On September 26, 2014, 43 students at the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa were reportedly kidnapped following a confrontation with municipal police, as they returned to campus from the nearby city of Iguala. At least 28 bodies, believed to be the remains of kidnapped students, were subsequently discovered in a mass grave near where the confrontation occurred.
More than 100 students had reportedly commandeered three university buses to travel from their campus to the nearby city of Iguala, where they protested a lack of funding for their school, and attempted to solicit donations for it. As the students were returning to campus, municipal police reportedly pulled over and boarded the buses, and opened fire, killing three of the students. Although the details remain unclear, witnesses have alleged that police subsequently took a number of the students into custody, and handed them over to a local gang known as Guerreros Unidos, members of whom are believed to have infiltrated the local police force. Media reports suggest that the gang members marched the students up a hill, where they killed them, burned and buried several of their bodies, while throwing others’ remains into a nearby river. As of this report, DNA tests have confirmed the identity of one of the students among the dead.
While the investigation of the case remains ongoing as of this report, Mexican authorities have arrested Iguala’s mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, on suspicion that Abarca was the “mastermind” behind the abduction. Upon learning of the students’ planned protest in Iguala, Abarca allegedly ordered the local police chief to stop it. As of this report, authorities have detained 90 people, including 58 police, in connection with the investigation of the mass killing.
Scholars at Risk is gravely concerned about the disappearance and apparent mass killing of students. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims and their families, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. State and local officials have a responsibility to ensure the security of higher education communities, to prevent future attacks, and to hold perpetrators accountable.
Six weeks after the students disappeared, Mexican authorities determined that they had been taken to a garbage dump in the nearby city of Cocula and killed, after which their bodies were cremated. On September 5, 2015, however, a panel of five experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report finding “clear shortcomings” and “serious inconsistencies” with the Mexican authorities’ investigation of the case. The IACHR report found that there was no evidence that the students were, in fact, burned in the Cocula dump. Further, because the evidence did not establish where, or even if, 42 of the 43 students had been killed, the report recommended that they should still be considered disappeared. Accordingly, the report recommended that the Mexican authorities generally reassess their investigation of the case.
On April 24, 2016, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) panel issued their second and final report on the disappearance of the 43 students. In a press conference to discuss the report’s release, the panel described evidence of torture, bribery and forced confessions among those detained over the students’ disappearance; questioned the Mexican authorities’ methods of collecting and handling evidence; and accused the authorities of obstructing their investigation. The panel’s report reaffirmed inconsistencies with the government findings noted in their September 2015 report, including the lack of evidence to support earlier suspicions that the students’ bodies were incinerated at a garbage dump in Cacula. The government will reportedly not renew the IACHR panel’s mandate, which is scheduled to end on April 30, and it is unclear whether another non-state group will continue the investigation.