Mexico: Doubts over missing students’ fate as mass grave exhumed

Federal authorities must launch a full and thorough investigations into the disappearances for 43 missing students in Iguala, Mexico as doubts persist that the bodies found in a mass grave belong to the missing students, said Amnesty International today.

“The search for these missing students must continue in earnest. This horrific crime has shocked the world and the truth must come out. The coming days provide a vital window to establish what really went on and these sensitive investigations must be performed by those at the highest, federal level, including with the support of international forensic experts already assisting investigators,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director, Amnesty International.

“Now is the time for President Enrique Peña Nieto to step up and ensure rapid and thorough investigation into these abuses to get to the bottom of what has happened to these victims. It is imperative that Mexico’s promises to respect human rights are not just government platitudes behind which a host of abuses can be committed with impunity.”

It is also vital that the relatives of the victims are treated with respect and are kept informed ahead of the media of developments in the ongoing search for their loved ones and identification process of the bodies that have been discovered.

Sunday’s gruesome discovery of a mass grave may answer some of the questions of what had happened to 43 students who disappeared when more than 80 were attacked without warning by local municipal police and an armed group as they left the city in three buses. However, only 28 bodies have been uncovered, and they have not yet been identified or established as those of the students.

Six people were shot dead and more than 20 wounded on 26 September in Iguala, Guerrero state. According to news reports, so far more than 30 people have been detained, including 22 local police officers.

While federal authorities are now attempting to identify the remains found yesterday in a mass grave, the investigations into the disappearances and murders remain under state authority. Amnesty International is concerned that this could undermine the investigations, given issues of alleged corruption, including infiltration of organised criminal elements into police forces, and the track record of failed investigations and impunity.

It is also vital that representatives of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who are already in Iguala, are given full institutional backing to support the exhumation and identification process. The role of these independent international experts is vital to ensure a reliable process that relatives can trust. The repeated failures in the identification process of human remains in other high profile human rights cases has gravely undermined investigations in many other cases.

“The federal investigation must seek to establish the full set of circumstances surrounding the involvement of municipal police and members of criminal gang on the attack on the students, including the abductions and killings. Reports that military personnel present failed to intervene when requested for assistance should also be investigated. Meanwhile the safety of survivors, relatives and witnesses must be protected,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.

“The shocking enforced disappearance and killing of students has not occurred in a vacuum. Tragically, this is the latest horrific tale in a series of human rights abuses in Iguala, and throughout Mexico. It is time these horrors stopped once and for all.”

The disappearance of these students has chilling precedent in the state.

In December 2011 authorities failed to hold federal and state police officials accountable for the killing of two Ayotzinapa students and the torture and other ill-treatment of 20 others.

In May 2013 three social leaders were abducted and murdered. Despite evidence implicating the involvement of the municipal president of Iguala in the killings, the investigation was reportedly closed in May 2014. In both these cases the federal authorities failed to intervene effectively to ensure justice.

For years, Amnesty International has documented and denounced the ongoing pattern of grave human rights violations, including disappearances, torture and excessive use of force, as well as the impunity in Mexico.

Last month Amnesty International published a report, Out of control: Torture and ill-treatment in Mexico which noted that reports of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of official authorities, had risen by 600 per cent over a decade.

Sixty-four per cent of Mexicans said they were afraid of being tortured if detained by the police or other authorities, according to a survey conducted by Amnesty International.