When 43 students from Ayotzinapa college disappeared from Iguala, Mexico almost four months ago, the case sparked international outrage, mass protests and demands for the Mexican government to conduct a thorough investigation, something rarely provided in the countless other disappearance cases throughout the country.
After a four month long investigation, only one of the missing students has been identified among the remains sent to an Austrian forensics lab by the Attorney General of Mexico (PGR). Forensic scientists identified the burnt remains of Alexander Mora in early December 2014, but over a month later, forensic scientists say normal methods can’t be used to identify the rest of the badly burnt remains.
Without consulting the families of the missing students, and in violation of signed agreements, the PGR authorized the lab to try new techniques and immediately notified the press. The PGR has shown “complete disregard” for the victims’ families, says Vidulfo Rosales, the families’ legal representative.
“They are no longer interested in what [the parents] might feel, but only in looking good before the media and announcing publicly the progress they have made,” stressed Rosales.
In spite of the many obstacles faced in this investigation, without the media coverage drawing international attention to mass protests in Mexico and abroad, it’s unlikely the students’ disappearance would have been investigated at all.
Close to 10,000 people have disappeared in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first two years in power, but investigations have been limited by corruption, lack of training and citizens’ distrust of government officials and police officers. Collusion of these authorities with drug cartels and organized crime groups has led to deep skepticism over the government’s ability and willingness to conduct proper investigations of disappearances.
In contemporary Mexico, municipal, state and federal authorities have been implicated in countless disappearances and extrajudicial killings. As a result, many officials avoid conducting investigations that could reveal their involvement. Police officers and PGR personnel have been accused of intentionally delaying the start of investigations, failing to adopt new procedures and pressuring forced testimonies to conceal the truth. In the few cases when officials actually investigate, the majority do not follow established international standards for collection and testing of evidence.
For fear of reprisals from corrupt forces, many families of the disappeared never file a police report. Distrust is widespread, with police perceived as one of the most corrupt institutions in Mexican society. In fact, nine out of ten Mexican citizens lack trust in their local police forces.
This deep-seated distrust of Mexican officials has pushed families of the disappeared to pursue alternatives. In conjunction with human rights organizations, families have demanded for years that key investigations be commissioned out to independent international forensic experts.
Early on, the high profile Ayotzinapa case was commissioned out to international investigators, headed most prominently by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and supported by forensic lab tests at the Austrian Medical University at Innsbruck. EAAF was formed in the late 1980s to identify remains of victims of the Argentine Dirty War. In Argentina, as in countless other Latin American nations emerging from harsh military dictatorship periods, government officials and security forces were directly implicated in forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
The Argentine forensics team, currently involved in the investigation of the 43 students, has been conducting forensic work in Mexico since the early 2000s, including a project to exhume, analyze and attempt to identify the remains of over a hundred women who were murdered or disappeared in Ciudad Juárez. The team has also been involved in the identification of the remains of 72 Central American migrants killed in the U.S.-border state of Tamaulipas in 2010.
In early September 2014, Mexican authorities agreed to let the EAAF team respond to demands from human rights groups and families for the exhumation of yet another mass grave, this time in the southern Mexico-Guatemala border city of Tapachula. This grave is thought to contain the remains of Central American migrants who were attempting to reach the United States through Mexico.
Following the identification of Mora’s remains last month, President Barack Obama offered the United States’ “forensics capabilities” and assistance to “strengthen the criminal justice system” and the “investigative capacities” of Mexico. When President Peña Nieto visited the United States earlier this month, Obama said the U.S. would continue to be a “friend and supporter of Mexico,” despite protests demanding a withdrawal of support for the failed drug war and the corrupt Mexican government.
This support is far from new. The United States has provided forensics-focused assistance since the 1990s, funding programs to train Mexican law enforcement and provide technical assistance, including crime investigation training. With the creation of the Mérida Initiative in 2008, assistance was accelerated. Since its inception, the Mérida aid package has been appropriated $2.1 billion by the U.S. Congress. A chunk of this funding has gone through the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for technical assistance to “reform and modernize Mexico’s criminal justice system.”
Much of the forensic assistance given to the Mexican PGR and National Police forensic laboratories has been provided by U.S. programs like the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). In 2012, ICITAP’s Project Diamante trained 7,700 attorney general prosecutors, investigators and forensic experts. The program boasts to have “established a cadre of over 200 instructors capable of replicating this and other training to new [Attorney General] personnel.”
These U.S.-funded programs were meant to establish professional standards for Mexican investigators. But, since the outset of the ill-wrought drug war, there have been serious problems at all stages of investigations of forced disappearances and killings.
The case of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students has been wrought with these issues. In an early press conference, the PGR presented testimony from two Guerreros Unidos drug gang members claiming they burned the students in a Cocula trash dump, but scientists have since disproved the Mexican government’s theory. The Argentine forensic team has also cast doubts on the government’s claims, indicating concerns that officials may be fabricating or manipulating evidence. Human rights groups have heavily criticized Mexico’s poor capacity to carry out investigations, with Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director, José Miguel Vivanco, saying “these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely the consequence of the longstanding failure of Mexican authorities to address the problem.”
The families of the 43 disappeared students have been actively involved in the investigation process, in spite of the PGR attempting to cut them out. The parents have led protest marches for nearly four months, through the Christmas holiday season and into the new year, often confronting violence from security forces. Nearly one month after Alexander Mora was identified in the Austrian forensics lab, the families still await further results and Mora’s family continues pleading for their son’s remains to be returned for burial.
While the relatives of these missing students have tried to work with Mexican officials on the official investigation, deep-seated distrust and limited accessibility to external investigators has forced many other families seeking answers about their disappeared loved ones to take up investigations of their own.
When Letty “Roy Rivera” Hidalgo’s son was abducted from her home in Monterrey, Nuevo León, she waited for months for a police investigation. Finally, she began an investigation herself, taking evidence to police officers unwilling to assist her. Four years later Letty’s son still has not been found, but she has founded the Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Nuevo León (FUNDENL) to help other relatives of the disappeared to launch their own investigations.
Letty and other parents-turned-investigators have paired up with forensic experts to build cases without police involvement. A new Citizen-Led Forensics project, backed by genetic and anthropology experts from Durham University, seeks to help identify human remains buried in Mexico’s many mass graves. The project will create an independent registry to allow families to report disappearances and safely store any information and evidence they collect. Evidence will be sent to a lab in Washington D.C. for forensic tests and all data will be stored on secure servers at Durham.
As of November 2014, nearly 150 Guerrero families have been registered on the new database. But, this British-funded project only has enough funds to collect DNA profiles from 1,500 living relatives for the potential identification of up to 500 human remains. This accounts for less than 1 percent of the 22,610 people that have gone missing across Mexico since 2007.
While these independent investigations are well intentioned, there are limits to the capabilities of untrained family members searching for the disappeared. These community-style forensic investigations seek to sidestep corrupt officials, but they are problematic in their own right, with the risk of contaminating crime scenes or unintentionally destroying evidence. And when relatives come forward to the police with evidence they’ve collected, they’re often ignored.
Without the critical press coverage and sustained international pressure in the Ayotzinapa case, it is unlikely the Mexican government would have taken any real steps to investigate or solve the crime. However, even with this pressure, the PGR has failed to present any realistic theories of what happened to the students. With 221 arrest warrants obtained, 97 people detained and one student identified, the PGR says they have “exhausted all the lines of inquiry that emerged during the investigation.” Still, a plethora of questions remain unanswered.
Across Mexico, 54 people have gone missing every week since 2007. The Ayotzinapa students account for only 43 of the 5,098 disappearances reported in 2014 alone. The massive scale on which forced disappearances take place in Mexico is startling, with 1 out of every 10,000 people in the country reported “missing.” Until the Mexican government takes steps to address the rampant corruption and lack of technical and institutional capacity generating citizen distrust and preventing proper investigations from taking place, relatives of the disappeared will likely continue to commission out the investigations or take them up themselves for fear their loved one’s case will go unsolved.