MEXICO CITY – Mexicans prepared on Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students amid a new investigation the families hope will produce a truthful account of the crime to replace the prior administration’s utterly discredited official version.
Nearly a year into his term as Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s vow to re-open the probe began to take concrete form this week with the excavation of a never-before-explored trash dump near the scene of the mass abduction.
But authorities face enormous challenges as they try to untangle a case that “shows the staggering reality of forced disappearances in Mexico with all its brutality,” Santiago Aguirre, director of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center and an adviser to the Ayotzinapa families, told EFE on Wednesday.
Lopez Obrador’s deeply unpopular predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, left office last Nov. 30 still insisting on the validity of what his administration called the “historical truth” about the events of Sept. 26, 2014, in the southern state of Guerrero.
On that night, students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, a rural all-male teacher training college known for its leftist activism, were attacked in the city of Iguala after they had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City for a protest.
Six people – including three students – were killed, 25 were injured and 43 students were abducted and are presumed dead.
The Peña Nieto administration concluded that the students were killed by a local drug gang after being abducted by municipal cops acting on the orders of Iguala’s corrupt mayor, and that their bodies were incinerated at a dump in the nearby town of Cocula.
Yet a team of independent experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights determined the bodies could not have been disposed of in that way.
“They concluded that the official theory of the case was not supported by sufficient scientific evidence,” Aguirre said, adding that the case has begun “to fall apart in the courts” for the same reason.
Recent days have seen the release from custody of 24 former Iguala police officers and a reputed drug trafficker accused in the disappearances.
“Today’s releases are the result of yesterday’s bad behavior by prosecutors,” the human rights activist said, pointing out that judges have ruled out 60 of 107 items of evidence – including suspects’ statements – as “illicit” because they were obtained through torture or arbitrary arrests.
Lopez Obrador’s first official act as president was to create a Truth and Access to Justice Commission comprising the Ayotzinapa parents, government officials and representatives of human rights organizations.
While the inclusion of the families – some still clinging to the hope their loved ones will be found alive – was a powerful symbol of a new approach to the case, it was only within the last month that the administration appointed a special prosecutor to lead a new probe.
Mexico’s attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said during a Sept. 18 meeting with the families that his department would carry out carry out a fresh investigation, putting aside the previous findings.
Some observers, however, think that too much time has gone by.
“Without a doubt, in a criminal investigation the mere passage of time is accompanied by a loss of evidence,” Aguirre said, while suggesting that the “great work” done by the independent experts can provide a useful starting point.
The government is asking for patience on the part of the families, who have already endured five years of grief and uncertainty.
“We have the hope that we will soon get to the truth. Confidence (in Lopez Obrador) will build as the investigations advance,” parent Cristina Baptista said.
Denouncing Peña Nieto’s account as a “historic lie,” she acknowledges that “this government is different from the previous government, which didn’t carry out a search, but rather a simulation.”
Cristina’s son, Benjamin, was 19 when he went missing.
“We’re coming up on five years of the forced disappearance of our sons. We don’t know anything of them, we don’t know how they are. But we’re not going to give up and we’re going to continue until we know about them and find them,” she said.