MEXICO CITY — Emiliano Navarrete’s year has been hell since his son Jose Angel, a handsome, outgoing 18-year-old nicknamed Pepe, frantically called late one night. He said police were shooting at him and his classmates.
The call cut out. Pepe hasn’t been seen since.
His disappearance is frighteningly common in Mexico, where more than 25,000 people are listed as missing.
But this story is different: Pepe was one of 43 teaching students kidnapped on Sept. 26, 2014 in the western city of Iguala, allegedly by local police working with a drug cartel. Official investigators say the young men were murdered and then burned to ash.
Their story has transformed Mexico, a country brutalized by almost a decade of drug war and crime that have killed more than 164,000 people, by the government’s count.
The students’ families have made their grief and outrage public. They and their sons have become emblems of the devastating violence.
“We’ve had to give up everything,” Navarrete says. “We focus everything on looking for our sons.”
But a year after the incident, truth — and for the families, closure — has been elusive. Many Mexicans refuse to believe a word of the official line. Now they may be vindicated: an independent investigation this month makes convincing arguments the government’s story does not add up.
Backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a leading intergovernmental group in Washington, the investigation found possible torture of detainees, lost evidence and other significant holes in official claims.
The case asks an essential question for Mexico: In the face of organized crime, is the government inept or is it complicit?
In Washington, there’s another question: How much longer can the United States government give Mexico millions in security aid ($194 million this year) and watch as atrocities pile up?
Since the beginning, the families of the missing feel they’ve been fighting against, not working with, the government to find their sons.
“If we just sat around, we knew the government wouldn’t do anything,” Navarrete says.
They’ve marched across the country for justice and mobilized tens of thousands into the streets against a status quo of corruption, impunity, and what seemed a frighteningly low value of human life.
They went to the United Nations for help, and even canvassed 43 U.S. cities, asking human rights groups to challenge the official investigation.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, under a mountain of pressure, promised the families whatever was necessary to find their sons.
The authorities presented a bone fragment found near a trash dump outside Iguala matched the DNA of one of the 43 students. But that claim is dubious. Argentine forensics experts assisting the government said they couldn’t trace the bone back to the dump.
In January, the government offered its version of events: Iguala’s then-mayor allegedly worked with the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, and, after being upset by the students, ordered crooked local cops to take the students out.
“Without a doubt, the students were kidnapped, killed, incinerated, then thrown into the San Juan River, in that order,” then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said.
Officials batted questions from the victims’ families.
This was the “historic truth,” the attorney general said smugly. Case closed.
Security expert Alejandro Hopes says the government’s priorities were clear. “What was important at the beginning of  was to find closure for this for political reasons, not necessarily to find conclusions in the case,” he says.
The government later tweaked the suspected motive for the savage crime, saying the Guerreros Unidos had mistaken the students for a rival gang invading their territory.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, an independent team of top lawyers and forensics experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been reviewing the case file page by page.
“What you see is a description of a really botched investigation,” Hope says of the team’s Sept. 6 report. “[The government] lost some evidence, they did not perform some of the usual tasks involved in an investigation of this kind. They didn’t have a clear timeline of what happened when.”
The report’s findings added fuel to accusations that the authorities somehow staged the crime scene.
The cornerstone of the government’s investigation — a fire at a trash dump outside Iguala that erased virtually all DNA evidence — is scientifically “impossible,” the report says. The bodies may have been burned, but not at the dump.
The report suggests the local cops weren’t alone that night. The federal police and army may have been involved or, at best, knew about the attacks and failed to prevent them. Suspiciously, the only witnesses the commission wasn’t allowed to interview in its audit were soldiers stationed at an army base near where the students went missing.
The report also casts doubt on confessions made by the alleged perpetrators. Their stories and timelines don’t fit together. It notes that 77% of detainees in the case showed physical injuries, possibly inflicted via torture, and that the four alleged killers were covered in wounds after confessing.
The commission recommended the Mexican government restart the investigation and pursue new leads. The government insists their investigation is ongoing.
“The attorney general’s office will not rest until all those involved and responsible are identified and brought to justice,” said Attorney General Arely Gomez.
But instead of reversing any of the questionable conclusions, the attorney general has doubled down with new evidence: a DNA match for a second body at the dump and the arrest of the alleged chief hit man for the Guerreros Unidos cartel, the man suspected of coordinating the attack.
But the Argentine forensics experts from before have returned, disputing the DNA evidence. They say the identification isn’t definitive, merely a probability, and reiterate that sloppy handling of the evidence makes it impossible to confirm the remains came from the dump.
“Of course I don’t believe it,” Navarrete says. “It’s already been proven they weren’t burned there so where did the fragments come from? This doesn’t change anything for us. They’re still lying.”
The truth is still elusive. Once it’s found, the implications could be seismic.
What if, for instance, instead of a group of corrupt local cops, federal officers are actually found to have murdered students in a huge cover-up?
It could force the U.S. government, which has allocated $2.5 billion to help Mexico fight cartels since 2008, to stop sending the funds. It could make the world see Mexico as an oppressive regime, instead of a nation on the rise.
During the last few weeks, public outrage is rising again over the case. Last week some families said they’d go on a 43-hour hunger strike — an hour for every missing son.
Saturday, Sept. 26, was the first anniversary of the disappearance. Emiliano Navarrete joined other parents of the students to lead thousands along Mexico’s streets. Marchers pasted the solemn face of his son Pepe on signs and banners.
“The life of a human being, whoever he is, wherever he is from, is valuable,” he says. Mexico must remember.
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