It’s the 26th of September in Guerrero, Mexico, 2014. A group of 80 students from the Escuela Normal de Ayotzinapa between the ages of 15 and 25 years old begin their journey to Mexico City with their pockets empty but hopeful that they will arrive to participate in the mobilizations of the 2nd of October. The idea: to commemorate the more than 300 students murdered by the army in Tlatelolco in 1968, a massacre that many said was to change Mexico forever, or at least until Ayotzinapa.
Their journey takes them from Ayotzinapa to the nearby city of Iguala, where the students occupy several busses that they would then use to arrive at their final destination, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
However, on their way out of Iguala, the students are seemingly attacked by corrupt police agents (federal, state and local police), members of the military, and members of local drug cartels, in a struggle that ends in the forced disappearance of 43 and the murder of 3. It is at this point that the consensus over what happened that night ends, and 5 years later, the parents of the Ayotzinapa 43 are still searching for truth and justice.
“These past 5 years have been physically, emotionally, mentally and economically exhausting” says Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesperson for the group of the parents of Ayotzinapa. Many have experienced illnesses due to the lack of clarity about their children’s whereabouts, and others have even experienced family abandonment from those who believe the students brought the disappearances upon themselves.
“Dealing with feelings of impotence has been the most difficult thing throughout these last 5 years, because it tears families apart” states Epifanio Álvarez Carvajal, father of disappeared student Jorge Álvarez Nava. The location of the students remains unknown, the motive for the crime has not yet been uncovered, and there are many loopholes in the investigation due to the poor management of the Peña Nieto administration of the case, whose presidency coincided with the brutal events of the 26th of September, 2014.
What will become of Ayotzinapa with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador?
During a gathering in Mexico City on the 26th of September, the parents of the Ayotzinapa 43 commented that they “have faith in the new government, but can’t trust them yet”, recognising that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has demonstrated willingness in discovering the truth about what happened that night, but concrete actions are so far insufficient to convince the parents that the investigations are on the right track.
During the Peña Nieto administration, a hypothesis referred to as the ‘historical truth’ was promoted by the ex-prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam, the theory that the students, who were travelling to the outskirts of Iguala in 4 busses were detained by corrupt police officers, handed over to hitmen from the Guerreros Unidos cartel, and their bodies later incinerated in the Cocula landfill.
However, a group of independent experts from Argentina later carried out a study, and revealed in a report of 300 pages that it was impossible that the students had been incinerated there. It also came to light that when Murillo Karam went to present the theory of ‘historical truth’ to the public, he had already received telephone data from the FBI that suggested the students may have still been alive, however he decided to go ahead with the version the government had already agreed to. Peña Nieto’s administration was ridiculed for their foul and corrupt management of the case.
Now AMLO has inherited nothing short of a mess: due to serious loopholes in the investigation and violations of due process, more than half of those accused of involvement in the case have been freed (77 of 143), including one of the main suspects, Gildardo López Astudillo, alias El Gil, one of the supposed leaders of the Guerreros Unidos cartel.
There’s now a possibility that the ex-mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, who had previously been convicted as the main intellectual authors of the crime, might walk free next month due to the fact that evidence against them was obtained through torture.
There is no such thing as a good government when talking about the Ayotzinapa case. The new government is advancing slowly
Hilda Hernández Rivera, mother of disappeared student César Manuel González Hernández, says that “there is no such thing as a good government when talking about the Ayotzinapa case. The new government is advancing slowly. The political will to act is there, but there are too many obstacles within other government entities such as the prosecutor’s office and the police forces”.
In the year that he has been in power, AMLO signed a decree in December to create a Truth Commission specifically directed towards investigating the events of the night of the 26th of September 2014, but subsequently took 6 months to name the special prosecutor assigned to the case, only delaying further the process.
He has organized various meetings with the parents, and has committed to starting a new investigation from zero following the investigative suggestions made by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
However, until more concrete actions have been taken, according to the parents of the Ayotzinapa 43, AMLO’s political discourse will be interpreted as a facade for a president that is in reality powerless up against an army and police force whose strength only stresses the weakness of other political institutions in Mexico.
A crime without motive?
One of the main frustrations of the parents of the Ayotzinapa 43 is that the investigations have yet to reveal a clear motive for the forced disappearance of the students, despite having already detained 142 people in relation to the case.
The journalist Francisco Cruz tracked the call record of one of the students murdered on the eve of the forced disappearances, Julio Cesár Mondragón, and with this information established that what occurred that night could have been a very planned and strategic operation carried out by the police and the army.
According to Cruz, the students “had become a dangerous threat to the government and for the transnational mining industry, and there were records that Ayotzinapa was the centre for different social movements and social leaders in the region”.
His suggestion of a motive is that the state took advantage of the chaos created by the occupation of the busses carried out by the students that night to eliminate a group of young people who were seen to seriously threaten mining and other economic activities in the region.
However, this hypothesis doesn’t only simplify the situation but it also fosters feelings among certain sectors in society that the students were deserving of what happened to them for being too “rebellious”.
Another hypothesis promoted by the previous government regarding the motive of the crime was that the wife of the ex-mayor of Iguala, María de los Ángeles Pineda, was to hold a party in commemoration of her campaign to run for the position of mayor and succeed her husband in Iguala the night of the forced disappearance of the students. The theory goes that in an attempt to protect the event at all costs, an order by the couple was sent to police allied with the Guerreros Unidos cartel to do whatever it takes to stop the students from causing disruptions.
But an investigation by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) brought to light information that shook up every hypothesis about the motive of the crime that had previously been accepted about the disappearance of the 43 students.
A fifth bus?
The report by the GIEI indicated that a fifth bus from the company Estrella Roja was taken by the students that night and was not mentioned by the Mexican prosecutor’s office as part of the crime scene, who also mistakenly reported that the students abandoned and destroyed this bus before leaving the transport terminal in Iguala.
The GIEI affirmed that the students were on the bus when they were attacked and forcefully disappeared, and therefore the fifth bus is the most fundamental part of the investigation so far.
They demonstrated in the same report that the vehicle presented by the Mexican prosecutors to the investigation team did not coincide with the bus that appears on security footage from the night, and that testimonies from members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel stated that they frequently use commercial busses to transport drugs from Mexico to Chicago.
What’s more, the testimonies of students that survived and managed to escape from the scene of the crime collected by the GIEI contradict what the Mexican prosecutors report claimed about the students destroying the bus. It thus becomes possible that the fifth bus was being used by Guerreros Unidos to transport drugs from Iguala to Chicago when the students occupied it, causing a violent reaction to recover it on the part of the cartel and corrupt police/military officials.
In fact, a suspicious commercial company called ‘Transportes Guerrero’ that provides bus journeys from Iguala to Chicago, the two operational centres of the cartel Guerreros Unidos, is still in existence today and can be found advertised online and on social media.
Whilst the truth about what occurred that evening of the 26th of September of 2014 remains unknown, the mothers and fathers of the Ayotzinapa 43 won’t be at peace and will continue to be trapped in a dark and exhausting state of limbo. As Hilda Hernández Rivera says, “we know that everything was orchestrated, but they never told us the truth. That’s why we keep and we will keep demanding that the government uncovers the truth about the whereabouts of our sons. It’s the only thing we want”.
If AMLO manages to clarify the events regarding what happened to the missing Ayotzinapa students, it will provide great relief and would also help him to maintain his approval ratings. If he fails to do so however, this may be the death of his political career, as was the case with Peña Nieto.