Mexico: Missing students are dead, but many questions remain

Mexico's top law enforcement officer said Tuesday that all 43 students who disappeared four months ago are dead. But no one seems to know why they were killed – or if Mexico is doing enough to prevent such a crime from happening again.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Parents of missing students, some holding pictures of the missing, attend the press conference in Mexico City on Tuesday. Mexican attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam said that investigators are now certain that 43 college students missing since September were killed.

Mexican officials announced this week that there is “legal certainty” that the 43 teacher’s college students who disappeared in Guerrero state four months ago are dead.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam at a news conference Tuesday reiterated the government’s account of events, first presented last November, and provided more details, gathered from detainee testimonials, to support it. Mr. Karam offered photos of the remains gathered near a trash dump outside of Iguala and clips of taped confessions.

“Without a doubt, the evidence allows us to determine that the students at the teachers’ college were abducted, killed, burned, and thrown into the San Juan River,” Karam said. He noted that 99 suspects have been detained, 39 confessions have been made, and hundreds of testimonies gathered.

But for the victims' families, the events that night are anything but certain. More broadly, many Mexicans are wondering about the government's will and ability to solve such gruesome crimes.

“What the government wants to do is close the case,” said Epifanio Alvarez, the father of one of the missing students, at a press conference Tuesday night. He and other relatives of the disappeared students vowed to keep searching for their children under the assumption they're still alive.

“We cannot accept any of what was said because we do not have enough evidence … The government has stamped on our dignity and destroyed us.”

Are anti-kidnapping measures working?

The government’s latest statements on Iguala came just one day after the four-month anniversary of the mass disappearance and suspected massacre, and the day before the one-year anniversary of the launch of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s anti-kidnapping strategy. The 2014 plan called for greater coordination and data sharing among federal and local officials and the appointment of an anti-kidnapping czar. But by some accounts, kidnappings have increased under President Peña Nieto.

The citizen group Stop Kidnapping, which was selected to serve as a member of a government oversight panel on kidnapping as part of the 2014 plan, announced Tuesday that Mexico saw a 30 percent increase in kidnapping cases between 2013 (2,166 cases) and 2014 (2,818 cases). That translates to roughly seven incidents a day, or one kidnapping every 3.5 hours in 2014, El Pais reports.

Stop Kidnapping’s findings differ from numbers released by the National System of Public Safety, which relies on government data. They calculated 1,698 kidnappings in 2013, and 1,394 in 2014 across Mexico. That’s a decrease of about 18 percent.

The families of the missing Ayotzinapa students and local human rights groups say they have been disappointed not only in the government’s investigation, but in what charges the government has brought against suspects, like Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez.

Not one person has been charged with an enforced disappearance, says Stephanie Erin Brewer, international coordinator for the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juárez, a human rights group based in Mexico City. Instead, those suspects who have been charged have been brought up on kidnapping charges – an easier crime to prove, but one that discounts the government's own possible role in the disappearances.

“Kidnapping charges may carry a higher prison sentence ... but kidnapping is only considered a crime. Enforced disappearances are human rights violations that recognize the role of the government,” Ms. Brewer says.

Brewer and other human rights representatives will travel to Geneva in early February to meet with the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances on the case of Mexico.

'We don't know the why'

Mexican authorities said Tuesday they believe the students were killed in a case of mistaken identity. The Guerreros Unidos gang “thought they [the students] were infiltrated” by rival gang members, Karam said at the press conference. He noted that that there is nothing to suggest the students were involved in any criminal organization.

But many suspects testified that they knew the young men were students, leaving the motive for the crime a mystery. "We know the who, the what, the when, and the where. We don't know the why," Alejandro Hope, a Mexico security specialist, told the Associated Press. "They have yet to tell a compelling story of why this happened. It doesn't matter how many people they detain – unless they answer that question, the whole thing will remain under a halo of mystery."

The aspiring teachers, from a rural college in Ayotzinapa, went to Iguala on Sept. 26 to commandeer a handful of buses to use to travel to Mexico City the following weekend for a protest. The town’s mayor has been charged with kidnapping, after he allegedly told police to stop the students. Police then handed them off to gang members who the government says killed them and burned their bodies down to ashes.

The remains found near the dump outside of Iguala were sent to specialists in Austria for DNA testing. Only one of the missing students’ remains were positively identified.

The case has ignited social unrest across Mexico and helped drop Peña Nieto’s approval ratings to the lowest level seen by a Mexican president in nearly two decades.

At a public event Tuesday, the president suggested it was time for Mexico to move on from the events in Iguala.

"I'm convinced that we should not remain trapped in this instant, this moment in Mexico's history, of sorrow, of tragedy and pain. We just can't dwell here," he said.

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