In response to the disappearance of 43 student protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has signed a tripartite agreement with the government of Mexico and a group of nongovernmental organizations representing the student victims and their families to provide technical assistance with the search for the students, the investigation and subsequent actions regarding their disappearance, and support for the families of the victims. [IACHR: Official Agreement] The students have been missing since September 26 after a shooting incident with police that left six people dead and 17 injured. Although the students are believed to be dead, their whereabouts are yet to be discovered, fueling complaints of gang-related violence, impunity, and State corruption in the country. [Al Jazeera: Protests rage]
IACHR Chair, Tracy Robinson, stated:
For the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this historic agreement is of fundamental importance in the sense that it represents a key opportunity to advance in solving a structural issue that Mexico has been experi[enc]ing for years: forced disappearances … The main objective is to solve the underlying structural problems to these disappearances, not only the cases involving the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, but other cases, which unfortunately are many.
43 Students Missing After Altercation with Police in Iguala, Mexico
On Friday, September 26, approximately 80 students of the Rural Normal School “Raúl Isidro Burgos” Ayotzinapa teacher training college were in Iguala, Guerrero to protest proposed government education reforms. [IACHR: Urgent Call] Having boarded buses to take them to the city of Chilpancingo, the students were fired upon by municipal police officers who were allegedly acting on orders from the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca. Among the dead were three students, a teenage soccer player, a bus driver, and a taxi passenger caught in the crossfire. One of the students was found several blocks away bearing signs of torture. [Guardian] The police then put a number of students in police vehicles and drove away. [New York Times]
In the weeks that followed, Mexican authorities revealed that Igualan police may have handed the students over to members of the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) gang, who then killed them, burned their bodies, and deposited their remains in a nearby river. [CNN: Historic protests] The ensuing search for the students or their remains has resulted in the discovery of several mass graves in and around Iguala. Initial tests, however, indicate that the remains found do not belong to the missing students. [New York Times]
Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, are reported to have close ties to the Guerreros Unidos gang. As a result of the incident, Abarca has stepped down from office and been charged with organized crime, kidnapping, and murder. Pineda remains in custody while the investigations continue. [Guardian] Over 50 arrests have been made in connection with the incident. [New York Times]
The Ministry of Interior has recorded 22,322 missing people in Mexico since 2006. A further 3,000 Central American migrants have also gone missing since 2010. [CNN: Crying for justice] Regarding the missing students, Lia Limon, the Undersecretary for Legal Affairs and Human Rights for Mexico’s Ministry of Interior, has stated that “[t]he Mexican State will not rest until it finds out what happened, punishes those responsible for it and attends to all the victims.” [Latin American Herald Tribune] However, in a press conference last week, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam drew ire when he said, “Ya me cansé” (“I am tired,” or “I’ve had enough”), a phrase that became a rallying cry on social media and in demonstrations. [Reuters]
IACHR’s Agreement to Provide Technical Assistance to Mexico
The agreement reached between the Inter-American Commission, the Mexican government, and the representatives of the victims’ families provides for the creation of an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, which will provide technical assistance and follow-up measures to Mexico’s actions concerning the students’ disappearance. Support by the Inter-American Commission will also include consideration of the structural issues underlying the more widespread problem of enforced disappearances in Mexico. [IACHR: Terms of Agreement]
The primary goals of the group of experts are to:
- help develop institutional capabilities to search for, and find alive, disappeared persons;
- assist with a technical analysis of the investigations to determine those criminally responsible; and
- provide a technical analysis of the action plan for the victims of the incident and their families.
IACHR, Agreement for the Incorporation of International Technical Assistance from a Human Rights Perspective in the Investigation of the Forced Disappearance of 43 Students of the Rural Normal School “Raúl Isidro Burgos” Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, 12 November 2014, paras. 5-7 (Spanish only).
In particular, the group will analyze the independence of the States’ investigative methods; the effectiveness of its use of technology to search for missing persons and clandestine gravesites; its exhaustion of all lines of investigation, particularly with respect to links to criminal enterprises and State actors; and the development of a comprehensive action plan regarding the victims and their families. Id. at paras. 5.1, 5.2, 6.1, 7.1.
Commissioner James Cavallaro, the IACHR Rapporteur on Mexico, attended the meeting to formalize the terms of the agreement. The agreement was signed by IACHR Executive Secretary Emilio Álvarez Icaza, Mexico’s Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Juan Manuel Gόmez Robledo, and, acting on behalf of the families of the victims, Mario Pattern of the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh). [IACHR: Official Agreement]
The Inter-American Commission has made two previous agreements similar to the present one with Mexico. In 2003, the Commission agreed to help Mexico investigate the assassination of Digna Ochoa, a Mexican human rights lawyer. [IACHR: IACHR Mission to Mexico] In 2005, the Commission agreed to observe and provide input and analysis regarding the investigation of an attack on a synagogue in Argentina. [IACHR: AMIA Trial] See also IACHR, Report: Observation by Dean Claudio Grossman, International Observer of the IACHR during the Trial about the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) (2005) (Spanish only).
The Inter-American Commission’s Previous Involvement with the Case of the Missing Students
On October 3, the Commission requested that Mexico adopt precautionary measures in favor of the students, considering that the 43 missing students and the additional hospitalized students “are in a serious and urgent situation, as their rights to life and personal integrity are allegedly threatened and at serious risk.” IACHR, Resolution 28/2014, Precautionary Measure No. 409-14, Students of the Rural School “Raúl Isidro Burgos” (Mexico), 3 October 2014, para. 2 (Spanish only). The Commission requested Mexico to:
- adopt the measures necessary to determine the status and whereabouts of the 43 missing students;
- adopt the measures necessary to protect the lives and personal integrity of the injured students;
- consult with the students’ families and representatives on what actions should be taken to implement these measures; and
- report to the Commission on the actions taken to investigate the facts surrounding the incident.
Id. at para. 14.
National and International Response
In Mexico last week, approximately 50,000 demonstrators in Guerrero and 15,000 more in Mexico City protested the government’s failure to find the missing students and punish local politicians affiliated with organized crime groups. [Al Jazeera: Thousands demand action] They chanted slogans such as, “Alive they were taken. Alive we want them back.” Solidarity protests were also held in dozens of cities across the United States, including New York City and Los Angeles. [Al Jazeera: Protests rage]
Eduardo Olmos, the former mayor of the city of Torreόn, noted that “[w]hat we’re seeing are the results of many years of deterioration, complacency and denial by successive governments.” In 2010, Olmos fired all but one of Torreόn’s police force members when it emerged that the force had been infiltrated by the Zetas drug gang. [Al Jazeera: Protests rage]
On October 10, a group of United Nations (UN) experts issued a statement in response to the killings and disappearances. Together, the , Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns, and Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Juan E. Méndez decried Mexico’s prevailing impunity in cases of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture. “What happened in Guerrero is absolutely reprehensible and unacceptable. It is not tolerable that these kind of events happen, and even less so in a State respectful of the Rule of Law,” they stated. [OHCHR Press Release]