Mexico's president vows justice for missing students – but will he deliver?

Forty-three students disappeared late last month after a confrontation with police. Many fear that Mexico's grim record of impunity will thwart an investigation into their fate. 

Henry Romero/Reuters
A Federal police officer stands guard outside the morgue in Iguala, southern Mexican state of Guerrero on Monnday, Oct. 6, 2014.

As accusations stack up of human rights abuses at the hands of Mexican security officials, President Enrique Peña Nieto has finally broken his more than weeklong silence to convey a clear message: His government will hold people accountable. 

"I'm deeply indignant and disturbed with the information that's been coming out,” President Peña Nieto said, referring to the discovery of a mass grave outside the town of Iguala over the weekend. Late last month, scores of college students went missing there, about 120 miles south of Mexico City, allegedly at the hands of local police. Many suspect it contains the students' remains.

“I have instructed [my security cabinet] to take action, clarify the facts, find those responsible [for these disappearances], and strictly apply the law,” the president said. He later wrote on Twitter that there “will be no impunity.”

The president’s promise to bring assailants to justice is likely little comfort to Mexicans watching events unfold in Iguala. Impunity in Mexico runs high, with a recent study by the think tank Mexico Evalúa finding that more than 80 percent of crimes go unpunished or uninvestigated. Other calculations put the overall impunity rate closer to 94 percent, meaning only 6 percent of all crimes make it to a preliminary investigation. Guerrero state, where the recent disappearances took place, had an impunity rate of 96.7 in 2013, according to INEGI, the national statistics agency.

Some 43 students from a rural teacher’s college, the Aytozinapa Normal School, went missing on Sept. 26 after a confrontation with local police. Six people – including three students and three bystanders – were reported killed when police opened fire on buses that the students had commandeered. The teacher’s college has a long history of radical protest, and witnesses say they saw police take several of the students away from the scene.

On Saturday, about a week after the disappearances, a mass grave was discovered on the outskirts of Iguala holding dozens of badly scorched bodies.DNA tests could take weeks to confirm the victims’ identities.

Monday, federal forces disarmed city police in Iguala and took over security functions there. Some 22 police officers have been taken into custody in connection to the shooting, and there have been reports of police links to local organized crime groups. An arrest warrant was issued for the city’s mayor and his security chief, both of whom are believed to have fled the area.

Some families are still holding out hope that their children will be found alive. “We have to keep looking and praying,” Santa Cruz Castro, the father of missing student Leonel, told The New York Times. Others have carried banners reading, "they took them alive, we want them back alive."

“The message is that in Mexico anything goes,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division told McClatchy News. “Security forces – and that includes the army and the police – would reasonably think they could get away with atrocities and mass murder,” Mr. Vivanco said. “It’s very revealing of how grave, how serious, the human rights situation is in Mexico.”

Another recent case – this one involving the military – also put Mexico’s human rights record in the spotlight. The incident, in June, was portrayed as a shootout between a military patrol and an armed gang. But recently, witnesses came forward accusing the military of executing more than 20 people who had surrendered their weapons. Though the attorney general vowed last week to prosecute three soldiers in a civilian court, so far no homicide charges have been filed.

Although the case of the students in Iguala has caught international attention as possibly – should it be confirmed – the country's worst known massacre since Peña Nieto took office in 2012, many disappearances go unreported, or are reported and ignored by authorities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. 

An estimated 14,000 to 45,000 people disappeared in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. That's a big discrepancy, and depends on whether you're looking at recently revised government statistics or numbers compiled by human rights groups.

But Mexico's disappearances – a country that isn't officially at war or suffering a dictatorship – rival the numbers of missing from notable conflicts around the region. Roughly 30,000 people disappeared under Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s, and the more recent estimates of 30,000 disappeared in Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict.

Part of the challenge reflects a basic lack of government transparency in Mexico. Until recently, the government didn't even acknowledge publicly that there was a federal database tracking disappearances. There's also the issue of sharing critical evidence and information between federal officials and state and local governments: Mexico has barely scratched the surface of making cooperative efforts to track and solve cases of the disappeared.

As families speak out and demand that the government take responsibility for the violence, some are hopeful that it will encourage Mexican officials to seriously address the issue.

“I don’t think we have any other problem that is bigger in Mexico than the violence and securities issues,” said Julio Hernandez, one of the commissioners for the recently established Executive Commission for Victims’ Rights. “There is some interest in the government to make things better, but the problem is huge. There is never going to be enough money for these problems, but that should not be an excuse.”

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