It seems inexplicable that 43 young people disappear one night in the state of Guerrero in September 2014, and we still do not know what happened to them. But we are getting closer to the truth about this mass disappearance -known as the Ayotzinapa Case- because a solid investigation is finally underway.
The first investigation concluded that the young people, who had commandeered buses to take them to a protest in the southern city of Iguala, were captured by local police and turned over to a local drug gang. Burned human remains were found in a nearby trash dump in the town of Cocula, where the victims were supposedly cremated and their remains thrown in a nearby river. Only one victim was identified. Officials called these findings the “historic truth.” For them it was a closed case.
But the case was not closed in the minds of the victims’ families. The International Group of Experts (IGEI) a team of renowned judges, prosecutors and investigators under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) raised serious questions about the government’s conclusion of the investigation. The IGEI found that suspects had been tortured prior to providing information, that evidence had been mishandled, and that important lines of investigation had not been pursued.
Hope that more would be learned surfaced when the AMLO Administration named Omar Gómez Trejo special prosecutor and head of a special investigative unit to pursue the case in June 2019. An attorney and human rights expert, Gómez Trejo had served as the executive secretary of the IGEI.
Reinvestigation of the case is now under way. An arrest warrant has been issued for Tomás Zerón, former head of criminal investigations in the Mexican Attorney General’s office who was in charge of the original investigation. The warrant charges him with torture, judicial misconduct and forced disappearance in relation to this case. He is suspected of having fled to Canada and extradition has been requested.
Earlier this month, one more victim was identified, Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre. His remains were not found in the Cocula trash dump, but about half a mile away. This new identification coming from a different location confirms a new line of investigation.
Both independence, scrutiny and political will are key to uncovering the truth. There appears to be the political will to get to the bottom of the case as AMLO has made a personal commitment to the families and followed through by appointing the Special Prosecutor and providing appropriate staffing. The Special Prosecutor is a person uniquely qualified for this job. To assure quality and oversight, the case is being accompanied by a number of national and international groups, including the globally respected Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, most of the original members of the IGEI, the Centro Prodh human rights group who is the legal representative of the families, and Tlachinollan a human rights center in the state of Guerrero that has accompanied the victims’ families from the beginning.
This is a difficult case, made more difficult by the original investigation, the political interests surrounding it, and all the time that has passed.
It has been almost six years since the 43 went missing. The families want the truth about what happened that night and they have remained steadfast in their demand for it. The identification of Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre demonstrates that there is more that can be learned and has hopefully revealed a new path forward.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson