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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mexican military accused of hindering probe of 43 missing students

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – SEPTEMBER 26: Demostrators hold banners during a demonstration to commemorate the 8th anniversary of the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students on September 26, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. On september 26 of 2014, 43 students of Isidro Burgos Rural School of Ayotzinapa disappeared in Iguala city after clashing with police forces. The students were accused of attempting the kidnap of buses to be used for protests. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)  (Manuel Velasquez)
By Oscar Lopez and Mary Beth Sheridan Washington Post

MEXICO CITY – International investigators seeking to wrap up an exhaustive investigation into Mexico’s biggest human-rights scandal – the disappearance of 43 students – said Friday that the military is obstructing their efforts at a crucial moment.

The investigators told a news conference that the military has denied the existence of documents with critical information, even though it was clear they existed and the president had ordered the release of the evidence. The army went so far as to secretly move key documents to a different location, according to the experts’ report.

The military “have not handed over the information,” said Carlos Beristain, a member of the panel named by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to investigate the 2014 disappearance of the students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college. “They have denied it exists. To us, this is serious.”

The Ayotzinapa case shocked Mexicans for its brutality and revelations of complicity between drug-traffickers, government officials and security forces. The investigators accused Mexico’s former leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, of covering up the disappearances. On taking office in 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to solve the case. “I assure you that there will be no impunity,” he said.

Yet the longtime leftist has become increasingly dependent on the military, vastly expanding its budget and its responsibilities to include building airports and a giant tourist train.

“For the military to be as defiant of not only the requests of human rights investigators, but of the president himself in turning over evidence related to the disappearance of the 43 students, it is a very dangerous sign,” said Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive who has studied the case.

The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report. There was no immediate response from the president’s spokesman to a message seeking reaction.

The students disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014, after commandeering buses with the aim of traveling to a protest in Mexico City – a largely tolerated practice in their rural region. But that night, the unarmed students were attacked in the southern city of Iguala by local police and gunmen working for a drug cartel, according to the investigation. In the ensuing melee, six people were killed and dozens wounded. The 43 students were captured by police – and never seen again. Remains of three bodies have been found. No one has been convicted in the case.

While the military is not directly accused in the disappearances, the international experts have concluded the army had real-time intelligence about the attack but did nothing to stop it.

The army is hardly the only institution that allegedly stymied the probe. Agents from Mexico’s intelligence agency, the CISEN, were present when the attacks took place, the investigators revealed. Yet the agency failed to turn over information it had gathered.

The report also includes information from a witness that a local judge in Iguala had photos of 17 young men lying on the floor in a courthouse, presumably in the hours before they were disappeared. An arrest warrant was issued last year for the judge but later canceled.

The Ayotzinapa case became a major embarrassment for Peña Nieto, who agreed to a probe by the team known as the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts. They arrived in 2015.

But as they made progress, they found their efforts increasingly frustrated by the authorities, with their phones hacked by spyware. The experts said Friday that they continue to face roadblocks.

They said they had obtained military intelligence documents that include intercepted conversations in the days after the students’ abduction between a police officer and a cartel member discussing their possible whereabouts. When asked about the intercepted communications, the Defense Ministry responded that “this information does not exist,” according to the investigators’ report. The experts have deduced that there are 80 or 90 other such records, based on the document numbers. The military has denied it intercepts phone calls.

“All these documents create the possibility of knowing not just who the actors were, but also where the young men who were disappeared might be,” said Ángela Buitrago, the other member of the expert team.

The revelations come amid a public uproar over domestic spying by the military. Mexican media recently published internal documents showing that the armed forces had used phone-bugging tools to monitor conversations between a human rights activist and several journalists. The president has defended the hack as intelligence gathering.

Tyler Mattiace, a Latin America researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the Ayotzinapa report “is confirmation of a very clear pattern of obstruction by a growing number of government agencies that make it seem less and less likely that there will be truth or justice in this case.”

The outside investigators left the country in 2016, after the government refused to extend their mandate. The group was later invited back by López Obrador.

There has been little progress since in solving the case. Last fall, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office abruptly asked a judge to withdraw more than 20 arrest warrants that had been issued, based on work by a special prosecutor. The targets included military officers.

The special prosecutor resigned. Dozens of remaining arrest warrants have not been executed, the experts said Friday.

The investigators’ mandate is officially ending Friday, though they have said it will be extended until June – giving them just a few months to solve one of the most horrific crimes in Mexico’s recent history.