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Law and Disorder in Mexico

The disappearance of 43 college students only proves


what everyone in Mexico already knows: The
authorities are not to be trusted.

BY DANIEL WILKINSON-NOVEMBER 18, 2014

Mexico's attorney general, Jess Murillo Karam, says his


office has finally solved the crime that has riveted his country for more than
a month: the disappearance of 43 college students at the hands of police in
Iguala, a small city in the southern state of Guerrero. In a news
conference on Nov. 7, Murillo Karam announced that three gang members
had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, leaving only

ashes and bone shards on the bank of a river below a municipal dump
outside a small mountain town called Cocula.
The attorney general's account may well be true. But the families of the
missing students aren't buying it. They say they will not concede that their
children are dead until they hear it from an independent source -- namely, a
team of Argentine forensic anthropologists who will study whatever DNA
may have survived the incineration.
The families' skepticism is understandable. On countless occasions over the
past decade, Mexico's police, military, and justice system have proved
themselves untrustworthy, unaccountable, and unprepared to handle the
public-security catastrophe that has taken the lives of more than 90,000
Mexicans since the drug war began in 2006.
In Iguala, the authorities showed a remarkable disregard for the fate of the
students from the moment their ordeal began on Sept. 26. The mass
abduction took place just 100 meters from a military base. Yet the army
brigade stationed there -- ostensibly to combat violent crime in the region -did nothing as police opened fire on the unarmed students, shooting one in
the head and injuring four others. The police then forced dozens of students
into several vehicles and drove off, first to a police station and then,
apparently, to meet their executioners on the outskirts of town.
President Enrique Pea Nieto's first public reaction to the case several days
later was to declare that it was not his government's problem, but rather
the responsibility of local authorities in Guerrero. The president
soon backtracked, but it would be 10 days before his attorney general
opened an investigation into the fate of the missing students.
I spoke with the attorney general recently and asked why it had taken so
long to take on the case. He said it was because under Mexican law his

office needed prior authorization from authorities in Guerrero to intervene.


Once they obtained it, he insisted, they opened one of the most ambitious
investigations in recent history, deploying thousands of agents and
detaining scores of suspects.

Even if this is technically accurate, it's very hard to believe the federal
government could not have pressed state-level officials to grant the
authorization more quickly. Indeed, the delay was entirely consistent with
the passive approach the Mexican government has taken to other human
rights atrocities in recent years.
Take for example the case of Jos Luis Abarca, the now-former mayor of
Iguala who was arrested in early November and presented as prime suspect
for ordering the 43 students' abduction. Abarca was also implicated in the
abduction and murder of a prominent critic of his administration and two
other political activists in May 2013. It took federal prosecutors until June
2014 to begin investigating the case, and they only brought charges
against the mayor in October -- after the 43 students went missing and the
national spotlight was turned on Iguala. Had Abarca been investigated and
arrested sooner, perhaps the students' fate would have been different.
In another recent case, federal prosecutors waited three months to open an
investigation into the killing of 22 people by soldiers in June in Tlatlaya, a
small town in the state of Mexico. For weeks, the
governmentmaintained that the soldiers had killed the 22 people in a gun
battle. In fact, according to a report issued by the national human rights
ombudsman in October, at least 12 of the people were killed, execution
style, by the soldiers after they had surrendered. And the human rights
violations extend beyond the soldiers: According to the ombudsman's

report, state prosecutors forced three women who witnessed the killings to
sign statements exonerating the soldiers, beating two of the women and
threatening to rape all three.
From the outset, there were multiple reasons to question the official
account of the Tlatlaya killings. Yet the federal attorney general's office only
opened an investigation after the Latin American edition
of Esquiremagazine published an interview with one of the witnesses in
September. The attorney general's office has since charged seven soldiers
in the case, including three for "aggravated homicide" and "altering the
crime scene," as well as a lieutenant for his role in covering up the crime.
That's a start in terms of guaranteeing legal accountability, but it's not
enough.What federal prosecutors have not done is to open an investigation
into other officials' participation in the cover-up. When I asked the attorney
general why not, he responded indignantly: "What cover-up?" The senior
military officials had accurately reported what the lieutenant had told them,
Murillo said, and other government officials had repeated this version.
Moreover, he pointed out, as attorney general he was obligated to presume
"good faith" on the part of other state institutions.
He made a similar observation at the news conference on Nov. 7 when
asked about the military's failure to intervene to save the students in
Iguala. "What would have happened if the army had gone out at that
moment?" he asked. "Who would they have supported? Obviously the
established authority." That is, the police that were busy attacking a group
of college students.
To be fair, Murillo's point here was that an army intervention would have
only made matters worse. But in his moment of candor, he captured what
many Mexicans consider to be an essential truth that the Iguala tragedy

has exposed about their country: Its public security institutions are not
functioning as safeguards of public security. On the contrary, they are a
central part of the problem -- whether it's police colluding with murderous
gangs, soldiers executing civilians, prosecutors torturing witnesses, or
senior officials using the law to justify inaction in the face of such atrocities.

Recently, I met with the fathers of three of the missing students. Two sat in
silence -- one trembling uncontrollably, the other absolutely still, seemingly
oblivious to the tears rolling down his face -- while a third described the
"impotence and rage" they felt as a result of the government's failure to
protect or find their missing sons. "We're up against the biggest monster of
them all," he said with an anguished sigh.

"What monster?" I assumed he was referring to the violence of organized


crime. But his answer was more disturbing.

"The law."
Posted by Thavam