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Ayotzinapa’s Truth: Steps Forward, Steps Back

from the March 1, 2023 Bulletin

guns & violence

Maureen Meyer has been managing programs at the Washington Office on Latin America since 2020. Before 2020, she led WOLAs México initiative, with a special focus on analyzing U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and criminal justice and public security reforms. Her work also focused on anti-corruption efforts, human rights, and the situation facing migrants and asylum-seekers. 


Over 100,000 people in México have been officially recorded as “disappeared.” The 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College who disappeared on September 26, 2014 represent just a drop in this deadly bucket. Why has their case garnered so much attention?

Having 43 young people disappear at once was unusual, and the Ayotzinapa school was already known for student activism on behalf of marginalized peoples. Students rallied in solidarity and rage when they heard the news, and many other groups held demonstrations. But, most of all, the families of the disappeared students organized and spoke out. They have persisted — and kept the case in the public eye. 


Omar Gomez Trejo has become a central figure in the case. How did he get involved?

I’ve known Omar for years, even before Ayotzinapa. In 2014, Omar was working as a human rights lawyer for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mexico office. Facing intense public pressure to find the students, México’s then president Peña-Nieto agreed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommendation to have an international independent group of experts assist in the investigation.


The experts needed a Mexican contact to coordinate their activities. Omar, a natural for that risky position, accepted. 

Omar Gomez Trejo/Especial

What did the international “group of experts,” the GIEI, find out?


In 2015, before the experts finished their technical assistance, the Mexican government gave its own explanation for the disappearances, claiming to have uncovered the “historic truth.” The students, the government said, had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City for a commemoration of the 1968 massacre of student demonstrators. Local police, the government’s story continued, detained the students and handed them over to a criminal group that killed them at a trash dump and burned their bodies beyond recognition. 

The GIEI expert group then put out its own two reports, in 2015 and 2016. Peña Nieto had clearly underestimated what these independent investigators would be able to find. Police and military personnel, the GIEI revealed, had tortured the suspects in the student murders to extract confessions — itself a human rights violation — that would back up the government’s “truth.”


Argentine forensic experts, meanwhile, found no evidence that the students could have been burned at the dump. All this new information pointed to a different motive for the attacks: The students had accidentally taken the wrong bus, one that carried either heroin or cash. Drug gangs and government officials had colluded to retaliate, and then government officials obstructed justice in the subsequent investigation.

“It was the state” “It was the narcos” “It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me, it was the narcostate!”/ El Fisgón

The investigative work by reporters for the US news source Reveal uncovered important new information. How did the reporters obtain that material?


The reporters, working in collaboration with Kate Doyle from the National Security Archive, built on the work of the GIEI. They conducted countless interviews and dug deeper into the Guerreros Unidos drug gang’s use of passenger buses to traffic heroin between México and the United States. A US Department of Justice case against members of that criminal gang operating in Chicago had led to an arrest.


Kate contacted a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who showed the Reveal team the warehouse where the gang would bring the buses and explained how they would hide the drugs and then take hidden cash back to México. The US investigative work put the students’ disappearance into a broader international context. The Ayotzinapa case connected directly to drug trafficking operations from Iguala to Chicago.

AMLO made a campaign promise to get to the bottom of the Ayotzinapa case. As president, he immediately created the Presidential Commission for Truth and Justice, with Omar Gomez named as the cases special prosecutor. The group of experts also returned. Did this new effort glean more information?  


AMLO pushed reluctant military officials to give information to the investigators, and Omar’s unit was finally able to access several military files. 


The investigators viewed drone videos of Mexican marines at the trash dump the day the “historic truth” was announced. The videos showed trash bags getting moved around and a fire started. The Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam later arrives at the scene. 


The investigators also found evidence that Tomás Zerón, the head of México’s Criminal Investigation Agency in 2014, played a role in staging false evidence, including supervising torture. The investigators, in short, had uncovered proof that people at the highest levels of government had lied and obstructed justice. Omar’s office issued 83 arrest warrants for drug smugglers and military personnel. 


So why did Omar Gomez end up resigning from the National Prosecutor’s Office?


Omar’s unit sat within the National Prosecutor’s Office headed by Alejandro Gertz. In August 2022, Gertz pressured Omar to press charges against Murillo Karam, the former attorney general. Omar had been building a case against Karam, but he told Gertz he needed time to make the case air-tight. Gertz then interfered and had another prosecutor request an arrest warrant, jeopardizing the odds of a conviction. Gertz also canceled the arrest of 21 of the 83 people Omar’s team had just pressed charges against, including 16 members of the military. It became clear to Omar that his investigation would be blocked.


As for Tomás Zerón, the former top Mexican government investigator, he’s now living in Israel, and Israeli officials have so far failed to honor México’s extradition request.


Is stopping the impunity we see in the Ayotzinapa case possible?


The criminal justice system needs major improvements. México has historically had an “inquisitorial” justice system that had judges responsible for analyzing written evidence presented by the prosecution and defense, including confessions often obtained through torture, and then making a decision. Since 2008, México has been transitioning to an “adversarial” system based on oral trials in public courtrooms, as we have in the US.


The new reforms have been important, but not fully implemented. Of the cases that have gone to trial, only 2 percent have resulted in convictions. AMLO seems more interested in expanding the role of the military than in investing in the rule of law and the country’s justice system. 


So has there been any real progress in the Ayotzinapa case?


In spite of the steps backward, yes, we have seen progress, but all the students have not been found. Omar’s unit has made important arrests, both of individuals linked to the Ayotzinapa students’ disappearance and of government officials involved in the cover-up. His team’s continuing search for the disappeared students has identified the remains of two additional students. The Presidential Commission report from this past August also names the Ayotzinapa case as a state crime, a huge admission.


The work of the expert group and Omar’s unit have dismantled the government’s original “historic truth.” They have successfully demonstrated how we can carry out an investigation involving drug traffickers operating in collusion with government agents.

It’s important that we not lose hope. The families of the Ayotzinapa students have not given up in their efforts to find their loved ones, nor have their legal representatives, nor has the courageous and tenacious Omar Gomez.


Nearly nine years later, we must stand with them all until they find truth and get justice.

Zapatista rally for the 43, 2014. AP/Moyses Zuniga Santiago