The recent report on the 43 students who were abducted last year in Iguala, Mexico, released by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on Sunday, confirmed what most people following the case already knew: No one should take the Mexican authorities’ investigation into the case seriously. The panel of experts concluded that the government’s explanation is hopelessly marred and has no basis in forensic science -- further discrediting an investigation already plagued by false public statements and the torture of key witnesses.
But the most important element of the report may be one that received relatively little attention in English-language media: The IACHR panel thinks the students may have unknowingly commandeered buses carrying heroin or drug money. Though by no means proven, the theory marks the first reasonable explanation offered so far for why Mexican security forces attacked the students in the first place.
The administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has offered two major explanations for the motive, neither of which are plausible. First, then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said in October that police attacked the students to prevent them from protesting at an event featuring María de los Ángeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala’s mayor.
The students, however, didn’t even arrive in the town until two hours after the event had concluded. In fact, surviving students say that they went to Iguala not to protest de los Ángeles Pineda, but rather to commandeer buses so that they could travel to Mexico City a few days later, to attend a mass rally commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre on Oct. 2.
Murillo Karam then said in January that police, acting at the behest of the drug gang Guerreros Unidos, might have mistaken the students for rival gang members. This explanation, likewise, makes little sense.
We now know -- thanks to the reporting of independent journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, along with the IACHR report -- that police and the military had been monitoring the students' movements for hours before the attacks, and discussed their findings over a system called the C4 that coordinates communications between the military and federal and local police forces. The authorities knew exactly who the students were, and Murillo Karam almost surely knew that when he made the false statement in the first place.
The IACHR panel rejects both of the government’s previous explanations of the motive behind the attacks and instead posits a new theory: The students might have unwittingly ended up driving one or more buses carrying either heroin bound for the midwestern U.S. or drug money tied to the Guerreros Unidos gang.
“There’s an aspect that hasn’t been sufficiently considered until now,” the report says. “Public information shows that Iguala is a shipment and transport point for drugs, especially heroin, to the United States, and especially Chicago.” The report cites a criminal complaint filed against Pablo Vega, the alleged local boss of Guerreros Unidos in Chicago. Vega “worked with individuals in Mexico and the Chicago area to transport and distribute narcotics that were concealed in commercial passenger buses that traveled between Mexico and Chicago," a Drug Enforcement Administration agent said in an affidavit last year.
While surviving students said they took five buses, which local prosecutors confirmed in initial reports, the IAHCR notes that the federal investigation only mentions four buses. The group alerted federal prosecutors about the fifth bus and insisted they interview the driver. The attorney general’s office complied, but without any of the experts from the IACHR panel present.
The driver said the students didn’t think the fifth bus was in good shape and got out shortly after leaving the station in order to go look for another one, according to the attorney general's account of the interview, which the office provided to the panel. But the students who took the bus say they kept going until they were stopped by police and forced to get out, and then ran off looking for safety. The students’ version of events was corroborated by an eyewitness and the security forces’ own communications recorded through the C4 system, the IACHR panel says.
“They closed the whole city -- they don't want buses to leave,” Francisco Cox, one of the report’s authors, told The Huffington Post. “And then this bus disappears. We asked for the bus. The bus driver gives a version completely contradictory to the students who were in that bus … So we think there is something strange there that needs to be investigated.”
Though it was mentioned in the initial investigation carried out by local officials, the fifth bus was never examined as part of the crime scene. When the IACHR panel tried to examine the vehicle, they were given photographs of a bus from the same company, Estrella Roja. However, the photos differed from the description of the bus offered by the students, and from images captured by a security camera that the IACHR panel examined.
The attorney general's office has not answered HuffPost's requests for comment, but Murillo Karam has publicly defended his efforts to investigate the attack. Peña Nieto has instructed the current attorney general, Arely Gómez González, to cooperate with the IACHR panel and implement some of its recommendations.
The evidence offered for the IACHR report's conclusion is tentative, as the authors readily admit.
“We can't assert with the certainty that we have affirmed other things in the report that the motive of the attack is that they took the wrong bus,” Cox said. “We can't say it's the cause. But it has to be investigated.”
It’s already a much more plausible explanation than anything the Mexican government has come up with so far.
Charlotte Alfred contributed reporting.
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