By Amnesty Canada Campaigner Kathy Price
It was a crime that opened the eyes of the world to terrifying realities in Mexico. Students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, travelling on buses to take part in a demonstration in the capital, were suddenly ambushed in Iguala on September 26, 2014. As the students fled the buses to escape the gunfire, 43 of them were taken away by local police. They were never seen again.
Failure to find the missing students ignited massive demonstrations across Mexico. Indignation only increased when Mexico’s then Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced the results of his investigation, stating that corrupt municipal police officers had arrested the students, then turned them over to an organized crime group, who killed them and burned their remains at a garbage dump. Yet, respected independent experts, brought in by the students’ families, investigated the dump site and said there was no evidence to support the government’s claims. Other experts agreed that the official version was not credible. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, expressed concern about a cover-up and “confessions” obtained with torture.
In Canada, Amnesty activists joined public protests and sent thousands of messages to Mexican authorities in support of the families and classmates of the missing 43, echoing their calls for the truth.
Those calls fell on deaf ears until Andrés Manuel López Obrador became President in December 2018 and immediately created a Truth Commission to reopen investigation into what really happened.
Now, more than 3 years later, the commission has released its final report. It concludes what the families of the disappeared students and human rights organizations have long alleged; that the disappearance of the students was a “state crime” that involved high ranking federal and state authorities, and army commanders.
President López Obrador promised the families of the 43 that there will be no impunity for those responsible. A day after release of the Truth Commission’s report, there was an unprecedented development. Mexico’s former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam was arrested on charges of forced disappearance, torture and obstruction of justice. Arrest warrants were also issued for 20 soldiers and army officers, 33 local police officers, 11 state police officers, 5 state officials and 14 gang members.
“The recent advances are the result of the tireless struggle of the mothers, fathers and families of the Ayotzinapa students, and the exceptional, painstaking work of human rights organizations that have supported them,” said Edith Olivares Ferreto, Executive Director of Amnesty International Mexico. “The government of President López Obrador has shown a willingness to clarify the facts about the students’ enforced disappearance, as well as to strengthen the state bodies responsible for investigating this appalling crime.”
Amnesty’s Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas also recognized the importance of the Truth Commission’s report: “Authorities in the government of then President Enrique Peña Nieto pursued a deliberate policy of concealment and obstruction of justice. The Truth Commission’s devastating report, which concludes that the persecution and enforced disappearance of the students was a state crime, must open the way for continued clarification of the facts, establishing their whereabouts and guaranteeing non-repetition.”
Indeed, yet to be answered is the most important question of all for the families: where are their children?
Alejandro Encinas, the government official leading the Truth Commission, has spoken out about evidence they collected that suggests six of the Ayotzinapa students may have been held for days, and then handed over to an army commander who gave the order for them to be killed.
Families of the students had pressed from the start for a search of army facilities in the area and investigation of their role in the enforced disappearances.
Hilda Legideño Vargas, whose son Jorge Antonio was studying to be a teacher when he was forcibly disappeared with 42 of his classmates in September 2014, had this to say in a message to Amnesty Canada: “We, the families, will not stop until we know what happened, with scientific evidence, and until those who damaged our children are brought to justice for what they did. Our experts continue their investigation. Thanks to them it has been possible to make progress but there is still so much to clarify. Thank you to everyone who has offered their solidarity and stood by us, helping us to endure this journey in search of our children.”
The enforced disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa has attracted considerable attention both inside and outside Mexico. But it is no isolated case. There are now more than 100,000 people reported disappeared in Mexico. It’s a staggering number! Amid indifference, lack of resources, or collusion of authorities with organized crime, family members of the missing have experienced resistance to their requests for timely searches and investigation of alleged perpetrators. Truth and justice for the Ayotzinapa students must herald a determined commitment on the part of authorities across Mexico to confront the epidemic of disappearances.
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