Mexico's missing students may have unwittingly interfered with drug shipment, report says
Independent team refutes attorney general's claim 43 students were burned in giant fire
An independent report presented Sunday dismantles the Mexican government's investigation into last year's disappearance of 43 teachers' college students, saying the prosecutor's contention that they were incinerated in a giant pyre never happened and fuelling the anger of parents who have gone nearly a year not knowing what happened to their sons.
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Attorney General Arely Gomez, who was not in office during the initial investigation, said that in light of the report she would call for a new forensic investigation of the municipal garbage dump where the initial probe concluded the 43 were burned to ash beyond identification.
And parents of the students demanded a meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose reputation and popularity has been undermined by the case.
"We will not accept another lie from the government," said Blanca Nava Velez, mother of Jorge Alvarez Nava.
While the government said the Sept. 26, 2014 attack was a case of mistaken identity, the report said it was a violent and co-ordinated reaction to the students, who were hijacking buses for transportation to a demonstration and may have unknowingly interfered with a drug shipment on one of the buses.
Iguala, the city in southern Guerrero state where that attacks took place, is known as a transport hub for heroin going to the United States, particularly Chicago, some of it by bus, the report said.
"The business that moves the city of Iguala could explain such an extreme and violent reaction and the character of the massive attack," the experts said in the report delivered to the government and the students' families during a public presentation, where some chanted "It was the state!"
The report means that nearly a year after the disappearance, the fate of 42 of the students remains a mystery, given the errors, omissions and false conclusions outlined in more than 400 pages by the experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Only a charred bone fragment of one of the 43 has been identified and it wasn't burned at the high temperature of an incineration, contrary to Mexican investigators' claims.
"We have no evidence to support where the disappeared are," said Carlos Beristain, a Spanish medical doctor on the team.
The report recommends that authorities rethink their assumptions and lines of investigation, as well as continue the search for the students and investigate the possible use of public or private ovens to cremate the bodies.
It also recommends investigating the possible drug angle and who co-ordinated and gave the orders for the attacks — all unknowns nearly a year later.
Pena Nieto said via Twitter that he has given instructions for investigators to take into account the findings of the report, which dealt another blow to the Mexican government in a case that has already brought international outrage and protests.
This report provides an utterly damning indictment of Mexico's handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory.- Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch
Gomez said in a statement that the report would be "fundamental to the investigation" and its findings analyzed. But she answered no questions, including about the involvement of federal forces in the attacks.
She was named in March to replace former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, who led the initial investigation and concluded the students were incinerated.
The attack and disappearance of the 43 at the hands of officials became a pivotal moment in Pena Nieto's administration, which started fast out of the blocks three years ago with a series of key political and economic reforms. But the slow response to the case and the implausibility of the government's version of the events eroded the credibility of his government.
Pena Nieto mentioned the case last week in his state of the union speech, acknowledging its role in Mexicans' disenchantment with and distrust of his government.
"This report provides an utterly damning indictment of Mexico's handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Sunday. "Even with the world watching and with substantial resources at hand, the authorities proved unable or unwilling to conduct a serious investigation."
In point after point, the international team of experts said the government investigation was wrong about the nature of and the motive for the attacks. It is an indictment of Mexico's investigative procedures and conclusions, and cites key evidence that was manipulated or that disappeared.
Police, soldiers at crime scene, report says
Federal police and the military were aware of the attacks and present at some of the crime scenes, according to the report. While their involvement is unclear, at the very least they failed to intervene to stop widespread shooting of unarmed civilians.
The report says the people arrested in the case gave four versions of what happened, including that the students were incinerated at a municipal garbage dump in the nearby city of Cocula and their ashes bagged and dumped in a river.
The group hired its own forensic expert to examine the garbage dump, who determined among other things, that the fire needed to incinerate 43 bodies would have caused a forest fire in the heavily wooded zone and burned the whole area. The report said the local drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, neither had a history of carrying out such an orchestrated cremation nor the fuel available nearby.
"For all these reasons, we have come to the conviction that the young men were not incinerated in the Cocula garbage dump," said Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer on the team.
To date, authorities have detained more than 100 people, the majority of them local police. The former Iguala mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, is also in custody and has been accused with his wife of having ordered the attack. The experts say that may be true but it's still not clear.
The night the students disappeared was characterized by hours of terror and co-ordinated attacks carried out by local police and ordered by an unknown command that violated the human rights of some 180 people, while state and federal authorities stood by, according to the report.
It documents how state and federal police and the military were monitoring the movement of the students even before they arrived in Iguala, and stood by as Iguala and Cocula local police attacked them in nine different locations, killing six, including two who were shot at close range, and three bystanders. Another 40 were injured, some gravely.
The report says a fifth bus that could have been carrying drugs or money was ignored in the attorney general's investigation, never examined and could be key to the reason for the attack.
"All that suggests that the action of the perpetrators was motivated by the students acting against high-level interests," the report said.