Mexico arrests ex-lawyer general in missing students case

MEXICO CITY — Federal prosecutors said Friday they arrested the attorney general in Mexico’s previous government on charges of abuse in the investigation into the 2014 disappearances of 43 students from a radical teacher training college.

Prosecutors also announced that they had issued arrest warrants in the case against 20 army officers, five local officials, 33 local police officers and 11 state police, as well as 14 gang members.

The raid included the first arrest of a former attorney general in recent history and one of the largest mass arrests ever by civilian prosecutors of Mexican army soldiers.

Jesús Murillo Karam was Attorney General under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2015. The office of the current Attorney General, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said Murillo Karam was charged with torture, official misconduct and enforced disappearance.

In 2020, Gertz Manero said Murillo Karam had been involved in “orchestrating a massive media trick” and leading a “general cover-up” in the case.

The arrest came a day after a commission set up to determine what happened said the military was at least partially responsible in the case. It said a soldier had infiltrated the student group involved and that the military did not stop the kidnappings even though it knew what was going on.

Corrupt local police, other security forces and members of a drug gang kidnapped the students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero state, though the motive remains unclear eight years later. Their bodies have never been found, although fragments of burnt bone have been linked to three of the students.

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Murillo Karam, pressured to resolve the case quickly, announced in 2014 that the students had been murdered and their bodies burned in a dump by members of a drug gang. He called this hypothesis ‘historical truth’.

But the investigation included cases of torture, improper arrest and misuse of evidence that allowed most of the gang members directly involved to walk free.

The incident took place near a large army base and independent investigations have shown that members of the military were aware of what was happening. The students’ families have long demanded that soldiers be involved in the investigation.

On Thursday, the truth commission investigating the case said one of the kidnapped students was a soldier who had infiltrated the radical teachers’ college, but the military did not look for him, although it had real-time information that the kidnapping was taking place. It said the inaction violated army protocols for missing soldiers’ cases.

The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

The soldiers and officers wanted under Friday’s command – and the other officers, police and gang members – are charged with murder, torture, official misconduct, criminal association and enforced disappearance

It was not immediately clear whether all the suspects faced all charges or whether the suspects were among dozens previously arrested and charged during previous investigations.

Prior to reforms in Mexican law, the military had long been allowed to refer soldiers accused of wrongdoing to separate military courts. But soldiers must now be tried in civilian courts if their violations involve civilians.

The soldiers charged were serving at the base near where the 2014 kidnapping took place.

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The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which included both Murillo Karam and Peña Nieto, wrote in its Twitter account that the arrest of Murillo Karam “is more a matter of politics than justice. This action does not help the families of the victims to get answers.”

Mexican federal prosecutors previously issued arrest warrants for members of the military and federal police, as well as for Tomás Zeron, who headed the federal investigation agency, the Criminal Investigation Agency of Mexico, at the time of the kidnapping.

Zeron is wanted on charges of torture and covering up enforced disappearances. He fled to Israel and Mexico has asked the Israeli government for help with his arrest.

Gertz Manero said that in addition to Zeron’s alleged crimes related to the case, he allegedly stole more than $44 million from the attorney general’s office budget.

The motive for the kidnapping of the students remains a matter of debate.

On September 26, 2014, Iguala local police, organized crime members and authorities kidnapped 43 students from buses. The students periodically demanded buses for their transportation.

Murillo Karam claimed the students had been handed over to a drug gang that killed them, burned their bodies in a landfill in nearby Cocula, and threw the burned bone fragments into a river.

Subsequent investigations by independent experts and the Attorney General’s Office, and confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have rejected the idea that the bodies were incinerated at the Cocula landfill.

There is no evidence that any of the students could still be alive.

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