Ayotzinapa disappearances: Peña Nieto’s ultimate test

By Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International in Mexico City.

“We don’t have any guns! …Don’t shoot! … Help him, help him please!”

The three poignant phrases are repeated again and again, shouted out loud by various distinctively frightened young voices.

The shaky footage, taken with a mobile phone on the night of 26 September 2014 in the Mexican city of Iguala, in the violence-ridden state of Guerrero, shows some of the attacks suffered by nearly 100 students before 43 went missing without a trace.

In the 365 days that went by since that tragic night, the lid has been lifted on Mexico’s state of play when it comes to human rights. What is has revealed is a country riddled with violence and horror.

People vanishing into thin air, mass graves filled with bones so small DNA tests are impossible to conduct and dismembered bodies dumped in abandoned houses are now so common they hardly make front page news.

People vanishing into thin air, mass graves filled with bones so small DNA tests are impossible to conduct and dismembered bodies dumped in abandoned houses are now so common they hardly make front page news.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

But the Ayotzinapa tragedy, as it is now known in reference to the rural school where the deprived students came from, is different.

Probably like never before in the troublesome history of this populous country, the 43 faces changed the nation so much that now anyone would be hard-pressed to walk around any local city or town without finding a reference to the young men.

Mexico changed on that 26 September.

The tragedy has revealed a human rights crisis of epic proportions with nearly 30,000 men, women and children disappeared or missing in the last few years alone. But more than that, it has peeled the mask off the Mexican government opening a Pandora’s Box of crime, negligence and a political cover-up that seems to run up to the highest levels of power.

Ayotzinapa has brought the worst of Mexico into the limelight for all to see.

Ayotzinapa has brought the worst of Mexico into the limelight for all to see.
Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For years, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has disgustingly turned a blind eye to countless allegations of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. They blame organized crime for such problems, simplifying a complex network of criminality, corruption and government collusion to its lowest common denominator.

According to this official narrative, those tortured, killed, or forcibly disappeared are the victims of unscrupulous and extremely powerful criminal gangs, or are somehow to be blamed for the abuses they suffer.

Investigations into any kind of human rights abuses are routinely so poor that examinations of crime scenes are extremely negligent or non-existent.

When pressure mounts, authorities round up a number of suspects who quickly take responsibility – and later report having been tortured to confess to the crimes. These reports are not surprising.

For years, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has disgustingly turned a blind eye to countless allegations of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. They blame organized crime for such problems, simplifying a complex network of criminality, corruption and government collusion to its lowest common denominator.
Erika Guevara-Rosas.

In 2013, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission said it had received 1,505 complaints of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, 600% more than in 2003.

Meanwhile, impunity for the torturers is rife. According to the Federal Judicial Council, federal courts dealt with 123 prosecutions for torture between 2005 and 2013; just seven resulted in convictions under the federal law.

The tragedy has revealed a human rights crisis of epic proportions with nearly 30,000 men, women and children disappeared or missing in the last few years alone. But more than that, it has peeled the mask off the Mexican government opening a Pandora’s Box of crime, negligence and a political cover-up that seems to run up to the highest levels of power.
Erika Guevara-Rosas.

The Mexican justice system is so flawed no one expects much from it anymore. Trials over human rights abuses are extremely rare and relatives of the disappeared are left waiting in desperation or forced to look for their loved ones themselves.

In this backdrop, the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students should not be a surprise. But it has struck a chord and cornered the Peña Nieto administration into taking what can only be described as desperate steps to show it is actually taking action.

First came the “historic truth” when the country’s Attorney General said, on 27 January this year, that the police had arrested the students before handing them over to a renowned local drug gang. In turn, Guerreros Unidos, as it is known, were said to have killed them, burned their bodies in a local dumpster, before packing the remains in large bags and throwing them into a nearby river.

On 6 September 2015, a group of independent experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a 500-page report refuting the theory as scientifically impossible.

But the Mexican authorities didn’t take the criticism seriously. As the first year anniversary of the disappearances approached, with 110 arrests, in the authorities called a press conference and announced that they had found a bone matching the DNA of 20-year-old Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, one of the disappeared students.

Experts were quick to again debunk the surprising announcement.

A day later, the internationally acclaimed Argentine Forensic Anthropology team – who led investigations into disappearances in dozens of countries from Argentina to Guatemala and the Balkans -- said that the chances the bone matched Jhosivani were so low the so-called evidence could only be described as “inconclusive”.

The Mexican government’s theories and pronouncements soon collapsed like a house of cards and the world wondered the real intentions behind them. If the government could show the students had been killed, the case could quickly be closed.

Pressure over the handling of the investigations is mounting and the only way forward for the Mexican authorities is to show, not that they are taking any kind of action, but that they are serious about finding out what happened to the 43 and ensure it never happens again. It is still not too late to hold their hands up, admit the serious mistakes made to date and re-direct investigations into the disappearances.

Failing to take any action will only sink the Peña Nieto administration deeper into suspicion.

The President and administration were once hailed as the country’s hope but now they are desperately trying to hold on to any shred of credibility. The first crucial step to rebuilding this trust lies in answering a simple question – where are the 43 Ayotzinapa students?

The President and administration were once hailed as the country’s hope but now they are desperately trying to hold on to any shred of credibility. The first crucial step to rebuilding this trust lies in answering a simple question – where are the 43 Ayotzinapa students?
Erika Guevara-Rosas.

A version of this oped was published in The Guardian