Mexican government accused of obstructing probe into disappearance of 43 students

Agence France-Presse
Activists hold signs that read "We are missing 43" during the delivery of the final report of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teacher's training college by members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at Claustro de Sor Juana Unive
Activists hold signs that read "We are missing 43" during the delivery of the final report of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teacher's training college by members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at Claustro de Sor Juana University in Mexico City, Mexico, on April 24, 2016. 
Edgard Garrido

Independent investigators issued a scathing report Sunday on the disappearance of 43 Mexican students, accusing the government of obstructing their probe and alleging that some suspects were tortured.

After a yearlong investigation ending this month, the foreign experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were unable to resolve a case that has shocked the international community and sparked protests against President Enrique Pena Nieto.

While the mystery remains, the report calls for investigations into the conduct of federal police and the military on the night of September 26-27, 2014, when the 43 young men vanished in the city of Iguala, southern Guerrero state.

The experts also cited medical reports showing "significant indications of mistreatment and torture" against 17 of the more than 100 suspects detained in the case, with some claiming they received electric shocks in their testicles and bags were placed over their heads.

The attorney general's office later said it was investigating torture claims by 31 suspects.

A good part of the 605-page report — the mission's second — is dedicated to the "obstructions" that the experts faced from the authorities, which worsened starting in January.

Officials showed "little interest" in moving forward with new lines of investigation and it was "impossible" for the experts to reinterview 17 of the suspects, the report said.

"The group has also suffered a (media) campaign that seeks to discredit people as a way to question their work," said the report by the five-member panel — two lawyers from Colombia, another from Chile, a former attorney general of Guatemala and a Spanish psychologist.

"These actions show that some sectors are not interested in the truth," Colombian lawyer Alejandro Valencia told a news conference.

Torture claims 

Pena Nieto thanked the experts via Twitter and said the attorney general's office would analyze the report to "enrich its investigation."

Eber Omar Betanzos, a deputy attorney general for human rights, defended the investigation, saying prosecutors gave the experts "full access" and replied to 85 percent of over 900 requests for information.

The experts arrived in Mexico in March 2015 with the government's blessing. Their mandate was renewed once, but the government decided against giving them another extension, saying they were given ample time.

Prosecutors say the teachers-in-training were attacked by municipal police after the young men stole five buses that they planned to use for a future protest. Three students and three bystanders were killed on the spot.

The officers then handed over 43 students to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang, which killed them and incinerated their bodies at a garbage dump in the nearby town of Cocula, according to prosecutors.

The experts say there is no proof the 43 students were incinerated at the dump, but Betanzos cited a new study claiming at least 17 people were burned there.

The remains of only one student were fully identified after they were found in a nearby river.

Claims of torture are among the most damning elements presented by the experts, with medical reports and statements from suspects claiming they were beaten after their arrests.

The suspects were usually detained "peacefully," but bruises appeared in medical reports after their arrests and some claimed to have received electric shocks on their tongues and genitals.

One said police put a rag up his nose and poured water on his face.

Betanzos said three officials from the attorney general's office are facing investigations.

 'Satanic One' 

The report also raises new questions about the presence of soldiers and federal police in Iguala the night of the attacks, but it does not directly link them to the mass disappearance.

The experts were never allowed to interview 27 members of the 500-strong 27th army battalion based in Iguala, which monitored the students' movements and dispatched an intelligence officer who witnessed a clash.

They urged the authorities to investigate allegations that a soldier, nicknamed "The Satanic One," trafficked weapons for the Guerreros Unidos.

Another "key element" that needs further investigation is the "participation or knowledge" of federal police in the mass disappearance, according to the report.

Students in one of the five buses said federal police pointed their guns at them, prompting them to run away.

Federal police were also present when students were detained near a judicial building, while others manned a checkpoint at another location in the city and failed to help wounded victims.

But Betanzos said there was no evidence that federal forces committed crimes.

The motive for the attack remains unclear but the experts said authorities should investigate whether the students were assaulted because they inadvertently took a bus used to smuggle heroin.