Forty-Three Mexican Students Went Missing. What Really Happened to Them?

Investigators pulled this account together slowly in the course of years, cross-checking hundreds of interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, and participants in the events. But the answer to a key question sought by the students’ parents—what happened to their children after they were last seen that night long ago?—remains elusive: of those seven or eight missing

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Investigators pulled this account together slowly in the course of years, cross-checking hundreds of interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, and participants in the events. But the answer to a key question sought by the students’ parents—what happened to their children after they were last seen that night long ago?—remains elusive: of those seven or eight missing hours, only fragments can be pieced together and the story behind them guessed at. Various documents, including text messages and testimony in the court filing, indicate that the police forces of Iguala, Huitzuco, and another neighboring town, Cocula, distributed the students among various members of the Guerreros Unidos. (The Iguala and Huitzuco police departments did not respond to requests for comment. The Cocula department could not be reached.) A document released by the Mexican Defense Ministry, which investigators were unable to corroborate, shows a text exchange between two people whom the ministry identified as an Iguala police official and a leader of the Guerreros Unidos. “There are twenty-one people inside the bus that’s leaving,” the policeman says, and the leader replies, “Yes, hand me all the detainees.” By this time, some of the students may already have been dead from injuries sustained during their beatings. The survivors could talk and create problems. What should be done with them?

Some investigators believe that the decision to kill the students was made before dawn, when members of the Cocula police visited the house of one of the G.U.’s leaders for several hours—the only encounter that night between officers and the group which has been corroborated. Others believe that the plan was already under way by then. According to Juan, the G.U. member who turned state’s witness, the order they received from above was “pártanles su madre,” which can be translated either as “beat the shit” out of the students or, given the context, “do away” with them. What Juan claims—and this is a ghastly thing to have to write—is that some of the students were killed, sometime in the early hours of September 27th, and cut into pieces. (Why not just shot, one wonders. Why not that small mercy?) When investigators inspected the safe house where they were taken, they found incisions on the floor that seemed to have been made by axes or machetes, and that were consistent with Juan’s testimony. One man, a lowly gofer, testified that he and others were instructed to get cleaning supplies and pick up the mutilated corpses, which were stuffed into plastic garbage bags.

According to these statements, the students’ remains were taken to local funeral homes to be cremated. Juan told investigators that it took several days to insure that the remains were cremated thoroughly enough that no one would be able to identify them. Other remains, he has said, were never cremated, and were disposed of in the surrounding area. Some students may have been kept alive longer, or done away with differently. But Juan, a participant in some fashion in the events of that evening, is not the most reliable witness, and investigators have been unable to fully confirm his account. What is true is that the G.U. seems to have been at pains to make the students truly disappear. “We didn’t think that this business would be so mediático,” Juan said, irritated by the publicity.

“It’s just going to get messed up again next winter.”

Cartoon by Seth Fleishman

Eight years later, on August 18, 2src22, the families of the Ayotzis gathered for a meeting with the President. López Obrador had met with them multiple times before. He was always courteous and friendly, sitting with them to hear their suggestions and concerns about the investigation. But María Luisa Aguilar Rodríguez, from Centro Prodh, told me that when they walked into the room she knew something was wrong. The President spoke at a podium flanked by a good part of his cabinet, including his attorney general and the defense minister—figures the parents distrusted. Encinas, the families’ onetime ally, read what he described as the government’s “conclusions.” The investigators—Gómez Trejo, the GIEI, the Argentines—and the parents and their representatives have said that they were not advised of the contents of the report. Encinas denounced police and military participation in the events. For the first time, he defined what happened in Iguala as a “crime of the state”—an important acknowledgment by a Mexican administration. But he also presented unverified information that seemed to hark back to the “historic truth,” such as a series of WhatsApp messages sent by local officials and members of the Guerreros Unidos, which emphasized the role of the mayor and included graphic descriptions of what had allegedly happened to the students. (Encinas said that he had informed investigators of the report the day before, and denied pushing the “historic truth.”) López Obrador did not take any questions. “The families were utterly undone,” Aguilar said. “The mothers were distraught. Men who do not allow themselves to cry in public were weeping.”

Up to that moment, it had seemed that justice was within reach. As the meeting with the President was starting, Gómez Trejo’s team was requesting warrants for the arrest of eighty-three participants in the events. Among them were G.U. members; soldiers; police officers; the magistrate at the Iguala police facility; a judge in Chilpancingo who was accused of facilitating the destruction of state surveillance footage from the night of the event; the state attorney general at the time, Iñaki Blanco; José Martínez Crespo; and the commanders of the two Iguala battalions. (A lawyer representing the commanders of the military battalions said that they are innocent.) Gómez Trejo left immediately for Israel, in an effort to obtain the extradition of the former attorney general Murillo’s chief of criminal investigations. He returned to a different world. His investigators had been sent away for “retraining.” A team of auditors took possession of every file in his office. He was told that he would not be allowed to open any new lines of investigation. And, at the request of the attorney general’s office, the same judge who had authorized the arrest warrants days earlier now rescinded twenty-one of them, including the ones for the state attorney general and the judge in Chilpancingo. A few days later, Gómez Trejo resigned, and his security detail was removed. Later, I learned that, as Gómez Trejo weighed his resignation, a high-ranking official took him aside, draped an arm confidentially over his shoulder, and said that Gómez Trejo had really managed to piss off the President. López Obrador had negotiated the arrest of five military members with the high command of the armed forces, the official told Gómez Trejo, but he had issued orders for twenty. (The attorney general’s office declined to comment. López Obrador did not respond to a request for comment.)

It was a startling indication of the power of the Mexican military. Under López Obrador, the Army has been given control of the construction and administration of airports, roads, railroad lines, customs offices, and tourist agencies, to name only a few of its powers. In 2src2src, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who had tried to stop the GIEI investigators from interviewing members of the military, was arrested in the Los Angeles airport on charges that, as Secretary of National Defense, he had helped the H-2 drug clan with its operations trafficking cocaine and methamphetamine. (Cienfuegos did not respond to a request for comment, but his lawyer has issued a statement saying that he is innocent.) The arrest created a diplomatic standoff. President López Obrador reportedly threatened to suspend the D.E.A.’s operations in Mexico, although he later denied having done so, and U.S. prosecutors were forced to return Cienfuegos to Mexico, where he walked off the plane a free man. “We view this not as an act of impunity, but of respect towards Mexico and our armed forces,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s then Foreign Secretary, said. Two months later, Mexican justice officials declared that there was no evidence that the General had any relationship with the H-2 group. In October, President López Obrador gave him a medal.

Gómez Trejo moved to the U.S. with his wife and child, fearing for his family’s safety. When I had lunch with him in New York recently, he looked rested—not as haggard as when he first moved here. He’s working as an international consultant on human-rights issues. Two members of the GIEI, feeling that they would be legitimizing fraud if they stayed, also stepped down and left the country. The remaining two, Buitrago and Beristain, held a press conference this past July, demanding answers, then resigned a few days later. The President appointed a new special investigator, who quietly reinstated several of the twenty-one arrest orders that had been revoked. There is now a sense that, for all practical purposes, the investigation into the disappearance of the Forty-three has come to an end.

One recent afternoon, I spoke with Santiago Aguirre Espinosa, a member of the parents’ legal team, who, along with his colleague Aguilar, spent years in Guerrero at the Centro Tlachinollan. They are both perpetually cheerful and extremely slender, possibly because they seem always to be racing from one appointment to another. I asked what Aguirre made of the last nine years of effort. “From the point of view of the families, their main objective was to find their sons, and that was not achieved,” he replied. “They are angry and sad, and some of them have doubts as to whether their fight was worth it.” For his part, Beristain, who has now returned to his home in Spain, lamented that the extent of the military’s involvement in the saga remains unclear. There are hundreds of pages of military records that are still missing, he said—pages the GIEI believes can shed light on what exactly happened to the students, and why two administrations have felt the need to cover it up.

These days, the President has taken to denouncing Centro Prodh and Centro Tlachinollan’s Vidulfo Rosales at his daily press conferences. Encinas’s phone, and those of several human-rights defenders, have been infiltrated by Pegasus. As his six-year term in office draws to a close, the President’s relations with his perceived adversaries grow more fraught. Recently, the Times reported on a now closed investigation into the drug trade’s possible dealings with close associates of the President, and he lashed out at the paper’s Mexico City bureau chief, reading her name and phone number out loud during his morning press conference two weeks ago. This may be illegal, but “I would do it again,” he said the next day: the President’s “moral authority is above the law.” In an exceedingly rare interview—two hours with a Russian journalist from a minor Spanish cable channel—he recognized that Ayotzinapa remains a pending assignment. “There is still time,” he affirmed. “The most important thing is to find them.”

Six years after the massacre, Clemente Rodríguez and his wife, Luz María Telumbre, received a visit at their home in Tixtla from Gómez Trejo, Encinas, and two members of Centro Prodh. The group was there to tell them about a two-inch fragment of bone that Gómez Trejo’s team had found in a dry gully. The Argentine team had certified that the DNA recovered from the fragment belonged to Christian Rodríguez Telumbre, one of only three positive identifications that have been made in all this time. “We tried to bring some dignity and a sense of ceremony to the event,” Gómez Trejo told me, of the visit. But it was hopeless trying to replace a twenty-year-old who skipped gaily around his parents’ house, practicing steps from the folklore dances he was crazy about, with a broken bit of bone. When I met Doña Luz María in Mexico City last spring, at the start of one of the parents’ marches, I asked her about this moment. She is a beautiful woman with an easy, affectionate manner, but there was no hiding the paper-slicing edge in her voice when she answered. “I said thank you,” she told me, “and I asked what part of the body this huesito”—little bone—“was from.” She was informed that it was part of Christian’s right foot. “But I’ve seen people who lost a foot and are still alive,” she said, not raising her voice. “I am not satisfied. I want my son.”

It was Day of the Dead in Mexico City when I ran into Don Clemente, later that year. I asked if he was going to place a picture of his son on the family altar in Tixtla that night. There was a long silence before he finally said, “I can’t.” He was in town to give a talk at a local school, and as usual he had brought some of his friends’ and family’s handicrafts to put out for sale. He used to sell five-gallon jugs of drinking water for a living, but the constant travelling to agitate for his son’s return has ruined the family’s livelihood, and they now made money weaving straw, or embroidering textiles, and selling these crafts during events and marches. Don Clemente has a sidelong sense of humor, but I watched his face crumple as he tried to find words to explain his son’s absence on the altar. “I don’t have a body to mourn,” he said. “I don’t know the place where he is. I have nothing to hold that is him.” The hope that their children would be returned to them alive was at the center of the parents’ movement. It was the motivation that kept them going through years of doubt, and fear, and struggle, away from their families and their fields. Alive they were taken away. We want them returned alive. What parent wants to kill his own child in his heart? Don Tanis gently corrected me when I referred to his son in the past tense.

Recently, I drove back to Guerrero along the same long highway that had taken me to Don Tanis’s home, but this time I stopped in Tixtla, to talk to Rafael López Catarino, or Don Rafa, whose son, Julio César López Patolzin, was the Army informant who was disappeared along with the other students. Unavoidably, his father became something of a pariah among the other families once his son’s role in the school was made public, and it seemed to me an unusually cruel fate to lose a son and be unable to seek the comfort that the other parents obviously find in one another’s company.

Don Rafa, curmudgeonly and limping, took me around the land his son can no longer help him farm. He showed me a picture of Julio César at his high-school graduation, a boy stiffly uncomfortable in his formal shirt and vest, holding a diploma. He handed me a sheet of paper with the heading “Life Project” at the top of a list his son had written, in careful block letters in bright-blue ink. “I would like to travel around the country learning different things and meeting new people,” it began. Farther down, he wrote that he would like to study at Ayotzinapa so that he could become a physical-education teacher. He also wanted to join the military, and to study to become an Army doctor. And he wanted to earn money, “so that I can help my parents the way they have helped me.” In the end, Julio César did join the Army. He spent some of his time patrolling the mountainous region of Guerrero. Eventually, his father said, Julio César was injured and could no longer go out on patrol. He told his father that he wanted to leave the Army and study, but it must have been hard to give up the salary of a foot soldier. One can imagine his commander zeroing in at that point to offer him a deal: Go to Ayotzinapa if you want, and keep your salary. But help us. He must have protested at the unfairness of his fate before he was taken away.

Don Rafa is a gruff man, but he insisted on riding back on the road to Chilpancingo with me so that I wouldn’t get lost. There was a new crop of Ayotzis at the toll booth, exacting fares for “the revolution.” The G.U. was diminished, as were the Rojos, and rival groups had eclipsed them. In Chilpancingo, a new mayor had been filmed having breakfast at a restaurant with a drug boss. (The mayor did not respond to a request for comment. She has denied that any deal was made at the meeting.) Don Rafa generally struck me as a harsh realist, but he told me that Julio César’s godmother, recently deceased, had come to his daughter in a dream. “She had looked for Julio César everywhere on the other side,” Don Rafa told me, “and found no sign of him. She said we should keep looking for him in this world.” Still, he seemed to be in deep mourning. “I used to tuck him in at night when he was a baby and watch him sleep,” he said. “What a thing, huh?” he added, as he got out of the car. “We care for and nurture our children so that the government can rip them away from us.” ♦

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