The bodies of Mexico’s missing 43 students were not incinerated at a trash dump in the town of Cocula, as President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration has maintained since November 2014, according to an independent forensic analysis presented Tuesday in Mexico City.
The study by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team pokes further holes into the Mexican government’s largely discredited explanation of the students’ disappearance at the hands of police in the city of Iguala -- an event that triggered an international protest movement against violence and impunity in Mexico.
Mexico’s former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam first said in November 2014 that authorities had established that the missing students were abducted by local police, who handed them over to members of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang. The government said the gang members then took the students to a trash dump in the nearby town of Cocula, executed them and incinerated their bodies.
But the report by the Argentine team, known by its Spanish initials as EAAF, disputes key elements of that story.
There’s not nearly enough damage to the vegetation at the Cocula trash dump site to support the contention that a fire large enough to burn the corpses of 43 people took place there. While the site does show some fire damage, some of it existed prior to Sept. 26, 2014, when the students were abducted, according to satellite imagery.
“It’s time to start looking for the students in other places,” EAAF’s Director Mercedes Doretti said, according to the BBC.
Teeth fragments recovered from the site showed different states of fire damage. But if they had been burned together in one large fire, as authorities had said, the bones found near one another would show more consistent burn patterns, the EAAF report contends.
The ballistic evidence also contradicts the government’s statements. The Argentine team recovered bullets belonging to some 39 different guns at the Cocula trash dump, most of them from long arms, like rifles. Those who the government says confessed to killing the students at the trash site, however, generally said in their testimony that they used handguns.
“There’s a clear contradiction between the weapons the suspects say they used and the ballistic evidence found at the site,” the report says.
Questions have long surrounded the validity of the alleged killers’ confessions, since at least four of them showed signs of torture. The Mexican attorney general’s office acknowledged in at least one instance that a man who supposedly confessed to killing the students bore signs of torture when he was turned over to prosecutors by security forces. The attorney general's office certified his testimony and proceeded with the case against him regardless.
The forensic scientists also sharply criticized the attorney general’s office for visiting the site on Nov. 15, 2014, and collecting evidence without the Argentine team present, despite having previously agreed to examine the area with the team. Government investigators found more than 40 bullet shells that day, but the Argentine team questioned their veracity, saying they had been recovered in an already examined area, according to Mexican news site Animal Político.
The Mexican government acknowledged receiving the EAAF report and said it planned to undertake a new forensic investigation of the Cocula site, according to The Associated Press.
The Argentine team’s report is the latest to rebut the Mexican government’s explanation for the country's most high-profile human rights crime. In September, a panel of experts fielded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also concluded that the forensic evidence flatly contradicted the government’s contention that the students’ bodies were incinerated at the Cocula trash dump.
The Peña Nieto administration has arrested more than 100 people in connection with the case, though it has yet to convict any of them. The investigation has been marred by allegations of the use of torture.
José Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, called the Peña Nieto administration’s explanation of what happened to the missing students a “fiction” in a statement released after the EAAF report.
“What Mexico needs isn't just an investigation into the whereabouts of the disappeared students, but also an investigation of the authorities who produced the unsubstantiated official version of events, including the former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam,” Vivanco said in the statement. “The authorities involved must be made to answer for their role in perpetuating impunity.”
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