The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is accusing the Mexican government of fabricating evidence and using torture to force confessions during the 2014 investigation into the disappearance of 43 students, also known as the Ayotzinapa 43 Case.
On Thursday, March 15th, the OHCHR released a report called ‘Double Injustice: Human Rights Violations in the Investigation of the Ayotzinapa case’, which concluded that there was a clear pattern of committing, tolerating and covering up torture during the investigation as well as tampering and concealing evidence. After examining hundreds of interviews with detainees, witnesses, lawyers and authorities in charge of the investigation as well as legal files and medical records, the OHCHR found evidence of torture in 51 out of the 63 cases, 34 of which are strongly believed to have been arbitrary detained and a violation of human rights.
They also found one possible extrajudicial killing of Emmanuel Alejandro Blas Patino, who was allegedly tortured to death by marines in October of 2014 according to Amnesty International. Lastly, the report states that although the internal oversight unit of the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic (OAG) appeared to have made a serious effort to address the alleged torture back in 2016, those efforts were quickly dissolved when public officials committed to this effort were replaced. The conclusions of the internal investigation were then modified, minimizing responsibilities and maintaining the exemption for the committed violations.
Based on the report’s findings, the OHCHR is calling for any evidence obtained under torture to be excluded or invalidated and for there to be significant reforms made to the way in which criminal investigations are conducted in Mexico according to TeleSUR. In total, the report outlines 15 recommendations for the Mexican government that should be implemented with urgency, particularly those pertaining to establishing an independent and impartial system for criminal investigation.
In the long term, these recommendations will significantly reduce human rights violations by government investigators and overall corruption at the highest level. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, said “The UN’s findings confirm what activists and human rights organizations have exposed and denounced for years: the Mexican authorities’ widespread use of torture and the manipulation of evidence to cover up horrific human rights violations and ensure impunity for the perpetrators.
The outrageously flawed investigation into one of the most appalling crimes in Mexico’s recent history exemplifies the authorities’ abuse of the justice system and their refusal to tackle human rights violations”.
The Ayotzinapa 43 Case is one of the worst human rights cases in Mexico’s modern history and a lot of details as to what happened that night remain unclear, even to this day. According to government reports, the students were from the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa, Tixtla, Guerrero, an institution that educates future teachers from all over the country and has a long history of social struggles and leftist inclinations according to TeleSUR.
At approximately 6 pm on September 26th, 2014, more than 100 students from the teacher’s college travelled to Iguala, Guerrero, to protest a conference held by Maria de Los Angeles Pineda Villa, wife of Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez according to The Intercept. The students had plans to ask for funds to travel to Mexico City for the anniversary march of the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco. On their way to the conference, the students were stopped by the Iguala municipal police around 9:30 pm, reportedly by order of mayor Abarca.
This is the point in the reports in which things become much more unclear. According to police, they proceeded to chase the students because they had hijacked 3 buses in order to drive to the protest and return to their college. However, the student union at the college said they were merely hitchhiking to the protest when they were confronted by police. According to Amnesty International, the police then open fired at the vehicles, resulting in the death of 3 students and 3 bystanders as well as an additional 25 people injured.
The next morning, authorities found the body of a student, Julio Cesar Mondragon, who had attempted to run away during the gunfire. His eyes had been gouged out and the skin on his face had been peeled off to his bare skull according to Associated Foreign Press. After the police started firing, eyewitnesses say that students were rounded up and taken into custody. At some point in the night, the students were handed off to the criminal organization Guerrero Unidos. Investigators believe that the subordinates of the gang’s top leader, Sidronio Casarrubias, collaborated with Franciso Salgado Valladares, one of Iguala’s security chiefs, in kidnapping the students according to The Atlantic.
The subordinates then dumped the dead bodies into a pit and burned them with diesel, gasoline, tires, wood and plastic and placed their remains in 8 plastic bags and dumped in the San Juan river in Cocula according to Milenio. Initially, 57 students were reported missing, however, 14 of them were later found and returned to their families safe according to CNN. The remaining 43 missing students were never found. Mexican authorities claim Iguala’s mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velaquez and his wife Maria de Los Angeles Pineda Villa masterminded the abduction in order to prevent them from protesting. Abarca and Pineda Villa fled the scene immediately after but were arrested about a month later in Mexico City.
A number of alternate theories have surfaced to explain the forced disappearance of the students. Some believe that they could have been targeted for their political beliefs, although the only evidence to support this notion would be their long history of left-wing activism and radicalism. There is also speculation that the students had angered Guerreros Unidos by refusing to pay extortion money. In any case, relatives of the missing students claim the government’s “historical truth” is merely a fabrication of what really happened.
They claim the government planted evidence and tortured detainees in order to cover for high-profile politicians and military officials. According to TeleSUR, a group of independent international experts analyzed the details of the case and found that the government’s version of the story was not credible at all. In fact, to this day, only the remains of one student, Alexander Mora, have been found and confirmed through a DNA test. Recently, Mexican authorities arrested the leader of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, Erick Uriel Sandoval, on Monday, March 19th, almost 3 years after the tragedy, for his alleged role in the case.
However, many relatives of the missing students and human rights organizations believe the prosecution of Sandoval to be merely to put on a show and create the illusion that the government is taking action when in reality they still have not attempted to solve the underlying issues. Mexican authorities appear to be only focused on making a series of arrests and placing most of the blame on criminal groups.
The mass disappearance of the 43 students is considered the biggest political and public security crisis under President Enrique Pena Nieto. The new allegations made by the UN through the release of this report is just one more reason to criticize Pena Nieto’s security strategy, which has already deemed to be unsuccessful in tackling the country’s high levels of violence, corruption, collusion and criminal organizations. The tragedy sparked international outrage and triggered a series of protests, not only in Mexico but across the globe.
Although there were many high-profile kidnapping cases during the Mexican Drug War starting in 2006, the Ayotzinapa 43 case is unique in the sense that it sheds light on the level of collusion in organized crime with local governments and police agencies. The disappearance of these boys caused social unrest in Guerrero and resulted in a series of attacks on government buildings and violent protests, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero. The government has recently stated that they are committed to resolving the Ayotzinapa 43 case by the end of 2018 before the current administration comes to an end. Hopefully, this commitment is followed through and not just a campaign tactic for the upcoming election in July.
Although the allegations contained in the UNCHR report are nothing new, the level of thoroughness and detail by the UN has yet to be seen before and is putting increased pressure on Nieto’s administration. According to BBC, over 100 people have been arrested for their connection to the case, however, it has been over 2 and a half years and still, doubts remain as to what really happened. The Ayotzinapa case was an opportunity for the Mexican authorities to demonstrate their willingness and ability to tackle serious human rights violations, however, it appears they failed to do so.
Mexico’s long history of torture and impunity continues to haunt the nation to this day, creating an environment where human rights violations go unpunished and there is open public distrust of authorities and security forces. It is hard to say whether or not this UN report will make any progress in regards to the resolution of the Ayotzinapa case, but at the very least it will be a strong reminder to Pena Nieto’s administration that they have a long way to go if they want to build a positive legacy for his time in power.
The people of Mexico with the support of non-profit organizations should continue to urge Mexican authorities to ensure the truth is found and justice is served to those violating human rights. If the allegations are true as the UN report concluded, the Mexican government needs to hold those responsible for torture during the investigation of Ayotzinapa 43 are held accountable.
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