Parents of the 43 Missing Want More Answers

Mexico City

Photo by Encarni Pindado/Fusion

Parents of the 43 Missing Want More Answers
| published January 30, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The troublesome case of 43 college students—many of them studying to be teachers—who went missing last year in the Guerrero state of Mexico won’t go away, nor will its widening controversy yield its preeminence in Mexican headlines.

This week the parents of some of the missing held an emotional press conference in Mexico City. Speaking to a crowded room of journalists and television reporters from around the world, those parents officially rejected the Mexican government’s stated conclusion that the students were abducted by local police in the town of Iguala before being handed over to a Guerrero criminal gang.

Witnesses who have provided contentious testimony to law enforcement say that the students were taken to a remote dump near a river, then shot or hacked to death, their bodies cut into pieces, whereupon their remains were set on fire in a loose landfill near a small stream. A couple of the key witnesses turned out to be members of the criminal gang, or members of rival drug cartels.

The reason that local cops arrested the students in the first place? Allegedly all 43 were detained—or kidnapped—at the behest of the wife of the local mayor. She was reportedly insulted and inconvenienced by the arrival of the students during a local celebration and party, and wanted to “teach them a lesson,” according to some witnesses at the time. The local police complied, then, apparently handed the students over to members of a cartel for which the Mayor and his lieutenants allegedly have direct connections.

The case has made news worldwide, and has shattered any chance that reform-minded President Enrique Pena Nieto will be able to concentrate his political capital on turning around Mexico’s sluggish economy, while also refurbishing Mexico’s reputation as a haven for criminal gangs, drug cartels, and unmitigated violence. The gruesome incident has also become daily front page news in Mexico, where Pena Nieto’s stewardship over the country is now called into question.

Some parents and family members are openly rejecting the findings of investigators. The parents dispute the assertion by investigators that the students were abducted by corrupt local police and then murdered by regional gang members. The government explanation—which the parents and family members say arrived all-too-easily and quickly, and came only after testimony by some criminals who remain at large or were set free—was meant to bring closure to an emotionally wrenching scandal which has rocked Mexico. Parents want a deeper, more thorough investigation into the disappearance and murders, and they say that the government is simply seeking to expedite bringing the contentious case to closure.

Vidulfo Rosales, the lead attorney representing the families, has written a lengthy, ten point summary for the government and investigators, and in that report Rosales contends that not only are there too many suspect forms of testimony in the case, but that there is little, if any, physical evidence of what happened. Extensive DNA testing of the remains has provided a positive identification of only one of the 43 missing students. Other experts have been used, including labs in both Mexico and Austria, and no further identification seems possible—at least according to the government. This has led some parents to conclude that perhaps some of the students may be alive, or—in a worst case scenario—may have died elsewhere, their bodies perhaps still waiting to be discovered.

Adding to the controversy is the confusing and inconsistent testimony of some of the criminal gang members questioned. According to one explanation, given by some of the cartel members allegedly involved—and ascribed to as the most likely scenario by Mexico’s Attorney General—the 43 students were abducted because Iguala drug cartel members wrongly identified the students as members of a rival gang, in part because the students may have commandeered a charter bus. The local gang members, part of a group called Guerreros Unidos, then enlisted corrupt local cops to stage a mass arrest, delivering the students into the hands of the gang members.

But experts in the gangland behavior found in some areas of Mexico say that this theory does not make sense, since both police and cartel members would have likely had sufficient knowledge of rival gang identities. Further challenging the veracity of this version of events: other members of the same Gurerros Unidos gang say that they were aware all along that the 43 abducted young people were teaching students, not members of a rival cartel.

The former Mayor of Iguala has been arrested, along with several of his closest political lieutenants, and nearly 100 other individuals who may have participated in, or been accomplices in, the abduction and murder of the students. The official report cites of the scope and breadth of the government investigation, which included hundreds of interviews and declarations (statements by witnesses), hundreds of forensic tests, photographs and reconstructions, and some 39 separate confessions.

Forensic and scientific testing included a close examination of the dump where the bodies were allegedly dumped and burned. Here too, there is controversy. The official report states that the fires were kept burning for many hours, and at extreme temperatures sufficient to reduce all human remains to little more than ashes (thus the fact that the DNA of only one student can be found intact). Some of the gang members questioned say they were told to keep the fires raging as long as possible, using whatever fuel they could find. According to the Attorney General and the investigators, such a fire burning for more than 12 hours would have obliterated almost all human remains.

But other forensic experts suggest that it is unlikely, if in fact all 43 bodies were dumped at that site, that fire—even at the extreme temperatures produced by gasoline and diesel fuel—would eradicate all traces of DNA in the remaining 42 bodies. By comparison, consider ongoing efforts to make positive identification in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001; more than 21,000 pieces of human remains were extracted from the site between 2001 and 2002, and as recently as last fall, another victim was identified, Patrice Braut of Belgium, now the 1639th victim officially identified out of the 2780 who are thought to have died that day in New York. Some of the fires in and around the smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero burned continuously for many weeks, and the intense heat produced by jet fuel mixing with other accelerants, including gas fires, produced heat sufficient to bend and melt steel and iron. According to FEMA (and imagery produced by NASA) heat generated in some areas of the wreckage exceeded 1300 degrees.

But a substantial part of the government’s case—much to the chagrin of parents and families—was built around the testimony of one individual who said he was the go-to person called upon to dispose of the students. That man, who has an extensive criminal record, is now at large, and Mexico has plenty of skeptics who suggest that his all-important testimony cannot be trusted—either because he was bribed, coerced, tortured, or some combination of all three.

Parents fear that the investigators and the Attorney General are afraid of digging more deeply into the widespread corruption, or, worse—that the government simply wants the ugly case to go away before it inflicts deeper political damage or trigger larger protests or social unrest in a nation already reeling from a weakening economy and widespread corruption. The families say they will not rest until a more thorough investigation can find the deeper truth.

In the meantime, Rosales says family members, parents and a coalition of activists will bring the case as a formal complaint to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Once Upon a Time in Mexico; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 29, 2014.