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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Arrest of Mexican army general ordered in case of missing students

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, on June 6, 2023.

By Natalie Kitroeff

Mexican prosecutors have obtained a warrant for the arrests of an army general and 15 other soldiers in connection with the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, a crime considered one of the worst atrocities in the country’s recent history.

The students are widely believed to have been massacred in central Mexico after a night of violence in the town of Iguala, when police officers accused of working with the criminal cartel in the area forced them off buses, shot some of them and took the rest away. Authorities have only ever identified the remains of three students.

Investigations by the government’s truth commission into the case and a group of independent experts have said every level of government was involved, including the military, which they said had closely monitored the attack on the students in real time, but did not use that information to help locate them.

The general, Rafael Hernández Nieto, was accused of being involved in organized crime and the soldiers were accused of organized crime and forced disappearance, according to the judge’s order issuing the warrants, which was reviewed by The New York Times. A former judge, to whom some of the students were taken before reportedly being handed over to the cartel, was also accused of forced disappearance.

The development was a sign of some progress in the government’s investigation into the crime, which has suffered a series of setbacks and raised questions about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s willingness to hold the army accountable for its alleged role.

Prosecutors first obtained arrest warrants for Nieto and 19 other soldiers in August, but then, in an abrupt reversal, asked a judge to revoke most of them about three weeks later, citing “deficient evidence” in their own case. Four members of the military were arrested, including one general, but the rest remained free.

The lead prosecutor on the case quit soon after. Two of the four independent experts investigating the case also resigned. López Obrador defended the decision at the time, saying that “the investigation continues, and there is no impunity.”

César González, a lawyer representing the soldiers, said Wednesday that the government’s case against his clients was weak, and criticized the attorney general for relying on the testimony of cartel members.

The attorney general’s office, González said, is “manipulating at will the statements of members of organized crime to try to give a little more support to a case that has been falling apart.”

Santiago Aguirre, the principal lawyer representing the families of the missing students, said that the government has solid evidence against the soldiers and that the original warrants were only canceled because of political pressure.

“The president informed the families directly that the accusation of such a high number of soldiers had made the army angry,” Aguirre said in an interview, describing a meeting between the families of the students and López Obrador in September. “And that caused Attorney General Alejandro Gertz to order his people to suspend some of the warrants.”

The parents of the victims continued to demand the arrest of more soldiers, Aguirre said, and the remaining independent experts said they would only continue their work on the case if the warrants were reissued.

“It was a requirement for us to continue our work because there was evidence to support the warrants, and the decision to withdraw them had been arbitrary,” said Carlos Beristain, one of the experts. “An investigation must be done on the basis of evidence, not pressures.”

López Obrador has given the armed forces sweeping new powers and has consistently backed them despite criticism that he is paving the way for the rise of a military state.

Still, the disappearance of the 43 students has become a political sore spot for the president, who made solving the case one of his most urgent priorities after taking office in 2018, but has struggled to show consistent progress.

After the attorney general handed the case to a prosecutor with little experience on it last fall, concerns grew about López Obrador’s commitment to building a solid criminal case against all those involved, including, possibly, more soldiers.

“This case has shown the power the army has and its insubordination to civilian authorities,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, an expert on the military at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

The new arrest warrants, she said, were “just a first signal of a limit to that power.”

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