An investigative report published Sunday by the Mexican magazine Proceso accuses Mexican authorities of beating and torturing municipal police officers in an effort to force confessions in the case of the missing 43 students whose disappearances have led to mass protests across the country.
Based on documents obtained from Mexico’s office of the attorney general and interviews with the police officers’ families, the article, by journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, casts doubts on the state's official explanation for what happened to the missing students, and suggests that the use of torture may have compromised the prosecution.
Jesús Murillo Karam, Mexico's attorney general, said on Nov. 7 that the mayor of the town of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, ordered local police to attack a group of students traveling from the nearby town of Ayotzinapa on Sept. 26 to keep them from disrupting a political event for his wife. Municipal police then handed the students over to members of a criminal gang called Guerreros Unidos, who killed the students and burned their bodies, according to Murillo Karam.
But Hernández and Fisher's article says that according to medical reports obtained by the journalists, more than two dozen municipal police officers from the towns of Iguala and Cocula were beaten, given electric shocks and “psychologically tortured” in an effort to force confessions from them. The Proceso report names 20-year-old David Hernández Cruz, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, among the officers who were allegedly abused.
Murillo Karam has cited the confession of Hernández Cruz as one of the central pieces of evidence indicating that Mayor Abarca ordered the attack on the students.
The Mexican attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Murillo Karam has defended the government’s handling of the investigation in the past.
"I've never said anything that doesn't have evidence to prove it," Murillo Karam said in December.
The Proceso report describes several alleged cases of torture in addition to that of Hernández Cruz.
On Oct. 14, a group of 10 municipal police officers from Iguala were arrested and detained at an installation in Tlaxcala, where they were allegedly beaten and given electric shocks “by large men dressed in black and wearing hoods,” the Proceso report says.
Medical reports cited in the article say the police officers left their interrogation sessions with various injuries, including scabs on their forearms, busted lips, extensive bruising and marks indicating electric shocks. One of the police officers, unidentified in the report, asked his public defender to file a complaint with Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights, saying he was beaten repeatedly during questioning despite denying he knew where the students were buried.
“We’re not talking about an isolated case,” Hernández, the lead reporter of the Proceso article, told The Huffington Post. “This was systematic.”
Aracely Mota, the sister of police officer Alejandro Mota, told the reporters that after her brother was detained, she waited all day to see him, but was only allowed to meet with him briefly.
"I could only speak with him for three minutes," Mota said. "He told me they had beat him a lot and they had subjected him to electric shocks. His face was swollen. Why did they hit him? To make him confess to something he didn't do?"
Family members kept quiet about the alleged abuse for fear of reprisals, the report says. Most of the police officers themselves remain in prison, along with Mayor Abarca and his wife.
As an investigative reporter with years of experience covering crime and politics in Mexico, Hernández says she’s seen several cases in which the federal government “accuses innocent people to protect guilty ones.”
“It seems to me like this is one of those cases,” Hernández told HuffPost, though she said she didn't know who might be responsible for attacking and presumably killing the students.
A previous article by Hernández and Fisher published in Proceso in December claimed that federal authorities had tortured five other witnesses in the missing students case, including suspected drug traffickers. The article was based on medical reports obtained from the attorney general’s office. The administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto denied the report.
If any confessions were obtained using torture, it would make them inadmissible in court, according to John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“The case would most definitely be thrown out if it was demonstrated that the key testimony was given under torture,” Ackerman wrote to HuffPost in an email.
Ackerman noted that prosecutions in two major cases in 2009 and 1997 unraveled due to reliance on coerced testimony. In the 2009 case, known as the “Michoacanazo,” federal authorities arrested dozens of state and local officials. In the 1997 Acteal massacre, gunmen killed 45 people in an indigenous village in the southern state of Chipas.
“[Those two cases] were eventually thrown out because they depended almost exclusively on confessions, just like the present Ayotzinapa case,” Ackerman said.
Since September, the case of the missing students has prompted mass protests throughout Mexico and in the United States.
Last week, Murillo Karam said the government had definitively concluded that the students were dead.
“The evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river,” Murillo Karam said last week at a press conference.
Family members, however, remain distrustful of the Mexican government's account.
“What the government wants to do is close the case,” Epifanio Alvarez, the father of one of the missing students, said Tuesday at a press conference following the government’s announcement, according to The Guardian. “We cannot accept any of what was said because we do not have enough evidence... The government has stamped on our dignity and destroyed us.”