Years after 43 Mexican students vanished, a victim’s remains are found
By Kirk Semple, Paulina Villegas and Natalie Kitroeff
Nearly six years after 43 college students disappeared in rural Mexico, the government announced the first major breakthrough in its investigation Tuesday: Forensic scientists have identified the remains of one of the students.
Bone fragments found near where the students disappeared have been tested by Institute of Genetics at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, and identified as the remains of Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre, one of the students, said Omar Gómez Trejo, the special prosecutor assigned to the case. He added that forensic experts from Argentina had confirmed the findings.
The discovery marked a fresh sign of progress toward solving a case that traumatized Mexico and became a symbol of rampant corruption in the country’s justice system. It has long been assumed that the missing students were killed, and various people in authority have been implicated, but no one has been put on trial and the motive remains a mystery.
“We have broken the pact of impunity and silence that surrounded” the case, Gómez said at a news conference. He added, “today we tell the families and society that the right to the truth will prevail.”
The discovery was a victory for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had promised to prioritize the investigations — and who desperately needs a political boost amid a plummeting economy, soaring crime and a coronavirus pandemic that continues to worsen in Mexico.
The announcement came on the eve of López Obrador’s visit with President Donald Trump in Washington — a trip for which the Mexican president was roundly criticized at home, because of the U.S. president’s harsh language about Mexico and Mexicans.
For the missing students’ relatives, who for years have demanded a more robust government investigation into their loved ones’ whereabouts, the identification represented a long-awaited step toward closure. Rodríguez is only the second to be found, and the first since December 2014, when a bone fragment was identified as belonging to another missing student, Alexander Mora.
“For Christian’s family this is devastating news, and for the rest of the families it is the materialization of their worst fears that this might have been all of the students’ destiny,” said Santiago Aguirre, director of Centro Prodh, a human rights organization that represents the families.
They expect it to be “the beginning of a new and serious investigation that once and for all clarifies what happened to every single one of the students,” he said.
The students were undergraduates at a teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero. The night they disappeared — Sept. 26, 2014 — they were in the process of commandeering buses to carry their peers to a demonstration in Mexico City, a time-honored tradition among students at their college and one that was mostly tolerated by the bus companies.
But their escapade quickly devolved into a long, harrowing and chaotic night of terror and violence that involved law-enforcement and other gunmen, according to two reports released by an international panel of investigators several years ago.
By daybreak, six people were dead in the city of Iguala, dozens were wounded and the 43 students had vanished.
Even in a country often wracked by violence, the incident horrified people and spurred huge, nationwide protests demanding that the government solve the mystery and end corruption and impunity.
In 2015, after months of investigation, the administration of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto concluded that the students had been kidnapped by police officers working on behalf of a criminal group, which in turn killed them, burned their bodies in a trash dump and disposed of their ashes in a river.
But the panel of international investigators, experts in forensics and human rights who examined the case for a year at the invitation of the Mexican government, thoroughly discredited the government’s findings.
The panel said the authorities had tried to thwart its work, questioning the integrity of the Mexican criminal justice system and the government’s commitment to finding the truth.
They determined that suspects had given testimony under torture or under otherwise “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.” The experts also questioned the Mexican authorities’ handling of evidence and their failure to pursue certain promising lines of inquiry.
It later emerged that the experts, in addition to suffering a campaign of harassment and interference, had been targeted by spyware purchased by the Mexican government.
Aguirre, the lawyer representing the families, said Tuesday that an anonymous call led investigators to a specific spot in Cocula, a town near Iguala, where the remains were found — about half a mile from the garbage dump. More remains are likely to be found in that location, he said.
The new discovery “breaks away from the narrative of a lie” by the former government that was meant to foreclose further investigation, said Gómez, the special prosecutor.
After taking office in July 2018, López Obrador quickly began to make good on his campaign promise to redress his predecessor’s mishandling of the case. His first official decree, signed two days after his inauguration, established a special presidential commission to support the families of the victims and get to the bottom of the case.
He has since invited the international panel of experts to return to assist with the investigation, and the country’s independent attorney general has created a special investigative unit dedicated to solving the case.
In the past year, investigators have combed numerous sites looking for evidence, and have sought the arrests of more than 50 people in connection with the case. Many are former government officials who were involved in the investigation during Peña Nieto’s term; some have been accused of torture, forced disappearance and obstruction of justice.
Among the suspects is Tomás Zerón, who had been the chief of criminal investigations in the attorney general’s office during Peña Nieto’s term and was investigated for his handling of witnesses and evidence. Officials say Zerón fled the country months ago prompting an Interpol notice for his arrest.