The release of a key suspect in the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero poses a significant challenge for the administration of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
On 4 September 2019, the Mexican government ordered a full investigation into the circumstances of a decision by a regional court to release a key suspect in one of Mexico’s most notorious human rights abuse cases. The case concerned the disappearance in September 2014 of 43 students in the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero. The suspect, Gildardo López Astudillo — known by his alias “El Gil,” was reportedly released because the evidence against him had been obtained as a result of torture.
The 2014 kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students
The students who disappeared were part of a larger group of male students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ School in the town of Ayoztinapa in Guerrero who planned to travel to Mexico City to participate in protests to mark the anniversary of the October 1968 killing of hundreds of students by security forces in Mexico City’s Plaza of Three Cultures. On the night of 26 September 2014, the students commandeered several buses to undertake their journey and, as they were leaving Iguala, the buses were fired on by local police resulting in the death of six people. Later that night 43 of the students disappeared. The body of a student was discovered the following day, having been subjected to torture in his final hours.
The ‘historic truth’
Following the disappearance, a government investigation – conducted under the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last 90 years – concluded that the students were arrested, taken into custody and then passed over to a local drug gang, the Guerreros Unidos, who killed them. In a public statement in early 2015, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam claimed to have uncovered the “historic truth” and that the students had been kidnapped and killed by a local gang and their bodies burned.
This version of events was soon discredited by forensic experts and investigators from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. A separate report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, entitled Double Injustice – Human rights violations in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case, also found that the investigation into the disappearance of the students was seriously flawed. According to the report, there were “strong grounds to believe that some of the people detained in Mexico during the early stages of the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014 were arbitrarily detained and tortured, and that these serious violations were in turn inadequately investigated and even covered up…”
There have been various theories about what happened on the night on the night of the disappearance and subsequently. In her book A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students, award-winning Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández reconstructed in detail the events of 26 September and afterwards. She challenged the official version of events of the Peña Nieto administration and concluded that federal authorities had knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the students.
AMLO’s truth commission
The case represents a major test for the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who led the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) and a coalition of parties to victory in the 2018 general elections. AMLO, known for his left-wing views and populist approach, came to power on a platform of economic reform and addressing poverty, inequality, corruption, crime and violence. Following his election, AMLO announced the establishment of a truth commission to investigate the case.
The release of El Gil represents a serious challenge for the AMLO administration in its efforts to get to the truth of what happened on that terrible night in Iguala and to bring to justice to those responsible. According to the left-of-centre Mexican news magazine Proceso, there were 15 pieces of documentary evidence against El Gil, including one from the United States (US) Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which indicated he had played a key role in the disappearance of the students.
The decision to investigate the circumstances of El Gil’s release comes at a time when AMLO needs to establish that his administration is capable of implementing his program of reform and of addressing the corruption and security issues which have plagued Mexico over the years. In addition, Mexico is endeavouring to manage a challenging relationship with the Trump administration. President Trump continues to campaign for his proposed border wall with Mexico and has claimed that 90 per cent of illicit drugs entering the US come from Mexico. AMLO is also under pressure to address undocumented migration from Central America to the US, with President Trump threatening a five percent tariff on all Mexican goods in May this year if the Mexican government did not take stronger measures to stem the flow. After negotiation, a deal was reached under which the US agreed to suspend the proposed tariffs in return for Mexico implementing enhanced border control measures. While the deal was criticised by some in the Mexican government, AMLO hailed it as a victory.
In the epilogue of her book on disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, Anabel Hernández wrote, “The lessons of this case must not be forgotten. Any one of us who live in Mexico could find ourselves among the next forty-three, or among the many who are arbitrarily detained and ruthlessly tortured every day…This is not merely a question of justice for the families who continue to desperately search for their loved ones. It also means offering an example of justice to a country that needs to pull itself out of an abyss of corruption, impunity and violence.”
It remains unknown whether AMLO will succeed in addressing the issues of justice, security and corruption, which the disappearance of the students from Ayotzinapa has come to symbolise.
Dr Ruth Adler is a former senior career officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Diplomatic appointments included Ambassador to Ireland (2013-2016) and High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam (2006-2009), with earlier postings as Counsellor/Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Mexico City (1998-2000), and Second Secretary, Australian Embassy, Manila (1991-1994).
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