Crime and Violence · Transparency & accountability

Witness Links the Military to the 43 Missing Ayotzinapa Students

02/08/21 (written by scortez) – A recently leaked witness testimony directly implicates the military’s involvement in the disappearances of 43 students in the Ayotzinapa case. It is the most recent development to come in the long pursuit of justice for the victims’ families. In 2014, a group of over 100 students from Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos were traveling to Iguala, Guerrero to protest discriminatory practices against teachers. In a coordinated effort, police intercepted three of the buses heading back to Ayotzinapa on a northbound route and another heading southbound. Once they were pulled over, they were then teargassed, fired on, and loaded into seven patrol cars. Soon after, their families raised national alarms that led to a flurry of investigations to hold those accountable for their disappearance.

Demonstrators and relatives of the missing students protest outside the 27th Army Battalion in Iguala, Guerrero in 2014. Photo by: TRT World and Agencies.

Rapid Arrests in a Discredited Investigation

The initial investigation led to the removal and arrest of the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velásquez, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Piñeda Villa, for sanctioning the disappearances. The same investigations resulted in the arrest of numerous local police officers that were involved. According to the BBC, the investigation concluded that the police apprehended the students and handed them over to a drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos (GU). The cartel took the students to the local dump where they were killed and disposed of into a nearby stream. Despite making several low-level arrests, the findings of the previous investigations have been widely discredited by independent investigators. The lack of sufficient explanation has caused the victims’ relatives and demonstrators to put pressure on the federal government to expand their investigations into the military’s potential involvement. This mounting pressure from a broad coalition of civil society organizations successfully pressured the current government to open a new round of investigations.

New Testimony Reveals Multi-level Corruption

The results of the initial investigation exposed corruption across multiple institutions, implicating local officials, police, and now, members of the military in the disappearance of the 43 students.  In November 2020, Army Captain José Martinez Crespo became the first high-ranking military personnel to be arrested on charges related to the disappearances of the students. He was a military commander at the 27th Army Battalion base when the disappearances occurred. In a recent report from Reforma, a witness testified that the Mexican military handed off the students to GU. The case is part of a larger investigation by Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero into the disappearances. The involvement of military personnel had been speculated, but this latest development confirms these suspicions. 

In the same report, the witness, presumed to be a gang member involved in the disappearances, alleges that the military, police, and GU worked in a joint operation to abduct and kill the students. Soldiers from the 27th Battalion, who were under the payroll of the cartel, interrogated students at an army base in Iguala before handing them off to GU. The witness stressed that the true number of those killed was between 70-80 people. GU had allegedly targeted members of Cartel de la Sierra, a rival criminal group based in Tlacotepec, for their debts to GU. Because the cartel members and students were allegedly intermingling at the protest, authorities interrogated the groups upon their arrest in an effort to distinguish the groups. Thereafter, the students and cartel members totaling nearly 80 individuals were handed over to the GU and were disposed of in two ways: dissolved in acid and drained in sewages pipes, and/or hacked to pieces to be taken to a crematorium or scattered across the Iguala outskirts. 

The witness testimony also outlined the criminal conspiracy in the aftermath between police officers and GU cartel members. After the disappearances, police officers and GU members allegedly planted evidence (human remains) near a dump to create a crime scene that would bring fast results to end mounting pressure from the public. The staged crime scene was devised to pin the disappearances on low-level members of the GU cartel and steer investigations away from GU leadership, police, and the military. It also corroborated the initial narrative that federal prosecutors under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) promoted: the 43 students were mistaken by GU for a rival cartel, killed, and disposed of at the dump. With the witness’ testimony, this narrative illuminates the corrupt relationship between the cartels, police, and the military.

AMLO’s Response to the Leak

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024), commonly known as AMLO, confirmed the reporting from Reforma. His administration is also seeking to prevent further leaks of damning testimony by vowing to charge those responsible for releasing the information. Additionally, relatives of the students expressed concern that the investigation into their disappearance could have been compromised by the witness’ testimony leak and may have potentially damaged their pursuit for justice.

President Lopez Obrador and Undersecretary of Human Rights Alejandro Encinas at the 6th anniversary of the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. The pieces of fabric they hold display their commemoration of the 43 Ayotzinapa students and the thousands of others that have disappeared. Photo by: Reuters.

Maintaining Trust in the Military

Despite being one of the most highly regarded institutions by the general public, the military’s integrity continues to be tested by exposing investigative reporting. A recent public opinion poll by Consulta shows that both the military and AMLO’s newly established National Guard have the largest public trust compared to other governmental institutions. However, the report further indicates that public confidence in them has grown sharply in the past two years.

Nevertheless, the shadow of past illicit activities by the military continues to resurface as AMLO attempts to improve the role of the military in domestic issues. The allegations linking the military to the disappearances comes after the 2020 arrest of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and his subsequent exoneration for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. AMLO continues to balance between rallying against corruption while also maintaining public confidence in the military. Damning revelatory reports such as these test AMLO’s capacity to minimize negative exposure to these highly regarded institutions as they have become essential to his strategy. Under AMLO, the military involvement in domestic affairs have increased. According to the Washington Post, AMLO has called on the military to solve domestic issues more often than any other president since the 1940s, when Mexico was a military-run country. Most recently in 2020, the president had ordered the Armed Forces to return to patrolling the streets to quell the continued rise in homicide rates. 

While the AMLO administration is working to maintain public confidence, disappearances continue to occur. According to an NBC News report that referenced Mexico’s National Search Commission (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda, CNB), as of July 2020, 73,000 people have been reported missing. The majority of cases occurred after 2006, though they have decreased in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, 40% of all missing persons cases have occurred since President López Obrador took office in December 2018. Despite this recent decline, both the kidnapping and homicide rates have remained at high levels.  

AMLO campaigned on promises to lower the government’s apathy and lower crime rates. The recent developments in the Ayotzinapa investigations indicate that the Mexican Justice Department is finally responding to the years-long demand for justice in this case. The López Obrador administration, however, has yet to unveil a national strategy to address the thousands of missing persons cases.


Molzahn, C. “Investigation continues into kidnapping of 43 education students by municipal police in Iguala, Guerrero.”Justice In Mexico. November 11, 2014. 

Yucatan Times. AMLO’s administration will investigate officials over 2014 case of 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa. Yucatan Times. September 15, 2019. 

“Mexico missing students: Questions remain five years on.” BBC. September 19, 2019. 

Hinojosa, Gina. “Mexico Moves Forward with Efforts to Address Disappearances.” Washington Office on Latin America. March 23 2020. 

Franco, E. Marina. “Mexico reeling over 73,000 missing, according to new numbers.” NBC News. July 14, 2020. 

Najar, Alberto. “Ayotzinapa Case | ‘The historical truth is over’: what the turn in the investigation of the disappearance in Mexico of the 43 students implies.” BBC Mundo. July 1, 2020. 

Heinle, Kimberly. “President López Obrador Targets His Predecessors with a Referendum on Corruption.” Justice In Mexico. November 10, 2020. 

“Por primera vez detienen a un militar por la desaparición de los 43 estudiantes de Ayotzinapa.” Animal Politico. November 13, 2020. 

“Ranking Confianza En Instituciones |México 2020|.” Consulta. December 10, 2020. 

Sheridan, Mary Beth. “As Mexico’s Security Deteriorates, the Power of the Military Grows.” The Washington Post. December 17, 2020. 

Reforma Staff. “Militares y narcos detienen a los 43.” Reforma. January 20, 2021. 

Domínguez, Pedro. “Es Evidente que se fabricó investigación sobre caso Ayotzinapa, dice AMLO.” Milenio. January 21, 2021.

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