Mexico’s missing students: Families to search ‘until the last beat of my heart’

Portrait of Luz María Telumbre at her home
Image caption,Luz María Telumbre says she still hopes to be reunited with her son, nine years after he disappeared with 42 other students

By Oliver Englehart, Mark Casebow & Laura Gaynor

BBC News

Nearly a decade after 43 students went missing in Mexico, families are still searching for answers. During a drug war that has infiltrated every level of society and led to the disappearances of 110,000 people, can they ever find the truth?

“It’s not like when a person dies and you say, well, at least I know where they are,” says Luz María Telumbre about her only son, Christian.

She and her husband Clemente were given a two-gram fragment of bone from his right foot in 2020, six years after he disappeared. It was seemingly all that remained of him, but Christian’s family have not given up hope that they will one day be reunited.

“While I don’t have a whole body, my struggle continues,” Clemente tells the BBC documentary Disappeared: Mexico’s Missing 43.

On the evening of 26 September 2014, Christian was part of a group of male students from poor rural areas who were travelling from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college, which has a strong history of activism, to an annual protest in Mexico City.

More than 60 students gathered in the city of Iguala and took over buses at the station, asking the drivers to divert their destination – a tacitly accepted tradition in these parts of Mexico, where public transport is scarce. But as they left, they saw roadblocks had been set up and shots were fired.

Police surrounded the buses and, in the chaotic scenes that followed, 43 students disappeared.

Buses pictured after the attack when 43 students went missing
Image caption,The students were attacked as they travelled in several buses

In 2019, after years had passed without finding the students or bringing anyone to justice, human rights lawyer Omar Gómez Trejo was appointed to lead a new investigation.

Now living in Washington DC because he fears Mexico is no longer safe for him, he tells the BBC: “We needed to work on the disappearance, but we also needed to work on the cover-up.”

The previous investigation, led by Mexico’s attorney general and the chief of the Criminal Investigation Agency, Tomás Zerón, had produced its answer within three months of the disappearances. The investigators declared it “the historical truth”.

They claimed that corrupt police working for the former Iguala city mayor and a local drug cartel, the ​​Guerreros Unidos, had detained the students. Cartel members then murdered them, burned their bodies in a local dump and threw the ashes in the San Juan river.

Families of the missing were incensed that the investigators could present the case as solved without finding their loved ones. Cristina Bautista Salvador, mother of Benjamín, one of the missing students, tells the BBC the government thought its announcement would “shut them up” and “send the peasants away”.

Omar Gómez Trejo, pictured in exile in Washington DC
Image caption,Omar Gómez Trejo said investigating the disappearances was “the most important job I have ever had”

But soon cracks began to appear in this “historical truth”. Independent forensic anthropology experts, brought in by the lawyers representing the families, cast doubt on the discovery of a bone with DNA that tested as a match for one of the missing students.

The Mexican government said the students had been on four buses when they were attacked – but CCTV evidence revealed students on a fifth bus that had never been mentioned.

Fresh hope for the families of the missing arrived when a new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was elected in 2018. The following year, he announced a new investigation, to be led by Mr Gómez Trejo.

“It has been the most important job I have ever had in my professional career,” Mr Gómez Trejo tells the BBC. Soon after he began work, a video of the former investigator, Mr Zerón, was leaked.

It shows a blindfolded man with his hands tied behind his back. “The first time you bullshit me, I’ll kill you, man,” Mr Zerón tells him.

Mr Gómez Trejo’s team discovered more than 60 videos of unlawful interrogations carried out during the original government investigation, led by Mr Zerón.

Leaked footage of Tomás Zerón and a prisoner
Image caption,A leaked video showed Tomás Zerón threatening to kill a suspect if he did not co-operate

The suspect in the leaked video has no defence lawyer with him and is being “held captive, handcuffed”, Mr Gómez Trejo points out. “This is a scene of torture,” he says. “To torture someone is to ruin an investigation.”

With this and other evidence, Mr Zerón was accused of torture, forced disappearance and obstruction of justice. But before he could be arrested, he fled to Israel, which has no extradition treaty with Mexico.

The BBC found him in Tel Aviv, where he denied torture. “It’s probably something that I shouldn’t have said, it was out of line. You can see I threatened him,” Mr Zerón says. “But I never tortured him.”

He says he did not receive instructions to cover up anything done by federal forces and was not responsible for the students’ disappearance. Mr Zerón says he was “important enough to be blamed but not so important anyone would come to my defence”.

Former Criminal Investigation Agency chief Tomás Zerón, pictured in Israel
Image caption,Tracked down in Israel by the BBC, Tomás Zerón denied torturing the suspects

After the discovery of unlawful practices in the original investigation, former suspects were released from prison and began to reveal information to Mr Gómez Trejo’s new inquiry.

That led Mr Gómez Trejo to a new search site, about 1km (0.6 miles) from the rubbish dump where the original investigation claimed the bodies had been burned. In a criminal investigation, says the special prosecutor, “every millimetre, every centimetre” matters.

At the new search location, called the Butcher’s Ravine, they uncovered remains that could be traced to two more students – one of them named as Christian Rodríguez Telumbre.

Mr Gómez Trejo told a press conference in 2020 that the fact these remains were not found in either of the places identified by the first investigation – the dump or the San Juan river – meant “the ‘historical truth’ is over”.

A view of the dump with crime scene tape and police officers standing by
Image caption,Police at the dump where the initial investigation claimed the bodies were burned

Meanwhile, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had been watching the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel since 2013, the year before the students disappeared.

Former DEA special agent Mark Giuffre tells the BBC the cartel, described merely as a local gang by the Mexican government, had been smuggling heroin worth about $122m a year into the US via Chicago – “an absolutely unprecedented amount of heroin coming in the United States by a single organisation”.

Surveillance showed that the cartel was using buses leaving from the Iguala station to smuggle their drugs. “It seemed to us that it was clear as could be – that the students unknowingly hijacked the wrong bus,” says Mr Giuffre.

In 2022, Mr Gómez Trejo’s investigation was given access to the DEA’s tapped telephone calls and investigative case file on the Guerreros Unidos. The phone calls “talk about the corruption existing between certain authorities and the Guerreros Unidos cartel – payments, having parties, jobs they’ve done together,” Mr Gómez Trejo says.

“What you have is the participation of federal authorities such as the army, working hand in hand with criminal groups. The proof we had was convincing and strong.”

Posters with the slogan "they took him alive, we want him alive" in Spanish with images of the missing 43 students
Image caption,Posters with the slogan “they took him alive, we want him alive” in Spanish memorialise the missing 43 students

The investigation had already raised questions about the role of the military. It was operating the camera surveillance system in Iguala on the night of the disappearance. Investigators also say the army was monitoring communications of the Guerreros Unidos cartel in real time.

But if the army was aware of cartel operations before, during and after the attacks, why did it not intervene to rescue the students?

The government had even revealed that the army had planted undercover agents in the teacher training college to spy on the students.

Investigators say that despite an order from the Mexican president to hand over all their information, the army has not complied.

“What we have received is a refusal, a lack of collaboration and obstruction in the search for the truth,” says Carlos Beristain, part of an international group of independent experts (known as GIEI) who had been investigating since 2014 and worked alongside Mr Gómez Trejo’s inquiry.

The army says it has handed over all the information in its archives and President López Obrador has said: “If progress has been made, it’s precisely because of the co-operation of the army and navy.”

A silhouette of a soldier patrolling in Iguala after the disappearances in 2014
Image caption,The army denied allegations that it has obstructed investigations into the disappearances

On the night of the disappearance, investigators say there are moment-by-moment reports from the army, except between 21:15 and 22:30 local time. http://zorozuno.com/ Mr Gómez Trejo told the BBC this blank space is “part of the disappearance” and “a result of erasing all the evidence, leaving no trace of what was done to disappear the 43 students”.

Armed with the telephone tap evidence, in August last year the investigation team obtained arrest warrants for the former attorney general – who conducted the first investigation with Mr Zerón – and 83 others, including 20 soldiers on duty in Iguala on the night of the disappearances.

But days later, 21 of the warrants were withdrawn by the office of the current attorney general, including most of those for the soldiers.

Mr Gómez Trejo says he was told by the attorney general he could no longer investigate the case. He decided to resign. “The rules of the game, the rules by which I came to the prosecutor’s office, have changed,” the special prosecutor says.

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