The military was directly involved in the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014, according to leaked testimony obtained by the newspaper Reforma.
In a report published Wednesday, Reforma said it obtained a declaration made to the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) in February 2020 by a protected witness identified only as “Juan.”
He was a suspected leader of the Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang allegedly involved in the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college students. According to his testimony, the 43 students and some 30 suspected members of a rival gang were detained on September 26, 2014 in an operation in which the military, police and the Guerreros Unidos were involved.
Juan told the FGR that Guerreros Unidos gangsters, assisted by the army and police, were looking for members of a rival gang who owed them money. The rival criminals were believed to be interspersed with the Ayotzinapa students, who on the day they were abducted had commandeered buses to travel to a protest in Mexico City.
Juan said three groups of students and suspected hitmen from a rival gang were detained on September 26. One group was taken away by the Guerreros Unidos, another was placed in the custody of state police and the third group was transported to an army base in Guerrero, he said.
Juan said that the group taken to the army base was interrogated before being handed over to a cell of the Guerreros Unidos. Some of the students and suspected gang members were already dead at that time, he said.
The witness said that the Guerrero Unidos killed those who were still alive and dissolved the bodies of the deceased in acid and caustic soda. Liquid remains were then poured down the drain, he said.
Other students and suspected gangsters were allegedly butchered with machetes and axes at a cartel hideout in Iguala before some of their remains were cremated at a funeral home on the outskirts of Iguala called “El Ángel.”
According to Juan, the Guerreros Unidos controlled the funeral home even though it was also used by local forensic medical authorities. The witness said the gang regularly used the facility to cremate its victims and that the local authorities knew about it but did nothing to stop it.
Juan said that body parts that were not cremated were dumped near abandoned mines in Taxco and near the town of Coacoyula, located north of Iguala. All told, 70 or 80 people including the 43 students were killed on September 26 and 27, 2014, the witness told the FGR.
According to his testimony, state police complicit with the Guerreros Unidos planted evidence – ashes of cremated students and spent bullet casings – at the municipal dump in Cocula to support a federal government narrative about what happened.
The previous government presented a version of events it called the “historic truth” in which the students were kidnapped by police and turned over to the Guerreros Unidos, who killed them, burned their bodies in the Cocula dump and scattered their ashes in a nearby river.
But independent forensic experts determined that it was not feasible that the students’ bodies were incinerated at the Cocula dump, and the current federal government rejected the so-called “historic truth” and launched a new investigation.
None of the bodies of the missing students has ever been found, although charred bone fragments have been identified as the remains of two of them.
As a result of Juan’s testimony, an army captain, José Martínez Crespo, was detained and warrants have been issued for the arrest of 17 soldiers. The witness said that Martínez, currently in prison awaiting trial, was directly involved in the arrest of the missing students.
Although the army has long been suspected of involvement in the Ayotzinapa case, the testimony nevertheless inflicts further damage on its reputation.
The army chief at the time of the students’ disappearance was Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested in the United States last October on drug trafficking and money laundering charges but subsequently returned to Mexico, where he was exonerated last week. Many observers have questioned the thoroughness of the probe into Cienfuegos, who as defense minister blocked investigators’ access to military personnel allegedly involved in the Ayotzinapa case.
In light of the Reforma report, the federal Interior Ministry (Segob) said in a statement that the Ayotzinapa Commission for Truth and Access to Justice, which is part of the ministry, would file a criminal complaint with the FGR in connection with the leaking of the case file.
“These kinds of leaks seek to discredit the work carried out in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case and the credibility of the institutions that participate in it,” Segob said.
“[They also] place the truth about what happened on the night of September 26, 2014 in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, as well as the integrity of the people who are part of these investigations, at risk.”
President López Obrador weighed in on the matter on Thursday, confirming that the testimony published by Reforma is indeed contained in the FGR file.
“I don’t know how they obtained it but it’s real,” he told reporters at his regular news conference. “More people have been detained, there was an arrest of an army captain and the investigation is open. There is no definitive result yet.”
The president said that it’s becoming clearer by the day that the “historic truth” was a fabrication before adding that the government can’t say that the protected witness’ version of events is the correct one until more investigations take place and it is proven.
“It’s not about coming up with another sham, another false version [of events] just to say the case is closed, to shelve it, no!” López Obrador said.
“The consultants, the fathers and mothers of the young men and of course the authorities have to participate” in a thorough investigation, he said, adding that all evidence has to be collected and all suspects have to be investigated before it can be determined what happened.
One person implicated by the protected witness is Mexico City police chief Omar Harfuch, who was a security official in the previous federal government. Juan alleged he received US $200,000 a month from the Guerreros Unidos in exchange for helping the gang operate with impunity in Guerrero.
López Obrador also said Thursday that the government is committed to continuing the search for the missing students, although locating bodies dissolved in acid and disposed down drains would appear to be impossible.
“The most important thing is to find the young men. It’s quite a challenge but we have the will to do it,” the president said.