March 21, 2023


Over the past 16 years, Mexico’s struggle against organized crime and drug-related violence has seen its share of grim milestones. In 2006, thugs entered a nightclub in Uruapan, in the western state of Michoacán, and threw five human heads on the dance floor. The ghastly sight became a harbinger of further horrors. Soon, Mexicans began waking up to corpses and threatening messages hanging from bridges.

And yet, few tragedies compare with what happened during the last days of September 2014, near Iguala, Guerrero, in southern Mexico, when local police kidnapped a group of 43 students from the rural Ayotzinapa teachers college and allegedly handed them over to Guerreros Unidos, a violent gang, and the students disappeared, never to be seen again.

From the beginning, the Mexican authorities, led by then-president Enrique Peña Nieto, mishandled the case.

After days of silence, Peña Nieto entrusted Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam with the investigation. A hard-liner with a long track record within the PRI, the president’s party, Murillo Karam became a controversial figure, in a hurry to close the book on the students’ appalling disappearance. After four months of divisive inquiries, Murillo Karam produced a 26-minute video of what happened. The students, he said, were all dead, killed after they were mistaken for members of Los Rojos, another cartel. They had been burned, their charred remains thrown into a river.

That, he insisted, was the “historic truth.”

Murillo Karam’s hubris, and his choice of words, would come back to haunt him. Independent organizations criticized his investigation, while forensic experts disputed his theories. Crucially, the students’ families rejected Murillo Karam’s, and the government’s, conclusions.

The Ayotzinapa wound remained open.

After taking office in 2016, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to solve the case once and for all. “Our commitment is with truth and justice,” López Obrador said. “We will not give up.”

Last week, his administration offered its own version of events. While it acknowledged the students’ tragic demise, the López Obrador report dismantled Murillo Karam’s “historic truth” and accused him and others of dereliction of duty and a conspiracy to cover up the crime. Alejandro Encinas, the government’s point person on the case, labeled the disappearances a “crime of state” that involved police, the armed forces and civilian officials, in addition to the gang. Encinas said the students probably unwittingly took a bus loaded with drugs or money that belonged to the gang, and the military and federal and state police took no action to stop the mass kidnapping — even though they were aware of it thanks to surveillance systems and an army spy who had infiltrated the student group.

Human rights organizations welcomed the new report. “The progress shown confirms, once again, that the authorities under the government of Enrique Peña Nieto pursued a deliberate policy of concealment and obstruction of justice,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

A day after the publication of the account, the Mexican government went one step further: It arrested Murillo Karam himself, an unprecedented step. The former AG now stands accused of torture, forced disappearance and obstruction of justice.

In a country rife with impunity, Murillo Karam’s arrest — and the government’s intention to reveal new information and pursue other key figures in the case — could be seen as a step toward justice. But this step has actually raised many red flags as well.

“The investigation that Murillo Karam led was full of irregularities (including suspicion of torture) and should be investigated,” security analyst Alejandro Hope told me. “Still, the government seems to be aiming for political gain, not pursuing justice.”

The journalist and editor Julian Andrade, who has closely followed the Ayotzinapa story, agrees. Andrade says the decision to go after Murillo Karam is “clearly political.” “While there may be prosecutorial arguments, a move like this one has severe political consequences, and the government knows it,” he told me.

I share their concerns. In Mexico, justice has long been a political tool. Previous governments have arrested political opponents whenever convenient. (Some of those arrests were carried out by Murillo Karam himself.)

“It would be a shame if propaganda and politics end up mattering more than the search for justice,” Andrade told me.

That’s what many justifiably fear. In a case of such profound importance as the Ayotzinapa atrocity, the López Obrador administration can prove that, in Mexico, power can work in the service of justice, not the other way around.

If this arrest is seen as a political ploy, then the search for justice and accountability will continue to be tarnished.

Mexico can’t afford to go down that path again.

The government has so far been transparent with both its conclusions and new findings. But it must not dismiss the skeptics who suggest that Murillo Karam is a convenient political pawn whose arrest could, for example, help López Obrador reduce what’s left of the PRI as viable opposition and consolidate his grip on power. The way to address that is guaranteeing Murillo Karam the due process he deserves.

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