What Happened in Iguala?
A year after the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared, the Mexican government’s account of the attack is crumbling. Now, an independent report suggests all levels of law enforcement and the administration itself were responsible.
The Official Account Collapses
On September 26 last year, 43 students (the “normalistas”) from the Normal School of Ayotzinapa disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero. Four months later, In January of 2015, the PGR of Mexico (roughly equivalent to the Office of Attorney General) released the results of its investigation into what happened. The students – members of a system of rural teachers’ colleges with a history of radical activism and indigenous resistance – were on their way to attend a protest in Mexico City when they were attacked by Iguala municipal police. In the attacks, six people were killed including bystanders, and 43 normalistas were kidnapped. While these facts are not under dispute, they do not resolve the questions of who else participated in the attack, nor what was subsequently done with the kidnapped normalistas. The PGR referred to its account of the events as the “historical truth,” and according to them, the students were kidnapped by corrupt local police and delivered to a local cartel, who then burned the students’ bodies in a garbage dump in Cocula, a nearby town. But the problem with this account is that it is, by all appearances, wrong.
The International Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) just released a report on their investigation of the case. During Sunday’s press conference, they announced findings that significantly challenges the Mexican government’s story. For example, they found that the Mexican government ignored mountains of evidence that contradicted their account and implicated the coordinated involvement of many levels of Mexican security forces, not just local police. Moreover, the burning of the bodies in Cocula as described would have been physically impossible. The amount of heat required to burn the bodies in an open garbage dump in the amount of time available would have been unfeasibly large, and the traces of this burning along with the fuel required should have been readily apparent to investigators, but there were no such traces. The methods used during the PGR’s forensic investigation have been criticized for failing to respect international forensics standards and failing to use scientific rigor. And in fact, it was revealed Tuesday morning that the “forensic scientists” appointed by the PGR were not qualified to do rigorous forensic science in the first place; the study was performed by an electrical engineer and a civil engineer.
If the hypothesis of a mass grave in Cocula is false, as the evidence suggests, then we are left with two important questions:
1) Where were the students actually taken after they were kidnapped by police forces?
2) Why would the PGR release a conclusion about their final destination if this conclusion simply wasn’t supported by evidence?
The two questions are intimately connected; if, after their kidnapping, the normalistas were tortured, killed, or otherwise disposed of by members of higher level security forces – state police, federal police, or the military – or if members of these forces supported or coordinated such actions, then there would be a clear reason for the PGR to release a conclusion that hides this involvement. By restricting the alleged involvement to local police and the Guerreros Unidos cartel, two groups already unquestionably culpable in the perception of the public, the PGR avoids implicating agents under federal jurisdiction, and therefore avoids implicating the administration of President Peña Nieto, either directly or indirectly.
But we have more than circumstantial reasons to suspect the involvement of the administration. The witness testimonies that the government accepted as true contradicted each other and contradicted the physical evidence, some of which was withheld until months after the official report, and it appears that the government extracted testimonies that were friendly to the official version through the use of torture. What’s more, they ignored the most important witnesses: the surviving normalista students themselves. And following their testimonies, which is corroborated by other key pieces of evidence, the federal and state police and the military were also indisputably involved in the attack.
Finding some level of communication between these groups was not difficult for the GIEI, since there is already a system in place that records such communications. The military and the different levels of police in Mexico use a network called C-4 to coordinate their activities, and the GIEI obtained records from the C-4 in Iguala through the National Transparency Law. I’ve translated a portion (315-316) of the new report dealing with this network as follows:
5. C-4 as a space for the coordination of information
The Municipal, State, and Federal Polices forces, along with the Mexican Army, have a system of coordination known as C-4. This system was in use on the night of September 26th and on September 27th. The C-4 communications that the GIEI has been able to access show that these communications were heard continuously by all of the different forces that use the system. In these communications it can be seen that:
a) The major part of these communications appear to have come from people reporting acts of violence or requesting help through the emergency services line 066 [Mexico’s equivalent to 911].
b) Some communications are given that signal the intervention of certain state and federal police agents to verify the actions and pieces of information being reported.
c) There are two periods in the records provided to the GIEI in which no communications appear at all. These two periods coincide with the first and second attacks on the students on Juan N. Álvarez street.
d) An official document from the Coordination of Civil Protection office of Chilpancingo, Guerrero states that they do not have access to information during certain periods in the C-4 records that night because the Secretary of National Defense (Sedena) has redacted the records. [In a footnote, the GIEI explain that the report was supposedly censored because it contains “classified information.” The GIEI express their skepticism about this explanation.]
The security cameras that form part of this system of vigilance and coordination could have provided information about this part of the attack. But some of them appear to have gone unused, and in other cases, recordings exist, but they were never provided either to the PGR or to the GIEI [...] Other images appear to have been destroyed, and three video recordings from the bus station were only salvaged by the GIEI in May of 2015.
The C-4 records make it clear that the military and all levels of the police in the area were actively tracking the normalista students that night, and all groups were aware of the attacks on the students by local police, but none of them intervened, nor made any objections or signaled any intentions to intervene in the communications between them. The C-4 records made during and immediately before the attacks – that is, precisely those records that could act as the smoking gun indicating that the attacks were centrally commanded by the military or federal police – are unavailable because they have been censored by the government.
The report goes on in more detail about the different levels of police and the military present during the attacks (316-317):
6. Presence of agents of different security forces or of the army observing the attacks
In both of the crime scenes of the buses Estrella de Oro 1568 and Estrella de Oro 1531 where normalistas were disappeared, the attackers were, at the very least, the municipal police of Iguala and Cocula. In the crime scene near the Palace of Justice, according to witnesses, the perpetrators said that police were going to arrive or that groups from [the nearby town of] Huitzuco were going to be taken, aside from the normalistas.
Before all of that, officers from the state and federal police and the army were present at the highway checkpoint, the location where at that moment, the normalistas were preparing to try to take more buses. In addition, a state patrol had observed their arrival before retreating from the location. According to the testimonies of normalistas, there were also federal police present in another toll collection site nearby in Huitzuco. This means that before the attacks, the normalistas were being followed by municipal, state, and federal police as well as the army, and they all had knowledge of the normalistas’ attempts to take the buses.
After the normalistas had been detained, an army patrol visited the transport station where the detained students had apparently been taken, and the same army patrol then visited Hospital Cristina, where a group of normalista survivors – one of them gravely injured – had sought refuge and medical treatment. [Note: the PGR has claimed that the soldiers “protected the students and helped acquire medical treatment” and that “no one was seriously injured” but testimony from the students and other witnesses has shown that they never received treatment, and that the soldiers directed hospital staff to turn them in to the very police who had shot them. The gravely injured student spent weeks in another hospital afterwards and has still not fully recovered.] This army patrol was also present at the corner of Juan N. Álvarez and Periferico Norte, where two normalistas lay dead after the second attack. Another army patrol later appeared between 6 and 7 am, where the body of Julio César Mondragón was discarded dead with visible signs of torture, before the arrival of the civil authorities.
César Mondragón was left in the middle of the street with the skin of his face flayed off. Later autopsies determined that the skin had been removed while he was alive, as a form of unimaginably brutal torture. There are images available of César Mondragón’s body, but I am not going to share them here.
Police at every level of jurisdiction were present along with members of the army at all of the most important locations of the attacks against the normalistas. At the bare minimum, this is damning evidence of criminal negligence in preventing a mass disappearance and/or massacre of unarmed civilians. But to suspect that the army, state police, and federal police are guilty only of negligence would be far too charitable.
In the next section (317-318), the GIEI report shows that these other forces were not merely present; they must have been involved in coordinating or directing the attack:
7. Direction and coordination of the attacks and/or responses to those attacks
The level of involvement of different police forces in various locations and in multiple attacks [...] demonstrate the presence of command and coordination under which the attacks were taken.
Specifically, members of two municipal police departments (Iguana and Cocula) as well as 18 different police patrols acted at multiple locations, sometimes simultaneously; as the GIEI points out, this suggests that behind all these actors stood a central coordinating command giving orders.
In addition, one of the surviving bus drivers has stated that he was taken by police to a safe house in the center of Iguala and presented before a man who directed, or was at least making decisions with regard to, the actions to be taken with the kidnapped students. This modus operandi indicates a structure of command, with operational coordination.
Although the content of the communication is not known, at the moment in which the attacks were developing there was communication between two of those who have been accused of being responsible for the attacks, the Municipal President [former Mayor Abarca] and the Secretary of Public Security, Felipe Flores. One of the antennas that recorded these communications recorded the location of one of the phones near the Palace of Justice, the site of one attack. Mr. Abarca has indicated that he communicated with the office of the Secretary of Security of the state of Guerrero, with the federal police, and with Battalion 27 [the army battalion located in Iguala].
All of this suggests that the attacks were not the spontaneous, overzealous reaction of police officers to unruly students commandeering buses. Rather, the attacks were coordinated, and almost certainly commanded from above with some level of direction or at least approval from state, federal, and military agents.
Following the GIEI’s press conference, another conference was held to gather responses from the parents and other family members of the disappeared students. Agreeing with the recommendations of the GIEI report, the parents demanded a new investigation of the case, and demanded that this include an investigation of Jesús Murillo Karam for obstruction of justice. (Karam was head of the PGR during the original case, and when it released its official report in January.) This is not surprising, since the parents of the disappeared students have consistently denied the government’s claims regarding the the whereabouts of their sons, and have voiced their distrust of Peña Nieto’s regime over and over again in public protests.
In particular, they have demanded an investigation of the military and the possible participation of Battalion 27 in attacks on the students. The PGR has refused to make such an investigation, and has insisted that the military is completely innocent of wrongdoing. It can probably get away with such claims, since the military is somehow the social institution with the highest approval ratings in Mexico, according to a Pew poll, although its approval has dropped in the last year. This is despite a general pattern of corruption and violence against Mexico’s own people. Last summer, army soldiers claimed that they had killed 22 criminals in a “shootout” in Tlatlaya, in the State of Mexico. But later investigations revealed that they had been killed execution-style after they had been captured and given up their arms. Most gruesomely, the Mexican military was actively involved in creating and supporting right-wing paramilitary groups in Chiapas in the 1990s, including the group that massacred 45 people (including children and infants) belonging to an indigenous Catholic pacifist group in Acteal in 1997. To claim that the Mexican military is beyond reproach is simply untrue given its history of violating human rights.
In response to Sunday’s press conference, President Peña Nieto said that the PGR must attend to new information revealed in the GIEI report. But on Monday morning, the PGR reaffirmed its stance: that the official report from January is the “historical truth” and there will be no new investigation; while they may take the GIEI report “into account,” they will revise none of their major conclusions.
The cynicism of this response parallels that of another recent case. On July 31, five people were brutally murdered in an apartment in the middle class neighborhood of Narvarte in Mexico City. The victims included Nadia Vera, a woman prominent in political activism in Veracruz, and Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist whose coverage of radical activists in Veracruz had provoked the ire of the state’s governor, Javier Duarte. Under Duarte’s administration, so many journalists have been murdered or disappeared that the state of Veracruz has become the most dangerous place in Latin America to do journalism, and he has been recorded in a press conference warning journalists of dire consequences for them and their families if they do not “behave themselves.” Both Vera and Espinosa had sought refuge in Mexico City after receiving repeated death threats and being stalked by strangers they suspected of working for Duarte. Both of them had made a point of telling their loved ones that Duarte would be the man responsible if they were ever murdered or disappeared. But when their worst fears came to pass, the government insisted on treating the murder as a simple case of robbery, despite the fact that their laptops and other expensive items were not even taken by the perpetrator.
This level of impunity with regard to political violence is nothing new. The current party in power, PRI (to which Javier Duarte also belongs), has a long history of corruption, rigging elections, mass murder, and forced disappearances. Not just during the 60s and 70s, when thousands of people from student activist, rural, and indigenous groups disappeared, but also during the PRI governments of the 90s, when military and paramilitary groups murdered Zapatistas and pacifist activists. And at least so far, PRI has faced little resistance internationally because the US government hasn’t made any noise about these crimes. As long as Mexico supports the disaster that is the War On Drugs using US weapons and US-exported tactics of police militarization and implements neoliberal reforms designed by people like Hillary Clinton, it doesn’t matter when those same weapons are used to massacre protesters in Apatzingán, or when a prayer group of indigenous pacifists in Chiapas are murdered for their sympathy with the Zapatistas and their opposition to the neoliberalism of NAFTA.
Unfortunately, there is an additional factor in Mexico making justice for Ayotzinapa incredibly difficult. The Drug War gives a level of plausible deniability to this impunity, and obscures the extent of the state’s involvement with it. According to Human Rights Watch, “nationally, more than 25,000 people are missing, according to an official national registry. As of April 2014, no one had been convicted of an enforced disappearance committed after 2006, according to official statistics.” During the search for the Ayotzinapa students, at least a dozen other mass graves were uncovered around Iguala, and no one knows whether or not members of the government are responsible for them. The sheer numbers involved in Mexico’s crisis of forced disappearance threaten to paralyze one’s sense of outrage, rather than reinforce it. What do 43 disappearances mean next to 25,000? How many of those 25,000 people were disappeared by the state? Ultimately, we have no way of knowing. The one thing that the PGR’s Historical Truth on Ayotzinapa proves, however, is that the Mexican government is not going to take responsibility for crimes that it itself committed.