the most painful symptoms of enforced disappearance, as described by Human Rights Watch, is government officials attempting to convince family members that their loved ones are dead without any substantive proof; this scenario unfolded in nationally televised press conferences on the Ayotzinapa case. Families, rather than the state, are forced to shoulder the burden of finding out what happened. “Many relatives give up everything — leaving behind established careers, uprooting entire families, and abandoning long-standing relationships — to focus entirely on their search for the disappeared,” the report said.

While the crime of kidnapping can carry a lengthier prison sentence in Mexico than enforced disappearance, the consequences for the state are minimal, because the crime is attributed to just the accused. By rarely bringing enforced disappearance charges, the Mexican government escapes accountability. If cases of enforced disappearance were routinely pursued, they could provide evidence of systemic abuses, which could trigger charges of crimes against humanity and possibly jeopardize the multi-billion dollar security aid package the Mexican government receives from the U.S government, among other consequences. Under the Leahy Law, named after Sen. Patrick Leahy, aid to foreign security forces implicated in gross human rights violations is illegal….