NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, much was made of reports of a telephone call made by President Trump to his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, during which he reportedly said that if Mexican troops were too fearful of the country’s “bad hombres” to confront them, he would dispatch United States troops to take care of the job.
The problem with Mexico’s approach to fighting violence isn’t one of fear — that Mexican authorities are afraid of organized crime — but of complicity, as the unsolved case of the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students at a teachers college in Ayotzinapa, in the Pacific state of Guerrero, distressingly illustrates.
Evidence gathered by an international team of five legal experts formed by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which spent 14 months in Mexico monitoring the government’s investigation, found evidence of various degrees of complicity in the crime, from lowly municipal policemen accused of having abducted the students up through federal and military authorities to powerful government officials. That kind of problem, which provides cover to organized crime, demands legal and political solutions, including cross-border cooperation, not military actions.
On Feb. 9, the federal prosecutor’s office, announced the final results of an internal review of its handling of the Ayotzinapa case. An earlier review, never accepted by the attorney general, had concluded that the investigation was flawed and had even broken laws. The new report exculpated the prosecutor’s office, and defended its original theory of the crime, which was strongly rebutted by other investigators. When the report was presented to the relatives of the missing students, they denounced it as part of a cover-up.
The “disappearing” of the students shocked Mexico and much of the world. Earlier, the Peña Nieto administration took steps to mitigate criticism at home and from abroad over its inept handling of the case by allowing that international team, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, to investigate. Now it seems that the government doesn’t care about international criticism of its new hard line, or maybe it anticipates that there isn’t going to be much.
Could one reason be that Mr. Trump’s belligerent threats have suddenly cast the Peña Nieto government in the role of victim, making it an object of sympathy? Though Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings had plummeted to 12 percent, Mexicans, their national pride outraged, have encouraged the government to defy the American president. Maybe governments and international organizations that before might have wanted to speak out against Mexican corruption and official complicity in crimes against citizens now feel constrained to mute such criticism, so as not to add fuel to Trumpian vitriol.
“Mexico erects its own wall against the truth,” Carlos Beristain wrote in an email to me on the same day that the prosecutor’s office absolved itself of wrongdoing. Mr. Beristain, a Spanish physician and human rights investigator, was one of the Interdisciplinary Group experts who began work on the Ayotzinapa case in March 2015. He recently published an insider’s account of the group’s time in Mexico that lays out the clearest narrative yet of what happened the night the 43 students were abducted in Iguala, northwest of Ayotizinapa, from buses they had seized to take to a Mexico City protest. The book also includes a dramatic description of apparent criminal conduct by the federal investigator overseeing the case.
The government’s theory was that municipal policemen turned the students over to members of the heroin-trafficking gang Guerreros Unidos, who incinerated the students’ bodies and took the remains in plastic bags to be tossed into the San Juan River.
On Oct. 29, 2014, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, head of the prosecutor’s office’s Criminal Investigative Agency, along with other members of his team and Mexican Marines, conducted a search at the river, and found an open black plastic bag on a riverbank. A charred bone fragment recovered from that bag produced the sole positive match so far to the DNA of a missing student, 20-year-old Alexander Mora Venancio. The government’s case hinges on that bone fragment.
Last spring, as the Interdisciplinary Group, knowing that the government would not renew its contract to stay in Mexico, raced to finish its final report, Mr. Beristain was shown photographs and video taken by three photojournalists who, with telephoto lenses, had taken pictures at the river on Oct. 28 — the day before the official search. They photographed a cluster of men from the prosecutor’s office standing by a bridge, looking at an open black plastic bag and a white bag left on the bank below.
After those men and Marine guards left the scene, Mr. Zerón arrived by helicopter, along with a previously detained drug gang member and two other men. The photographs showed them on the riverbank at the spot where the next day the black plastic bag holding the bone fragment would be discovered. Overnight, the black plastic bag holding the case’s key piece of evidence had moved 230 feet downriver, and to the opposite bank. In Mexico City last month, Mr. Beristain drew me a map on a napkin to illustrate what had occurred.
Mr. Beristain summoned Interdisciplinary Group colleagues to see the images, all digitally stamped Oct. 28. The presence of Mr. Zerón and others at the river that day had never been entered into the case file, nor was it recorded that the head of the official investigation had taken along a detained witness without a defense lawyer. The Interdisciplinary Group’s final report, written in strict legalese, didn’t include a detailed narrative of those images that is in Mr. Beristain’s book, but noted Mr. Zerón’s violations of legal procedures. That cost him his job — Mr. Peña Nieto transferred him to a new post — and prompted the prosecutor’s office’s first internal review. In its new report, the office dismisses Mr. Zerón’s actions as mere “administrative infractions.”
One of the Interdisciplinary Group’s crucial discoveries in Mexico was that the students had not been riding in four buses as the government had maintained, but in five. In 2014, the United States Department of Justice had accused a Guerreros Unidos cell in Chicago with transporting heroin from Guerrero in commercial buses. Had they unwittingly taken a bus outfitted to transport heroin? That could explain why the students had been the victims of such violence. The United States attorney general at the time, Loretta E. Lynch, offered to share information about the Chicago heroin smuggling case, but the prosecutor’s office sent inquiries only months afterward, when the Interdiscipliary Group’s time in Mexico was running out.
Ms. Lynch’s offer was an example of the cross-border collaboration required to fight such transnational crimes. Will the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, renew Ms. Lynch’s offer, or press for the truth in the Ayotzinapa case, or for the desperately needed judicial reforms the United States has been helping to fund? Or does the wall that has already been raised between both governments serve, at least in certain ways, the interests of both sides?