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Five years on, 43 missing students still haunt Mexico

People protest in Mexico City to mark five years since the disappearance of 43 students without a trace © AFP / Alfredo ESTRELLA

MEXICO CITY, Sep 27 – Exactly five years after 43 students disappeared without a trace in Mexico, the government said Thursday it will reinvestigate the case as a crime by “agents of the state,” offering a reward for new information.

The night of September 26, 2014, a group of students in Guerrero state on their way to a protest were detained by corrupt police who handed them over to a drug cartel.

Forty-three of them vanished.

Half a decade later, Mexico is still haunted by the case, which drew international condemnation and stained the government of ex-president Enrique Pena Nieto.

On Thursday thousands of people, mainly students, took part in a demonstration led by the parents of the missing youths, shouting “justice!” as they marched towards Mexico City’s central square, the Zocalo.

Approximately a hundred people wearing hoods who remained at the rear of the crowd broke shop windows and tried to set a restaurant on fire, which other protesters extinguished.

A woman takes part in the Mexico City march over the disappeared students © AFP / Alfredo ESTRELLA

The investigation into the disappearance has been marred by allegations of official incompetence and even corruption. Misconduct — especially the use of torture to extract supposed confessions — has resulted in the release of 77 detainees, including the main suspect earlier this month.

New President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has launched a truth commission, and the new prosecutor general has announced plans to reinvestigate “almost from scratch.”

Deputy Human Rights Minister Alejandro Encinas said the case would now be investigated as a crime “committed by agents of the Mexican state,” a phrase Pena Nieto once said he “categorically” rejected.

Lopez Obrador said investigators would have a “great advantage” this time around: under his government, “there is no impunity.”

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“That’s important, because when it’s a crime by the state, it’s very difficult to get at the truth,” the leftist leader told a news conference, wearing a T-shirt stamped with the number 43 and the words “I am for the truth.”

The government announced it would offer a reward of about $75,000 for new leads in the case, and $500,000 for information on the whereabouts of Alejandro Tenescalco, the local police supervisor at the time and a chief suspect.

No one will remain above the law, said Omar Gomez, special prosecutor for the case. He said his team would question former top prosecutor Jesus Murillo Karam next week, and even Pena Nieto “if necessary.”

– ‘Historic lie’ –

Relatives of the 43 missing students protest at the Mexican Congress to mark five years since their disappearance, in this photo released by the Mexican Congress © Mexico’s Congress/AFP / HO

But it is uncertain whether the world will ever know what happened to the young men from the teacher training institute in the rural village of Ayotzinapa.

“I don’t think (a new investigation) will achieve a radically different result from the original,” said Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former Mexican intelligence officer.

“There are two facts that don’t seem to be in doubt: The students were kidnapped by police, and they were handed over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel.”

What happened after that, he said, might remain a mystery forever.

The student activists had hijacked five buses that night to drive themselves to a protest in Mexico City.

Local police opened fire on the buses, killing six people. Then they rounded up the remaining students and handed them over to Guerreros Unidos, which apparently had the police on its payroll.

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People protest in Mexico City on September 26, 2019 over the 43 disappeared students, whose case the country’s new prosecutor general says will be re-investigated © AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA

Under Pena Nieto, the federal prosecutor’s office concluded the cartel mistook the students for members of a rival gang, executed them at a garbage dump and burned their bodies.

However, a team of independent investigators from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that was impossible, based on forensic analysis of the supposed crime scene.

Their conclusion left Mexicans to wonder: If the government’s gruesome explanation was a cover story, how horrific was the truth?

The government did not renew the experts’ mandate.

However, before leaving Mexico, they hypothesized the students may have inadvertently hijacked a bus loaded with heroin bound for the United States.

Investigators began chasing a fresh lead this week: they are excavating at a different garbage dump nearby, in the town of Tepecoacuilco, where witnesses reportedly say some of the men were executed.

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