1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Five years after Iguala, families still seek justice

Anabel Hernandez
September 30, 2019

The Mexican government has the power to investigate what really happened to the 43 students who disappeared in 2016. Investigators must speak to witnesses and protect those who share information, writes Anabel Hernandez.

A woman covering her face in protest during a march for the missing Mexican students
Image: Reuters/E. Garrido

I arrived at Iguala at the end of October 2014 with my colleague Steve Fisher. At the time I was forced to live in Berkeley, California, after I was threatened for exposing connections between high-level Mexican government officials and the Sinaloa Cartel. I wanted to build a new future in the United States with my two children and did not intend to return to Mexico for a long time.

But on that fateful night of September 26, everything changed: one hundred students from a teachers' college in Ayotzinapa were attacked by armed gunmen. In the aftermath, 43 of them disappeared. It was as if that they had vanished into thin air.

Read more: Project Miroslava reveals web of organized crime and corruption behind journalist's murder

Local mayor implicated

The official version of the story given by then-President Enrique Pena Nieto, the chief prosecutor, the defense minister and the interior minister was that the students had come to Iguala in several buses to disrupt a political rally for the mayor's wife. The mayor then ordered the police to intervene and, with the support of a local group of criminals, make them disappear. The 43 students were reportedly murdered that very night and burnt on a rubbish dump.

DW's Anabel Hernández
Journalist and author Anabel Hernandez

When we arrived in Iguala, the atmosphere was tense and dismal. A source had sent me secret documents about the case. I mapped out the route that the buses took from their arrival in Iguala until they went into the city — the roads, through which the first two buses drove and then the other three, which were attacked in the night. I identified the names of all the students who had survived the attack and contacted them to set up interviews.

I spoke with many of them; together we went through the streets where the attacks took place. We also spoke with local residents. I could see the fear in their eyes when we asked: "Were you at home when it happened? What did you see or hear?" What their eyes betrayed was contradicted by their answers. Everyone maintained that on this evening they had not been in Iguala. Even the traders whose shops were open at the time in question, the neighbors, the commuters who go this way every day, denied having seen or heard anything. The conversations ended abruptly.

This was the first of many journeys which I undertook to Iguala to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students. Gradually, after I had knocked on the same doors multiple times, some of the people in Iguala began to tell about the night of terror. They cried, they trembled, they felt guilty because they did not do anything. One teacher was in shock because he had to remove blood stains from the exterior wall of his house a day after the attack.

Soldiers among the perpetrators?

Now I understood why the surviving students were hardly in a position to follow every detail of what happened. They were hiding to protect themselves from the bullets while their fellow students were being kidnapped. From the statements of the residents I knew the students were not attacked by uniformed members of the federal and local police, but from persons in civilian clothes. Some witnesses said unprompted that they acted like soldiers.

Read more: Mexico's children and youths face monstrous violence

I could see three of the five buses in which the students were travelling when they were attacked. They were parked in a compound site, dirty, facing the elements, without seals on the doors or windows. Although the buses portrayed a crime scene, they stood there completely unprotected.

A demonstration in Mexico City for the missing students in Iguala
Five years later, it's still not known what happened to the 43 people who disappeared in IgualaImage: Imago/ZUMA Press/I. Olivares

I was able to obtain the police interrogation record from Iguala and Cocula. Apparently they confessed to everything and said that they alone were guilty. But their statements were contradictory. Everyone told a different version of the events, even though they were supposed to have committed the crime together at the same place and at the same time.

Then I read the medical reports which were compiled shortly after their "confessions." In each one were descriptions of wounds from punches and burns. I consulted a specialist doctor who confirmed to me that they were injuries caused by torture and burns from electroshocks. Just one of the police officers, Alejandro Lara, dared to admit that he was tortured during his "confession" and that he would be lodging an official complaint.

Even the wives of the alleged perpetrators were tortured

I spoke with the wives of the police officers, whom the government and public opinion had pilloried for being solely guilty. The majority of them were arrested by the federal police and members of the army. They also were tortured with electroshocks to their genitals, mouths and ears. Many were sexually abused in order to extract confessions. Eyewitnesses to the events were tortured and accused of being members of the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos. The government arrested more that 100 people, 80% of whom were tortured.

There is still no trace of the students who disappeared. Months later international experts confirmed that there had been no cremation on the rubbish dump. The government thereupon prepared a plastic sack with a burnt bone from one of the students and argued that it had been found in a river. Using the bone they identified the student as Alexander Mora. Nothing is known about what happened to the rest of his body or the whereabouts of the other 42 students.

Read more: Femicide in Mexico on the rise and growing more brutal

Contrary to protests from the government of Pena Nieto, I was able to document that units from the 27th Infantry Battalion had been watching the students since they had left Ayotzinapa, four hours before the attack in Iguala. The soldiers followed them and, dressed in civilian clothes, took part in the ambush on the buses. The attackers also included members of the federal police, the local police and the local prosecutors. All of them against 100 teaching students between the ages of 16 and 22.

Police escort arrested fellow police for their role in the attack in Iguala
Multiple police officers were arrested for their involvement in the attackImage: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Cortez

Caught up in the drug war

The attack concentrated on two of the five buses in which the students were traveling. The 43 students who disappeared were on these two buses. I learned from a source close to the Beltran-Leyva Cartel that the two buses were transporting a shipment of heroin worth $2 million (€1.8 million). The students had stopped these buses on the road by chance and "occupied" them without knowing the special cargo they were transporting. They just wanted to "borrow" the buses to travel to Mexico City to take part in a protest demonstration on October 2, the anniversary of a 1968 massacre in which the military brutally attacked protesting students.

The owner of the buses with the hidden heroin was a drug baron who ordered members of the 27th Infantry Battalion to recover the goods at whatever cost. The military had taken full control over the city and its police force two years earlier.

Shortly after the 43 students disappeared, there was evidence and testimony indicating that it was members of 27th Infantry Battalion who coordinated the attack and kidnapping. In the days directly after the kidnapping there were anonymous phone calls from citizens to emergency numbers saying that some of the students were taken to the 27th Infantry Battalion's base and other places in the vicinity.

All this information has been made public in the magazine Proceso as well as in my 2016 book "La veradera noche de Iguala" ("The truth about the night of Iguala"). The lawyers for the missing students' parents, as well as members of the Inter American Commission for Human Rights, asked me to share the results of my research with them. They came to similar conclusions in their investigation.

Can families finally get justice?

Five years have passed since the attack. Five years during which the fathers and mothers of the 43 missing young people have been unable to embrace their children or cry at their graves. I know that the new government of left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with a team of forensic experts and anthropologists, has searched at least 200 different locations in an effort to find the 43 missing persons.

Read more: Mexican President Lopez Obrador's rhetoric 'emboldens other civil servants' to attack press

The courts in Mexico have confirmed the results of my research and since last year have started releasing persons who were unjustly imprisoned. A few days ago a group of 21 police officers who were accused of committing the crime were released, including Alejandro Lara. The current government protested and accused the judges of corruption. But there isn't an honest judge in the world who would have convicted one of the accused after seeing the medical reports about the torture, which have also been confirmed.

President Lopez Obrador wearing a t-shirt in memory of what happened in Iguala
President Lopez Obrador has vowed to investigate the attack and disappearances in IgualaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Notimex/G. Granados

The imprisonment of innocent people helps the real perpetrators and guarantees their immunity from prosecution. If the government of Lopez Obrador wants to know the truth, if the public prosecutor wants to do its work and when the Truth Commission wants to solve the case, then it must, as I did five years ago, go to Iguala to see what is obvious for everyone there. It is essential that the government opens a dialogue with society and protects those who provide information.

I am still searching for the students — with the same determination that I look for my father, who disappeared without a trace in December 2000.

The suspected mastermind is known

The suspected owner of the drugs, who ordered that the students disappear, is the drug boss Martin Villegas Navarrete, known as "Elegante," a member of the Beltran-Leyva Cartell. He used buses to control a route for the heroin trade in the United States, presumably with the knowledge of the drivers. It is unclear to me whether the bus companies themselves are also complicit.

Villegas Navarrete discussed his role in the case in an intercepted phone call in 2015. One week after the call he was arrested by the federal police. But instead of putting him in a high security prison, which would have conformed to his drug boss caliber, he was sent to a relatively luxurious medium security prison in Mexico City. Villegas Navarrete never spoke again about the events in Iguala. On September 24, 2016, I visited in his mahogany-paneled prison cell, equipped with its own bath, cooking unit, television and other niceties. Judging by what he told me he was without doubt the one who had control over the area around Iguala at the time. As I insisted on finding out more about the 43 students, he stared at me and said that he sometimes could be very nice, but was also in a position of killing people.

Villegas Navarrete was later extradited to the US for drug trafficking and money laundering. The Mexican government never charged him with a crime. He ultimately made a deal with US prosecutors. In June 2019 he was fined $800,000 and sentenced to 165 months imprisonment, a little more than 14 years.

Read more: Mexico: 'Journalism is the only source of truth'

The current Mexican government could interrogate Villegas Navarrete as part of a new investigation. He should be questioned about possible accomplices and fellow criminals who were active in Guerrero at the time of the attack. Videos recorded by local residents, which they had in their possession at least until 2016, should be secured, especially footage captured by residents in the center of Iguala.

I am publishing a photograph today which has been on my mind for several years. I have tried with the assistance of a university to verify it, but I was told that a 100% certainty was not possible. I leave it up to the readers, in the hope that someone has the necessary tools and could share the results if they are of interest.

A photo obtained by Anabel Hernandez that was captured from a window and appears to show two buses from which 43 Mexican students disappeared in 2014
Image: Privat

This photo was taken during the attacks on the buses by a person from one of the houses on the street. You can see the bus with the inscription "Estrella de oro," from which around 20 people disappeared. You can recognize the legs of people in uniform. You can also see a white truck on the left side of the bus. If you alter the photo's colors and contrasts, you can see human silhouettes inside the truck, with heads and hands sticking out.

When I went to the resident of the house where the truck had parked, they told me that they moved away shortly after the attack. When I wanted to speak to another resident I was told categorically that he didn't want to talk about it.

The photo was taken when the students were abducted. It is probably their last sign of life.

Journalist and author Anabel Hernandez has reported for many years about drug cartels and corruption in Mexico. Following murder threats she was forced to leave Mexico and now lives in Europe. She was awarded Freedom of Speech Award 2019 at the Global Media Forum Deutsche Welle in Bonn.