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.

Sources

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.

Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda Arrested by U.S. Officials

10/19/20 (written by rkuckertz) – In a move that shocked Mexican citizens and officials alike, U.S. authorities arrested former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda on Thursday, October 15 just after he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with his family. He was taken into custody after U.S. officials indicted him on various drug trafficking-related counts, including conspiracy to import and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The arrest sent shockwaves through Mexico, as Cienfuegos (also known as “El Padrino”) is the first high-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States in connection with drug trafficking and organized crime.

General Cienfuegos was a member of Mexico’s armed forces for 54 years and served as Mexico’s defense minister under President Enrique Peña Nieto from December 1, 2012 to November 30, 2018. Throughout his tenure as head of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), he was tasked with the military’s fight against organized crime. During this time, Cienfuegos defended military personnel against accusations of human rights violations, particularly in the widely-publicized extrajudicial killings in Tlatlaya and Iguala (2014). Notably, the former defense minister repeatedly refused to allow investigators to interview soldiers involved in these massacres. Nonetheless, he was thought by the public to be committed to the fight against organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times reports, he once denounced drug traffickers who attacked military personnel as “sick, insane beasts.”

Charges and Evidence against Cienfuegos

The charges against Cienfuegos were brought before a Brooklyn grand jury on August 14, 2019, on which day U.S. Magistrate Judge Vera M. Scanlon issued an arrest warrant. On Friday, Cienfuegos appeared before a court by videoconference to hear the charges against him: three charges of conspiracy to manufacture, import, and distribute narcotics and one count of money laundering. He is currently being held without bail in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, California as he awaits his next court appearance on Tuesday, October 20. Notably, Cienfuegos obtained legal representation from defense attorney Duane Lyons—the same attorney representing Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, who was also arrested last year by U.S. officials in connection with drug trafficking.

Specific evidence obtained against Cienfuegos includes thousands of Blackberry messages exchanged between the former defense minister and members of the H-2 cartel, a successor organization to the Beltran Leyva cartel. The messages directly implicate Cienfuegos in assisting H-2 with its criminal operations, including facilitating drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border and introducing H-2 members to Mexican officials willing to receive bribes in exchange for cooperation with criminal actors. In addition, Cienfuegos allegedly informed H-2 members of ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations into the organized crime group (OCG). As a result, H-2 was able to expand its operations throughout the state of Sinaloa with little inference from Mexico’s military.

Mexico’s Response

Mexican officials were not made aware of U.S. plans to charge Cienfuegos until after his arrest. In response to the news, President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) stressed that the Mexican government had not investigated Cienfuegos because it was not made aware of any evidence or complaints against the former defense minister. Nonetheless, López Obrador warned that anyone involved in the case against Cienfuegos that currently serves in the Mexican government or in SEDENA would be immediately removed and placed in the hands of authorities. The president also noted that Cienfuegos is the second high-ranking Mexican security official to be arrested in the United States since last year when Genaro García Luna was arrested on similar charges in Dallas, Texas. López Obrador characterized these arrests as evidence of rampant corruption under former President Enrique Peña Nieto.

However, President López Obrador emphasized a stark contrast between his predecessors and his own administration. He defended both SEDENA and the Mexican navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) as institutions that have assisted the government in the crucial task of ensuring Mexico’s public security. As AMLO stated, “[SEDENA and SEMAR] are institutions fundamental to the development of our country, pillars of the state, and they are so strong that not even matters such as the involvement of a secretary of defense in cases of drug trafficking can weaken them” [author’s translation].

Most recently, AMLO has attempted to separate his own administration from the corruption of past administrations by introducing a referendum to the Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de México, SCJN) that would allow former presidents to be charged for criminal conduct committed while in office. Approved by the court, the referendum will be put before the public for a vote in June 2021.

The Role of Mexico’s Military in the Fight Against Organized Crime

Despite AMLO’s reassurances, Cienfuegos’ arrest comes at a time when Mexican civil society groups and international organizations express grave concern regarding the expanding role of Mexico’s military in security operations.

This trend toward militarization of public security operations began prior to President López Obrador’s term. In 2017, Mexico passed a law affirming the military’s role in the fight against organized crime. Condemned by the United Nations and various human rights organizations, the law allowed Mexico to deploy soldiers to regions under the control of OCGs. Critics argued that the bill gave broad powers to the military that superseded the Mexican Constitution. In their view, the bill allowed the president to act unilaterally, militarizing any part of the country without clear limits or an exit strategy.

Under the current administration, AMLO has continued the expansion of militarized operations. As a cornerstone of his anti-corruption platform, López Obrador sought to overhaul the federal policing system, replacing it with the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). This new security institution recruited over 100,000 troops from both the military and former Federal Police. In AMLO’s view, the National Guard would be incorruptible and significantly more effective in counter-OCG operations. However, after a year of operation, skeptics continue to warn that the use of military-like tactics will cause human rights violations to continue unchecked.

In addition, Reforma points out that individuals directly connected to the former defense minister Cienfuegos continue to operate within Mexico’s security apparatus. In particular, General André Foullon, who serves as SEDENA’s sub-secretary and was considered to be part of Cienfuegos’ inner circle, previously commanded the third region (Tercera Región) consisting of the state of Sinaloa—the same region where Cienfuegos allegedly protected the H-2 cartel. Reforma identified several other current military officials who had close ties to Cienfuegos—individuals that U.S. officials believed would have assisted Cienfuegos in evading authorities if he were released.

While it remains to be seen whether other SEDENA officials will be implicated in Cienfuegos’ crimes, recent data demonstrate that the Mexican public holds a generally-favorable view of the military. In 2017, a Parametría poll showed that six of every ten Mexicans agreed that the military should continue to operate throughout Mexico in response to organized crime. The poll also found that the public viewed the military as one of the country’s most trusted institutions. However, given increasing criticism and the news of Cienfuegos’ arrest, it remains to be seen whether Mexico will continue to entrust its military institutions with the fight against organized crime.

Sources:

“Blackberry Messages, the Key to the Arrest of ‘The Godfather’ Cienfuegos.” The Yucatán Times. 18 October, 2020.

“La caída del general Cienfuegos: el recuento.” Aristegui Noticias. 17 October, 2020.

“No investigamos a Cienfuegos porque no teníamos información contra él”: AMLO.” El Universal. 17 October, 2020.

“Persiste en Sedena mano de Cienfuegos.” Reforma. 17 October, 2020.

Agren, David. “Former Mexico Defence Minister Arrested on Drug Charges in Los Angeles.” The Guardian. 16 October, 2020.

Ahmed, Azam. “Mexico’s Former Defense Minister Is Arrested in Los Angeles.”The New York Times. 16 October, 2020.

Associated Press. “Vistazo al cartel H-2 que general mexicano habría apoyado.” Los Angeles Times. 16 October, 2020.

McDonnell, Patrick J. “Mexico Stunned by L.A. Arrest of Former Defense Chief Allegedly on Drug Cartel’s Payroll.” Los Angeles Times. 16 October, 2020.

Morán Breña, Carmen. “López Obrador enmarca la detención de Cienfuegos en la ‘peste’ de la corrupción de los ‘narcogobiernos.’” El País. 16 October, 2020.

“Read the Indictment against Mexcio’s Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.” The Washington Post. 16 October, 2020.

“Detienen al ex Secretario Salvador Cienfuegos en EU.” Reforma. 15 October, 2020.

“6 de cada 10 mexicanos confía en el Ejército y prefiere que ciude las calles: Parametría.” Animal Político. 23 February, 2017.

Malkin, Elisabeth. “Mexico Strengthens Military’s Role in Drug War, Outraging Critics.” The New York Times. 15 December, 2017.

Daly et al. Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico. 30 July, 2012.

Normalista families launch Caravana 43 through the United States and Europe

Caravana 43 demonstrated in San Diego on March 23. Photo: Carmelita Salazar-Dodge, Justice in Mexico.

Caravana 43 demonstrated in San Diego on March 23. Photo: Intern, Justice in Mexico.

04/19/15 — The family members of the 43 Normalista students that disappeared in September 2014 from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, are currently touring the United States in an effort to raise awareness about their ongoing fight to demand answers from the Mexican government and hold accountable those responsible. Appropriately named, Caravana 43 is stopping in 43 U.S. cities to discuss the human rights violations committed by local police and the Iguala-based cartel Guerreros Unidos. The families are conveying their grievances and demands for reform to Mexican and U.S. institutions, international organizations, Plan Mérida, and the U.S. Latino/Latina community, as well as calls for increased U.S. funding to fight drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico. According to investigators, the young Normalista students were murdered and incinerated in a dumpster. However, their family members continue to seek alternative answers regarding the whereabouts of their children, as only one student’s remains have been discovered.

Caravana 43 launched on March 16 from three different starting points in Texas—San Antonio, McAllen, and El Paso—splitting into three routes to canvas the United States, including a stop in San Diego on March 23. A Justice in Mexico Intern spoke with Caravana 43 organizer Luis López Resendiz at the San Diego demonstration. López Resendiz, who sits on the Caravana’s Media and Communications Committee, emphasized the importance of the Caravan’s protests and demonstrations, stating, “No student should become a criminal for developing a critical mind. I just hope one day we don’t fight for justice; I hope one day to win every single fight [so we can] live in paz (peace).”

Caravana 43 in San Diego, CA on March 23. Photo: Carmelita Salazar-Dodge, Justice in Mexico

Caravana 43 in San Diego, CA on March 23. Photo: Intern, Justice in Mexico

Meanwhile, in an interview with Mexican media news source Univisión, Former Mexican President Vicente Fox addressed the Normalista parents: “You cannot live forever with this problem on your minds, life goes on. It’s a good thing that you care so much for your children, it’s good that you miss them and [that you] are in mourning, but you have to accept reality. The country has to keep walking.” Fox’s comment drew fire, however, from Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), an outspoken politician, former presidential contender, and leader of the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, Morena). AMLO called the statements “disrespectful to the students,” and called Fox’s political allegiances and motives into question, saying that Fox “never had convictions for the people of Mexico.”

The three caravan routes will reconvene in New York City in late April, and from there continue abroad to seek the support of other nations in Europe to advocate for the return of the missing students. They plan to first stop in Oslo, Norway, where they’ll visit the University of Innsbruck. That university was involved in the investigation and analysis of human remains found in Cocula, Guerroro thought to be the students. The results, however, turned out negative. Caravana 43 then plans to tour Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and England, where they will organize rallies in front of embassies and consulates of the European nations. They also plan to meet with human rights and student organizations to seek solidarity for their cause.

Luis López Resendiz, who will be traveling to New York on April 23 to meet up with the rest of the Caravana 43, recognizes the importance of continuing the dialogue, not just in Mexico. “In order for us to continue the discussion of Ayotzinapa, we have to go beyond borders, just as the Caravana 43 did,” he said. “If we are able to cross those invisible borders that were built systematically without notice, then we will bring awareness to a bigger community—to all of the pueblo (people).”

To watch a video of one of the missing student’s parent speaking at the Caravana 43 demonstration in San Diego, click here.

Sources:

“Se presentará esta noche en San Diego la Caravana 43 por Ayotzinapa.” Uniradio Informa. March 23, 2015.

Vergara, Rosalía. “Fox faltó el respeto a padres de normalistas: AMLO.” Proceso. March 20, 2015.

EFE. “Familiares de normalistas de Ayotzinapa inician gira por 43 ciudades de EU.” CNN México. April 6, 2015.

“Parents of missing Mexican students tour US to push for new investigation.” The Guardian. April 10, 2015.

Rivera, Astrid. “Padres de los 43 planean Caravanaa en países de Europa.” El Universal. April 15, 2015.