Independent experts say Mexico’s version of what happened to 43 missing students “didn’t happen”

A banner calling for justice for the Ayotzinapa students made an appearance at an open air concert in Oaxaca, November 8, 2014.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was in damage control mode Monday after independent experts with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights blew a giant hole in the official version of what happened to 43 missing students – essentially reopening a case the Mexican investigators had worked hard to close. Shannon Young reports.

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The formal presentation of the independent investigation into the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college drew such a large audience that organizers had to set up a screen for an overflow crowd in the patio of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission. Behind the investigation is a team of highly-regarded experts contracted for the task by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Before launching into a detailed presentation of their findings, Colombian investigator Angela Buitrago thanked Mexican officials for their cooperation and prefaced the group’s forthcoming statements with a nod to the importance of timely, impartial investigations in seeking the truth and healing collective wounds.

“Everything the group is going to say as of this moment is backed up by official documents,” Buitrago said, “by evidence contained within the judicial case file, by testimony gathered by the group, and by official intelligence reports, investigative memos and declassified military documents.”

What followed left the official story about the fate of the missing students in tatters.

Back in January, then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam announced in categorical terms that all of the missing students had been killed by drug gang members, who then incinerated the bodies in a trash dump and threw plastic bags with the charred bone fragments and ashes into a nearby river. That hypothesis rests largely on confessions from detainees who have since claimed to have made their statements under torture.

A detailed analysis by a world-renowned fire expert who visited the dump site concluded that the heat needed to burn 43 bodies to ash in an open air setting would have required more than 66 thousand pounds of wood or nearly 30 thousand pounds of tires. The expert also noted that given the geographical characteristics of the site itself, the heat would have provoked a forest fire that would have destroyed or permanently damaged vegetation that remains intact.

Independent investigator and Spanish physician Carlos Beristain explains: “That event, as it has been described, didn’t happen. And all of the evidence collected by investigators from the Attorney General’s office and by members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team indicate the fires that have occurred in the trash dump were small scale and without an easy-to-determine exact time. The evidence of the state of the vegetation, the characteristics of the trash dump, the marks of fires that have occurred there, et cetera show that the minimal conditions needed for a fire to cremate 43 bodies could not have happened there.”

It’s not the first time independent experts have cast doubt on the officially-supported hypothesis, but the diligence contained in the expert panel’s 500 plus page report makes their findings hard to brush aside.

Before the investigators had even wrapped up their presentation, the Attorney General’s office announced a press conference for later in the day. At the briefing, Attorney General Arely Gomez, who replaced Jesus Murillo Karam in February, announced her office would conduct a new investigation at the trash dump, this time with “forensic investigators of the highest prestige.”

But for the families of the missing students, who tirelessly continue to call for their sons to be returned alive, the Attorney General’s announcement is too little, too late. They also spoke to the press hours after the expert investigators presented their findings.

The outrage was palpable as parent after parent slammed the government’s handling of the high-profile case and insistence on a hypothesis now shown to be scientifically implausible.

“We’ve always said it’s not that we don’t want to accept facts, it’s that we’ve never been given any evidence,” Emiliano Navarete, father of missing student Jose Angel Navarete said emphatically. “We can’t accept something without proof!”

The parents called for the prosecution of former Attorney General Murillo Karam, who is expected to receive an ambassadorship after a recent cabinet reshuffle.

Attack survivor Omar Garcia says the mishandling of the case has created a climate in which agents of the state are allegedly perpetrating, ordering, or covering up extra-judicial executions of unarmed civilians. He called on Mexicans to learn from the example of Guatemala – where high-ranking government officials are finally being prosecuted for corruption.

In the meantime, families and classmates of the disappeared are preparing actions later this month to mark the one-year anniversary of what has become the emblematic, and still unresolved, case of the 43 students.

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