The disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43 and Mexican Justice


“[President] AMLO made truth and justice for the families of the Ayotzinapa 43 one of his 100 pledges when he took office in December 2018; it was a key component of his overall goal to end corruption and impunity.”

By David Raby

On the night of 26-27 September 2014 in Iguala (Guerrero State, Mexico) 43 students from a teacher training college (Escuela Normal Rural) were murdered and disappeared in a brutal crime which shocked the nation and rapidly acquired international notoriety as the latest example of the corruption and violence plaguing Mexico.

Four months later (on 28 January 2015) Attorney-General Jesús Murillo Karam declared that an official investigation had proved that the 43 were murdered, their bodies incinerated and the ashes dumped in the Río San Juan, and that charges had been brought against 99 individuals.

Those responsible, said Murillo Karam, were the Mayor of Iguala and his wife who led a criminal gang called Guerreros Unidos who ordered the local police to hand the students over to their henchmen for execution and disposal. This, said the Attorney-General, was the “historic truth”.

This “historic truth” was immediately echoed by most politicians and the media, and those (like then opposition leader AMLO) who questioned it were ridiculed.

This version was terrible enough, revealing a planned mass abduction and execution with close collaboration between organised crime and local authorities. But its advantage for those in power was that it exonerated federal authorities, both military and civilian.

The “historic truth” was never accepted by most local people, by the relatives of the victims or fellow-students at Ayotzinapa. They always suspected that the military, Guerrero State and federal politicians were involved, and they were right.

AMLO made truth and justice for the families of the Ayotzinapa 43 one of his 100 pledges when he took office in December 2018; it was a key component of his overall goal to end corruption and impunity.

The independent Truth and Justice Commission on Ayotzinapa has now (20 August 2022) delivered its initial report, based on exhaustive forensic and scientific investigation, which demonstrates that the “Historic Truth” was a tissue of lies and created yet more innocent victims through systematic use of torture.

This time a federal judge immediately issued 83 arrest warrants, and among those detained was former Attorney-General Murillo Karam himself. Also on the list were 20 officers and troops of two military battalions, five Guerrero State civilian officials, 14 members of the Guerreros Unidos gang and 44 state and municipal police officers.

Alejandro Encinas, the Federal Deputy Minister responsible for Human Rights, declared that Ayotzinapa was a “State Crime” with “a cover-up at the highest level”. The report was presented first to the families of the victims along with President AMLO, and then to the press and public.

AMLO made it clear that this is not the end of the matter, investigations will continue.

The case confirms the sheer scale of institutionalised corruption and impunity, but also AMLO’s determination to follow through on his promised 4T Transformation.

Interestingly (and almost certainly not by coincidence) a conservative judge chose precisely this time to bring before the Mexican Supreme Court an initiative to eliminate preventive detention on the grounds that it violates human rights.

It is indeed the case that preventive detention has been abused to bring specious charges against the poor and marginalised, thousands of whom are held for long periods without trial; an abuse which AMLO wants brought to an end.

But to abolish preventive detention in serious criminal cases would simply allow the rich and powerful to avoid justice. No sooner had Murillo Karam been arrested on preventive detention in the Ayotzinapa case than his political allies began to suggest that his rights were being violated.

AMLO’s government immediately (on 24 August) issued a “Communiqué to the Mexican People and to the Supreme Court” declaring in no uncertain terms that “the existence of mandatory preventive detention is fundamental” for serious crimes to ensure that suspects do not evade justice.

The communiqué was signed by Home Secretary Adán Augusto López (who has been noteworthy for his no-nonsense approach to opposition shenanigans) and chief presidential Legal Counsel María Estela Ríos. It was directed explicitly to Supreme Court judges and referred to public security, the battle against impunity and the enormous burden placed on public institutions, judicial, administrative and military, in bringing serious criminals to justice.

A more categorical warning would be hard to imagine. AMLO has shown great restraint in respecting the autonomy of the judicial power, but this is surely a clear message that justice must be firm, authoritative and expeditious.

The President also chose this time to repeat his criticism of judicial tardiness and procrastination. This was highlighted by the case of Rosario Robles, former Secretary of Social Development in the PRI government, who was arrested in 2019 in connection with a corruption case labelled the “Perfect Fraud” (Estafa Maestra).

After interminable delays Robles was recently allowed house arrest (rather than remaining in jail) on health grounds. Questioned on the subject, AMLO agreed with the journalist that the decision was understandable given dilatory legal processes: “judges are very slow…they should act faster…I am going to ask that the Ministry of Public Security take charge of this, because there are many people in prison for years awaiting sentencing…”

AMLO has said it before, and he is clearly running out of patience: the judicial system must provide justice, not legal casuistry.

  • David Raby is a retired academic and independent researcher on Latin America. You can follow him on twitter here.
  • For more information David can be reached at
Featured image: President AMLO and the Undersecretary of Human Rights Alejandro Encinas with the family members of the 43 disappeared students. Photo credit AMLO (twitter)/Peoples Dispatch

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