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Mexico’s New President Restarts Investigation Into 43 Missing Students

Category: Americas,World

MEXICO CITY — President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico created a truth commission on Monday to re-examine the case of 43 students whose disappearance in 2014, still unsolved after a disputed investigation, has come to represent the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have vanished in more than a decade of the drug war.

Just two days after taking over as Mexico’s leader, Mr. López Obrador set a new tone for the government, pledging to deliver justice to victims of violence and corruption.

“I assure you there won’t be impunity in this sad and painful case,” said Mr. López Obrador, flanked by two of the missing students’ parents. The students’ relatives, many from rural communities in Mexico’s poorest states, sat in the front row of the president’s first public event at the National Palace, holding large images of their missing sons.

Alejandro Encinas, the incoming deputy interior minister for human rights, will head the commission. It will start a new investigation under a special prosecutor’s office and will aim to consider all leads, including those that were ignored or discarded by the former government.

The students, who were studying to be rural teachers, disappeared in September 2014 from the southern city of Iguala, after the municipal police attacked the buses they were riding. The government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto said that the students were then handed over to a local drug gang, which killed them and burned their bodies in a nearby garbage dump. The remains of only one student have been identified.

The case soon became a symbol of widespread disappearances, violence and corruption in Mexico — and the impunity with which such crimes were carried out.

The commission will include the students’ relatives and their advocates, as well as government officials. As part of their mandate, its members will consider the recommendations issued by international experts from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Experts appointed by the commission reviewed the case in 2015 and rejected the official account of events.

The government, granting one of the main demands of victims’ advocates, will invite members of both international organizations to help supervise the new efforts.

Only last week, the National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous government agency, published a report that sharply criticized the former government’s handling of the case, citing a list of irregularities and failures, including signs that key witnesses had been tortured.

Mr. López Obrador, who took office on Saturday, won a landslide election five months ago on a wave of anger about rampant violence and corruption, and fulfilled a campaign promise to create the commission with his first public decree.

The students’ relatives have led street protests and rallies for four years to condemn what they called the mishandling of the case, which they said deprived them of the truth and justice.

They have demanded a transparent and effective inquiry that follows the leads that contradicted the official account.

“We ask you, as a father, to help us, to pull us out of this dumpster where Peña Nieto left us, and for you to gain the trust of all Mexicans, because we don’t trust anyone anymore,” said María Martínez, the mother of one of the missing students, referring to the former president. The flawed investigation prompted a national outcry, and Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval ratings plummeted.

In a detailed investigation of the case, experts from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights said there was no physical evidence to sustain the former government’s account. After they announced their preliminary conclusions, members of the panel said they were subjected to a campaign of harassment and interference.

Evidence later emerged showing that some of the lawyers, journalists and activists looking into the case were targeted with surveillance technology bought by the Mexican government.

The creation of the new commission was first ordered by a federal court in Mexico this summer, in response to legal motions filed by suspects in the abduction who accused the government of using torture to force confessions. The experts who first reported suspicions of torture warned that such violations could undermine the legality of the entire investigation.

Mr. Peña Nieto had refused the court’s order, saying it had no authority over the matter. His government’s position on the case infuriated relatives of the missing, and drew outrage from others whose families had suffered similar violence.

“We ask the rest of the country to put themselves in our shoes for just one day, for them to feel what it is to have a loved one missing,” Ms. Martínez said. “It’s not only our 43, there are thousands of other families suffering.”


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