The crime of Ayotzinapa, and the cry “It was the State!” shattered the Mexican government’s official narrative surrounding the violence that has plagued the country. When the Iguala municipal police—under the close observation of federal and state forces—opened fire on rural college students, killing six and disappearing 43 young men, a state crime was committed, a crime that the Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has not been able to hide from the eyes of the nation and the world.
Approximately one year after the murders and forced disappearances, the truth is still buried. But the implications of these crimes are obvious. The whereabouts of the 43 students from the Normal Rural School Isidro Burgos of Ayotzinapa remains unknown. We don’t know whether they are alive or dead. Their fathers and mothers continue to live in daily anguish. And the people have risen up in response to a crime that reveals the depth of corruption and violence that had previously been an open secret in Mexico.
The facts versus the lies
From the early hours of Sep. 27, 2014, and on into the following weeks to this day, the response from the Mexican state has been a strategy of “damage control”—that has little to nothing to do with a genuine search for the disappeared or of truth and justice. The government responded slowly at first and, while showing a total lack of sensitivity and in a poor political calculation on its part, attempted to wash its hands of the crime.
The response from the Mexican state has been a strategy of “damage control”—that has little to nothing to do with a genuine search for the disappeared or of truth and justice.
Four days after the attacks, President Enrique Peña Nieto said that the attacks against the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala were the problem of the state of Guerrero. Some eight days later, the federal government began to collaborate with the investigations and not until after 11 days had passed did the president finally make a statement regarding the incident.
During this time, prime suspects were allowed to escape and society’s indignation rose as people were outraged by the terrible crime and the pain of the families. From the start, the clumsy response of the government already showed signs of a cover-up.
With the announcement of the “historic truth” first on Nov. 7 in the official version of the facts and then reiterated on Jan. 27 with that fateful phrase, the level of indignation deepened along with the contradictions in the official version. The federal government attempted to disassociate itself from the crime by placing all responsibility solely on the corrupt mayor—José Luis Abarca and a criminal group called “Guerreros Unidos” or “The United Warriors.” Nothing was said regarding the background of this figure whose illegal actions were well known to the authorities, including accusations of homicide in the assassination of social activist Arturo Hernández Cardona, and ties to organized crime through his wife’s family. All these charges had previously been received and ignored by the Federal Attorney General’s office.
To be able to close the (for them) embarrassing case, the Attorney General declared the students dead and claimed their bodies had been totally destroyed after being burned in a waste dump in Cocula. With this explanation he created a scenario that was almost impossible to corroborate scientifically.
Regarding the fundamental element of the motive behind a crime of this magnitude, officials offered confusing and contradictory versions regarding fears that the students planned to interrupt an event held by the mayor’s wife and/or that the drug cartel mistook them for a rival gang. The lack of response from the security forces during the entire time in which the attacks occurred and students were hunted down went unexplained.
The independent investigations of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and Interpdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the ICHR (IGIE) have pointed out the anomalies in the official explanation. It’s worth mentioning their main findings:
Following the Attorney General’s now-famous press conference on Jan. 27, the Argentine team noted the following in a Feb. 7 press release:
- The images of the Cocula waste dump obtained by the EAAF show that the burned area on the surface of the Cocula waste dump, which the Attorney General’s office indicates was used to burn the remains of the 43 teachers college students, has been used in previous fires at least since the year 2010. Consequently, they reflect an incomplete interpretation of the evidence collected at said location.
- The analysis of the skeletal remains recovered from the Cocula waste dump strongly suggest the possibility that within the burned area analyzed in the waste dump there may be present other human remains that do not pertain to the teachers college
- There is no scientific evidence that the students were burned at the Cocula waste dump.
- An important amount of evidence has yet to be processed, including longer-term analyses and a broader study of the skeletal remains and all evidence associated with them.
- The physical evidence should be interpreted considering all possibilities, without giving preference to those interpretations that only concur with the testimonies of the accused.
- The EAAF also cites: serious problems with the shipment of 20 genetic profiles of family members of the disappeared students, which disqualifies their usage; the collection of evidence outside of the agreed-upon established work standards; failure to conserve the site at the garbage dump; among other issues.
A report issued Aug. 29 by the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, the legal representative of the family members, indicates that the government version shows: 1) a lack of scientific clarity, 2) lack of legal follow-up, “to this date no state or federal authority has been investigated or detained,” 3) that the student Julio Cesar Mondragón was tortured and assassinated at the location of the incident, a fact that contradicts the argument that all the students were killed at the Cocula dump, 4) the Federal Attorney General’s office has not been able to obtain even one criminal conviction for forced disappearance (the charge is “kidnapping”), 5) there are serious contradictions in the record, including that some of the accused confessed to attacking the students not in Cocula but rather in Pueblo Viejo and in La Parota where the first graves that contained human remains not belonging to the students are located, 6) there is no inquiry yet into the role of the army, 7) the circles of corruption and collusion between drug traffickers and the Guerrero political class have yet to be investigated, 8) The Mexican State has been unable to detain major suspects, including Felipe Flores, chief of police for Iguala, and it has only arrested 5 of 15 individuals accused of the United Warriors group); 9) the report from the National Commission on Human Rights lacks coherence and depth, and 10) accusations of torture during the gathering of the confessions that form the basis of the official version have not been investigated.
Finally, the Ayotzinapa Report from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts presented in September shows that in light of the evidence and technical analysis, the government’s thesis that the students were incinerated in the Cocula garbage dump is impossible. It also indicates that some of the students’ clothing was gathered at the scene of the crime and the government failed to register it or present it to family members; that other evidence was lost or apparently destroyed, including a video recorded at the crime scene; that the autopsies did not include evaluations of important wounds and should be done over; and that the government completely omitted the existence of a fifth bus commandeered by the students. The experts sent by an agreement with the Organization of American States also reported that their request to interview the soldiers was effectively denied.
Ayotzinapa as a Crime of the State
Until now, the primary facts that sustain the accusation of a crime of the state are:
- The crime was carried out by elements of the State, directly and from the first moment, by the municipal police. Since this is one of the three levels of government and given the criminal history and signs of direct participation of the other levels, the State is guilty of the crime both in action and by omission. The Executive, the government of the state of Guerrero and the political parties cannot avoid responsibility.
- State and federal forces participated in the attacks the night of Sep. 26. Their role and actions still must be clarified.
- There was a high-level decision to not prevent the attack or to protect the students.
- All levels of the State had prior information regarding the illegal actions of the mayor and his relation to organized crime yet failed to act.
- In the course of the investigation, serious irregularities appeared that CANNOT be attributed to errors or poor coordination, such as omitting as evidence the recovered clothing, the disappearance of key evidence including the video of the crime, and the contradictions in the official explanation. This indicates an attempt at a cover-up that makes apparent the need to include political motives within the lines of investigation, something that has not been done.
- The denied request to interview soldiers of the 27th Battalion and the uncooperative and repressive response by the Mexican military rouse suspicions and point to the lack of transparency of that institution with regards to the investigation.
Perhaps the most relevant fact is the absence of a convincing motive. The students, family members and experts reject the official version and insist on the need to investigate the case in the context of a systematic and constant pattern of hostility toward the school and its activities. Indeed, for years if not decades, the government has attempted to close the Rural Teachers Colleges with the argument that they are obsolete.
Created after the Mexican Revolution in the administration of former president Lazaro Cardenas, the rural colleges teach the revolutionary ideals from that period and continue to seek recognition of the poor and marginalized rural sectors. Their revolutionary ideology clashes with neoliberalism. The youth are openly and actively opposed to the educational reforms of President Peña Nieto and reject the privatizations that characterize the economic program of the government. This creates a clash of ideologies and it is precisely at this historical moment for the country—of the imposition of neoliberal structural reforms—that the Ayotzinapa crime occurs.
The implications of a Crime of the States
The Ayotzinapa case is well known and it is not the purpose here to analyze the facts in detail in this brief presentation. The important thing is to highlight how the information that has come out—and also what remains hidden, because the mysteriously missing evidence formerly in the government’s possession and the refusal to allow questioning of the army are relevant facts—further suggests a crime of the State calculated to silence one particular group and to send a message to others.
To understand Ayotzinapa, we have to dramatically shift our analytical framework. The false narrative of the war on drugs, that portrays the security forces waging battle against the forces of evil that traffic illegal drugs and “capture” elements of a week and corrupt State, must be abandoned.
Mexico is a militarized country where an assortment of established powers and factions have made alliances of different kinds against the people. The patriarchal model of force, that has been imposed most notably since 2006, serves to exercise control over the population and territory to repress the democratic proposals coming from below. It also produces the dead, the disappeared and the mass graves and other horrors that are part of daily life in this country.
These findings reveal a framework that allows us to speak not only of a crime of the State, but also of a criminal state. What’s the difference? The difference has to do precisely with the central theme of the call for a constitutional assembly and the conclusions of the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Mexico last year: that we are up against a state that has in its entirety diverted the sovereign power entrusted to it by the people toward personal interests, through institutions—not individuals—whose primary motive is the enrichment, control and permanence of the political class in power and their international allies.
Without a doubt, Ayoztinapa shows the complicity that exists between state authorities and organized crime, but it goes beyond just complicity. Organized crime is functional to an usurper state, and vice versa. These conform not occasional alliances between corrupt politicians and cartels in specific locations, but rather a structural problem.
In this context, the violence is not the result of bad guys versus good guys, where some of the bad guys infiltrate the ranks of the good. It’s a state policy to sustain shadow powers and to sow terror in the population, specifically among certain sectors of the opposition, with the goal of repressing it. That is the purpose of the crime of Ayotzinapa, if not how else can the torture of Julio Cesar be explained?
And it is also the purpose of the war on drugs, the backdrop for this surge of violence in the country. It’s an alliance between the US and Mexican political classes, forged under the pretext of the war on drugs. The war has been the vehicle for the militarization of the country against society, and even more so against the youth that protest the selling off of their future. It’s part of a new and aggressive effort to divide up national resources such as oil, mining, water and prohibited drugs among powerful transnational actors, including the politicians.
The structural reforms—the privatization of oil, education and healthcare—all form part of the US agenda since the beginnings of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But these kinds of neoliberal policies historically encounter the resistance of the people and so they must be imposed over their interests and sovereignty.
For this reason the war on drugs, lost since day one, is for them a success. With the army out in the communities, the opponents to neocolonialism are—we are—all targets.
Ayotzinapa also teaches us that impunity is not just another problem among many that the country faces. Impunity is the mechanism that allows for domination by the powerful, almost without any counterweight, and that allows the authoritarian state with a democratic façade to operate.
Impunity is the mechanism that allows for domination by the powerful
The Tlachinollan report signals “the systematic character of impunity in Mexico” and adds that “the judicial system is ineffective in investigating and sanctioning the powerful when they commit abuses.” In light of Ayotzinapa, the supposed failures of the judicial system must be seen in their true dimensions—not just as failures, but as a system functional to the powerful.
Once again, this change in the analytical framework has major implications. The millions of dollars invested by the US government in improving the Mexican judicial system can never succeed when the problem clearly is not technical but rather political. With powerful interests underlying the current situation, there is no political will to create real justice. How can citizens believe in these authorities? Where can they turn for justice? How can citizens trust institutions under these circumstances? When the usual response is revictimization and criminalization of social activists and the very persons seeking justice?
This problem represents the biggest shift in the analytical framework. Before Ayotzinapa, many analysts referred to “power vacuums” as areas where the State had lost control to organized crime. From this perspective, the answer logically would be the recovery of territory and control on the part of the State. This is the image of the drug war that Felipe Calderón sold us, together with his partners in the United States government, when he launched the State offensive.
Under the narrative of law enforcement against crime and with the argument that the multiple cases of corruption and complicity are just “a few bad apples,” the state disassociates itself from the actions of organized crime and holds itself out as the protector of the people. It continues to militarize the country in the name of a drug war that it has no intention of winning, but that nonetheless serves its interests for controlling the population and territory. It follows a fruitless strategy—supported by the United States—of reviewing individual police officers in an effort to purge the bad ones and providing human rights training to the same security forces that are the primary violators of people’s rights and security.
Ayotzinapa doesn’t just break the myth of the State working against crime, but also changes the way in which society understands other state crimes. Now no one believes that the execution of 22 youth by the army on June 30 in Tlatlaya was an action of just seven soldiers acting against orders. Neither can anyone believe that the other thousands of extrajudicial executions were isolated incidents. No one can believe that 26,000 thousand or more disappearances in the country, at least half of which are identified by human rights organizations as forced disappearances with the participation of the State—are a coincidence or just collateral damage of the hellish drug war waged by the governments of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto. Now it is recognized as a strategy that tends to intensify, and as a national shame that reveals a corrupt State incapable of guaranteeing even the right to life.
No one can believe that by merely offering human rights courses with US police trainers, or providing tips on the transition to oral trials, all the other programs within the seemingly non-lethal part of the Merida Initiative, the Obama and Peña Nieto governments will resolve the violence and corruption that has taken hold in our country.
The reports of local, national and international organizations on the extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual abuse and other violations of human rights by law enforcement portray a country where there are not simply a few co-opted individuals, but rather where the system has been configured to protect the interests of big business, including the drug traffickers, against the population’s desire for peace and justice.
In this context, the so-called “defacto powers” or “shadow powers” have another significance as well, as a parallel and overlapping power structure. The behavior of the government in the Ayotzinapa case and many others reveals that this is not just about secret agreements between established powers and criminals, but rather the government and its institutions and agents have themselves become a shadow power by way of their illegal actions outside the institutional and constitutional order. Shadow powers finance political campaigns, and also present their own candidates; they buy judges, and also jointly participate in electoral processes where the will of the people is the last thing that matters. In many cases, they decide who lives and who dies, who rises and who falls.
This process is part of what the international jury of the Permanent People’s Tribunal calls the “deviation of power” when the state betrays the sovereign power invested in it by the people. It has many expressions—the report by Tlachinollan speaks of the “usurpation by the ‘party-ocracy’” and the PPT analyzes the phenomenon in at least eight different areas.
When viewed as an intentional deviation and form of social control, the supposed failures of the justice system in its full dimension—they are not failures, they are a system functional to power, or as the Tlachinollan report states, “The justice system is ineffective in investigating and sanctioning the powerful when they commit abuses.”
The failures of the Mexican justice system are not really failures—it is a system that functions very well for very powerful interests
Seen as such, what purpose do the millions of dollars that the US government invests in the justice system serve if the problem isn’t technical but political, if the political will to achieve justice does not exist? Instead of improvements, what we see is a marked tendency towards the criminalization of the social activists who force society to face the truth.
US aid and support serve to prolong a militarized model of the drug war, and also to distract us from the root cause of the violence: the Mexican state under the government of Enrique Peña Nieto—and the previous ones—is a criminal state that protects its interests through a system of impunity. A system of impunity dressed up in efforts to simulate justice, a system of impunity where 98% of crimes go unpunished.
All of this brings us to a major dilemma that the Ayotzinapa crime revealed in all its dimensions: If it is the very nature of the state—of this state, characterized by corruption and the betrayal of the powers vested in it to benefit private national and international interests (including organized crime)—as citizens, who do we appeal to?
In this grave context, the answer cannot be any other than the grassroots organization and establishment of the legitimate rule of law by the people.
Social organization in the face of the criminal state
Some preliminary lessons of Ayotzinapa:
- The urgent need for the autonomous organization of multiple sectors. The active and tireless participation of the family members and their representatives, social movements and NGO’s at the national and international level are indispensible and have been a great lesson for the movement in support of the Ayotzinapa students.
- The role of the participation by independent institutions with international capacity and prestige that help in the investigations visibility, access to justice and organization of the case, such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, the ICHR, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the UN, and others.
- History matters. Impunity is built on top of impunity. As the report from Tlachinollan states: “These conceptions produce an environment that replays these severe human rights violations throughout our state, that justify the impunity, poverty and marginalization, and the arrogance of the authorities and political class that today has us on the cliff’s edge.”
- Ayotzinapa reveals a structural problem that cannot be resolved without far-reaching measures. The Constitutional Assembly is a necessary process towards the reestablishment of the state that has diverted power, and creates a social space where an integral vision of the country that we want and the forces against it can be constructed.
If violence and impunity are useful instruments for a criminal government, if they are functional to the Peña Nieto government and its allies, the only way to make it dysfunctional, intolerable, unacceptable in a democratic and sovereign country is if all citizens come together and organize to reject the situation.
Ayotzinapa was an important step towards the collective rejection of the violence. The tragic crime has opened the door to the construction of a society that demands justice, that demands the truth, and that will never forget.
Presentation by the author of the Citizen’s Trial of the Usurpation of Power and State Terror in Mexico, Museum of Mexico City, August 31st, 2015 at the Popular-Citizen’s Constitutional Assembly. Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program www.americas.org in Mexico City.
Translated by Justin Coley