HUFFINGTON POST
09/11/2015 11:01 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2015

Independent Expert Explains How Mexico Botched Investigation Of 43 Missing Students

A member of the outside group investigating the case shares his insights.
Relatives and friends of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students wait before the IACHR present the first conclusions of their inve
Credit: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
Relatives and friends of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students wait before the IACHR present the first conclusions of their investigation in Mexico City on Sept. 6, 2015.

Mexico's official account of what happened to 43 students who went missing last year never made much sense to the journalists, experts and relatives looking for answers.

Federal investigators said local police, working with local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, attacked the rural teaching college students in Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014. They said police then abducted 43 of the 100-odd students and handed them over to the cartel, who killed them and incinerated their remains. The government insists that only corrupt local police -- not the military -- played a role in the violence.

But the official case is riddled with inconsistencies and has been tainted by accusations that confessions were obtained through torture and that evidence is being ignored or mishandled. 

A team of five international experts, brought in by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to examine the case, was as perplexed by the government's version of events as everyone else. In the report of their findings released on Sunday, the investigators said key elements of the government's case were simply not true and the investigation was so poorly conducted it should be completely reconsidered.

In an interview with The WorldPost, Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer and law professor who was part of the expert team, said their investigation uncovered evidence that still needs to be analyzed and witnesses that still need to be interviewed in order to build a credible case. 

A group of protesters and parents of missing students from Ayotzinapa walk through in Tixtla, Guerrero State, Mexico, on
Credit: Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
A group of protesters and parents of missing students from Ayotzinapa walk through in Tixtla, Guerrero State, Mexico, on June 7, 2015.

The Biggest Error

According to the experts, one of the biggest errors is that the investigators built their case on confessions, and then neglected evidence that might contradict this version of events. This is particularly troubling because many of those detained in connection with the case claim their testimonies were the result of torture, Cox said.

The experts "don't have enough information" to say whether the flaws in the government’s case are mainly due to incompetence or ill will, Cox said. But he believes carelessness certainly played a role.

"I think there's a certain amount of people just having their way of doing things, and once they get a confession saying, 'We have a confession, so why do we need to keep on investigating?'" he said.

Another major problem with the case is that the state's expert witnesses are part of the attorney general's office, rather than an independent body like in other Latin American countries. "This might make these experts biased in wanting to confirm the same version that the prosecutors have," he said. "This may not even be in bad faith, but just because of the structure of the system." 

Francisco Cox takes part in a press conference in Mexico City on April 20, 2015. 
Credit: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images
Francisco Cox takes part in a press conference in Mexico City on April 20, 2015. 

Evidence Lost And Left Unexamined

The experts also questioned why the investigators never requested key pieces of evidence at the time. Cox said video and security footage that could shed light on the case was never requested, and has since been overwritten. "There's a lot of information that could have helped the investigation and been used as evidence in court that no longer exists," Cox said.

There is other evidence that still exists, but has yet to be examined, nearly a year later. For example, the experts discovered the clothes of the students that had been recovered from the buses, but never analyzed them to determine which student was in which bus. They have now been sent for review, Cox said. 

There's a lot of information that could have helped the investigation and been used as evidence in court that no longer exists.

"These are small pieces of evidence, but they help build a case," he told The WorldPost. They are also important for the families of the victims. "It might seem a small thing to other people, but when your son has disappeared you want to have the clearest picture you can of what happened," he said.

The experts also found that cell phone location data had not been combed by investigators to determine who was at the scene of the attacks. So, the team started requesting data from the telephone companies, although they're still examining the evidence it provides so they left this out of the report released Sunday. 

The Role Of The Military

Another piece of unfinished business is the experts' access to members of the military. The government claims that no military personnel were involved in the tragedy, and so there is no need to investigate them, despite extensive evidence to the contrary. The government refused the experts' request to interview military, and Cox said the reason it gave -- that it might compromise the legality of the investigation -- "didn't make any sense." 

He explained why the experts would keep trying to talk to military:

There are statements by certain soldiers that they saw a lot of things. An intelligence agent who was moving around on a motorcycle reported the events to the authorities. Their reply was: "Don't do anything, just observe and be careful, don't get hit by the bullets." He took pictures and videos, and we think that's information that is useful and should be incorporated into the criminal investigation, and it's not. There are other contradictions about timings. Allegedly the students were detained for a while, and that's also relevant. We think that they have information that could be useful, so we still want to interview them.

A protester marks 11 months since the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in Mexico City, Aug. 26, 2015.
Credit: Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A protester marks 11 months since the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in Mexico City, Aug. 26, 2015.

Finally, A Potentially Credible Motive

The possible motives suggested by the government have been widely discredited. They first suggested that police attacked the students to stop them from disrupting a political rally, and later said their attackers believed they had been infiltrated by a rival cartel. In fact, the rally was long finished by the time the students arrived, and the families have fiercely denied any reports of infiltration. 

The experts agreed. "That theory didn't make any sense to us," Cox said, noting that the evidence shows the students did not intend to go into Iguala, none of them were armed, and the authorities knew full well who they were (school kids) and what they were doing there (commandeering buses ahead of a major annual protest).

Their report finally brought to light a new possible motive for the students’ disappearance -- that they had mistakenly boarded a bus carrying heroin or drug money, drawing the ire of the cartel.

"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. He explained:

It's something we suggest because of several factors. They closed the whole city -- they didn't want buses to leave. And then this bus disappears. We asked for the bus. The bus driver gave a version [of events] completely contradictory to the students who were in that bus, who all survived. They told us they fled the bus and communications reports confirmed their version. When the company provided documents, it said something that is contradictory with the account of the bus driver. So we think there is something strange there, that needs to be investigated.

If we add to that an affidavit from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in a case in Chicago, we can see that in Iguala heroin is transported out using buses. That's why we say we have to investigate. We can't say it's the cause. But it has to be investigated. 

We think that the military have information that could be useful, so we still want to interview them.

The Government's Response To The Report

The experts were "very satisfied" with pledges from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Attorney General Arely Gómez to analyze the report's findings and incorporate them into their investigation, Cox said, although he noted, "You always have voices that are going to try to stick to their old version."  

The team has requested a six-month extension of its mandate to work on the investigation, but hasn't received an official response from the Mexican government yet. "We believe all these lines of investigation that we've suggested should be followed, and we want to determine the final destiny of the students. Right now, we still don't know what happened to them," he said.

Women hold a poster that reads: "Ayotzinapa lives" in front of the National Palace where Mexico's President Enrique Pe&ntilde
Credit: Marco Ugarte/Associated Press
Women hold a poster that reads: "Ayotzinapa lives" in front of the National Palace where Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto delivered his third State of the Nation address in Mexico City on Sept. 2, 2015.

He hopes the experts can repair some of the damage that the botched investigation has done. They've tried to act as a bridge between the families, who feel ignored and lied to, and the authorities, and he called on the government to capitalize on that relationship to rebuild the families' confidence in the state. "It's not good for a country not to have trust in their institutions," he said.

At the same time, he cautioned authorities to respect the parents' grief: 

We've tried to convey to the government is that in cases of enforced disappearance, it's a very bad idea to force people to rush to forget about their families. They're not going to do that. Every country that has tried to 'turn the page' has had a bad experience with that. These processes are long, and they have to respect the time of the families. 

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