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9 years later, families of 43 abducted Mexican students march to demand answers

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Chanting from one to 43, relatives of students abducted nine years ago counted out the number of the missing youths as they marched through Mexico City Tuesday to demand answers to one of Mexico’s most infamous human rights cases.

Demonstrators hold a protest to mark the 9th anniversary of the 43 Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College's students' disappearance, in Mexico City, Mexico September 26.(REUTERS)
Demonstrators hold a protest to mark the 9th anniversary of the 43 Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College’s students’ disappearance, in Mexico City, Mexico September 26.(REUTERS)

With President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term ending next year, family members face not only the prospect of a ninth year of not knowing what happened to their sons but fears that the next administration will start the error-plagued investigation over from scratch yet again.

In 2014, a group of students were attacked by municipal police in the southern city of Iguala, Guerrero, who handed them over to a local drug gang that apparently killed them and burned their bodies. Since the Sept. 26 attack, only three of their remains have been identified.

After an initial coverup, last year a government truth commission concluded that local, state and federal authorities colluded with the gang to murder the students in what it called a “state crime.”

Ulises Gutierrez Solano joined the march in honor of his brother, Aldo, a student who survived the initial kidnapping but was left in a “vegetative state” since 2014 after police shot him in the head while the others students were being abducted.

“This is an atrocity to humanity, to society,” said Solano. “How could they do so much harm to so many people?”

López Obrador had pledged to solve the case and recent years have seen a painstakingly slow release of documents from the abduction, as well as a slew of arrests. But activists and human rights organizations say the government has not done enough to atone for the murders, investigate exactly what happened, and punish the culprits.

Tensions rose just hours before the march, when the families and their lawyers rejected a series of documents the Mexican government offered to make public, claiming the specific military files they requested months ago were not included. The army said it didn’t have those files.

“Since August the families have been asking, but they just gave us part of the information” said Nicholas Mendéz, leading a group of students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “That’s worrying because we’re changing government next year.”

López Obrador’s six-year term ends in September 2024 and, Mendéz feared, petitioning a new president for information could mean starting from scratch.

“We can’t have another six years of nothing,” Mendéz said.

In a press conference Tuesday morning, Mexico’s president insisted all of the relevant documents had been released.

“We have principles; we have ideals, and we speak the truth,” López Obrador said, promising also to publish government social media messages about the case.

The students from a radical teachers’ college had travelled to Iguala to hijack buses to get to a protest in Mexico City, but were intercepted by corrupt police linked to the Guerreros Unidos gang. Iguala officials thought the students were going to disrupt a local political event, and one of the hijacked buses may have carried a drug shipment.

Recent years have seen a run of government and army officials from the time arrested, but no more remains have been found.

Then-Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam, and the head of his anti-kidnapping unit have been arrested for their initial, botched investigation following the abductions. Almost a dozen military personnel, including the commander of the area where the students were abducted, have also been arrested.

After evidence used to assemble an expert report in August was undermined, the case’s chief prosecutor, Omar Gómez Trejo, resigned. Just this year a party from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission which has been investigating the incident since 2015 also withdrew from Mexico.

As families marched through the city, they passed barricades erected to protect monuments. The march was peaceful, notwithstanding isolated incidents of violence when demonstrators attacked and damaged some stores, according to local media.

At one traffic circle, activists had plastered posters in remembrance not just of the 43 students, but of all Mexico’s missing.

The Ayotzinapa atrocity has taken on symbolic significance for a country with more than 110,000 missing people.

Pablo Hector Gonzalez has traveled from Guerrero every year to join the march.

“After nine years, in force, we will insist until the truth appears and until all the guilty are punished,” he said.

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