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“A Crime of the State”: Mexico’s Attorney General Arrested in Case of 43 Missing Ayotzinapa Students

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Mexican authorities arrested former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam on Friday for his failure to conduct a thorough investigation into the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in 2014. This came a day after a truth commission formed by current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the students’ disappearance was a “crime of the state.” The students had been traveling in Iguala when their buses were intercepted by local police and federal military forces in September 2014; some of their remains were found later. Dozens of soldiers and police officers are also expected to face charges. With a high-level official being held accountable in the case, there is hope “that there will be justice, and we will finally know what happened to these 43 students,” says Andalusia Soloff, independent journalist who has reported on the Ayotzinapa case since its inception and published a graphic novel about the disappeared students.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexico’s former attorney general has been arrested, and dozens of soldiers and police officers face charges related to the disappearance of 43 students at the rural college for teachers in Ayotzinapa eight years ago. Murillo Karam, who served as Mexico’s attorney general from 2012 to '15, was arrested on Friday, a day after a truth commission formed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the students' disappearance was a “crime of the state.” Mexican authorities also issued over 80 other arrest warrants. Those facing charges include 20 military commanders and troops who were from battalions in the city of Iguala. Charges have also been filed against local officials, police officers and members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos.

On Monday, the Mexican president, López Obrador, described the disappearance of the 43 students as shameful and said the truth must be exposed.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] And I want to ask you — I know you already did, but I would like to ask everyone who has a chance and has access to the internet, search for the files. It is not in vain to read everything that happened, because this is one of the most shameful, pitiful, painful events in the recent history of our country, and we have to expose it so that it never happens again.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Mexico City, where we’re joined by Andalusia K. Soloff. She’s an independent journalist, author of the graphic novel Vivos se los llevaron, or Taken Alive, about the disappearance of the 43 students at the teachers’ college. She has reported on the Ayotzinapa case since the students disappeared.

Andalusia, welcome to Democracy Now! Start off by talking about what happened eight years ago and why this is such a historic moment in Mexico with the arrest of the former attorney general and so many others.

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Thank you so much for having me on.

Yes, this is one of the most horrible crimes that has happened in Mexican history. On September 26, 2014, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ school in Guerrero, Mexico, were attacked by police and members of organized crime in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. And from that moment, it was unclear what happened to 43 of these students. Six people were murdered that night, including one person, Julio César, who was found with his face ripped off on an abandoned road. And since then, 43 of these students, there has been no trace of them, and their parents have marched all over the country, and even the world, looking for their sons.

And the government, at that time, tried to close the case in November of the same year with what was known as the historical truth, saying that all 43 students were taken to a nearby garbage dump in the town of Cocula, where they were killed and incinerated, and that there was no trace of them. This was fabricated by the attorney general at the time, Jesús Murillo Karam, and that is why now, eight years later, he has been detained for this fabrication of the case and the historical truth and for not investigating the disappearance of these students.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Andalusia, when López Obrador was running for president, he vowed — one of his campaign pledges was to get to the bottom of what had happened at Ayotzinapa. How do you feel that he has fulfilled his pledge until now, or do we still have to wait, given the weaknesses of the Mexican judicial system, for actual convictions and sentences here?

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Yes, the president, López Obrador, has promised to the families that he would get to the bottom of this, and he really had a change in attitude towards them. The former president, Peña Nieto, always told them that they should just get over it, that their sons were dead and they just needed to move on. So, he has said that he will investigate it.

They have invested tons of resources and time over the past three years with this truth and justice commission to get to the bottom of it, but there are still a lot of questions remaining. There are evidences, supposedly based on very few testimonies, saying that there are no longer any indications that the students are alive. But both the independent group of experts who have been investigating this case for the past eight years, as well as the families and human rights organizations, say they still don’t believe there’s enough evidence just to say that all the students were murdered that night.

And also, while Jesús Murillo Karam has been apprehended, there are other key players who have not. Tomás Zerón, who was the head of the criminal investigation, is in Israel, being protected by the government of Israel, and Mexico has tried to extradite him. And it seems that without him, they may never know what happened, as well as last year the head of the Army, the General Salvador Cienfuegos, he was arrested in the United States and then was accused of being involved in drug trafficking, was brought back to Mexico, and then he was not investigated in Mexico. So, here, with this investigation, if the Army is being investigated, many are questioning: Why is the head of the Army not being investigated? And also, why is who was president at the time, Peña Nieto, not being investigated?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the significance of a former Mexican attorney general, from the PRI party, that was formerly in power — the significance of such a high-ranking person actually being arrested, in your view?

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Yes, this is historic that the attorney general has been arrested. Impunity is what reigns in Mexico. That is why there are so many violations of human rights. And ironically, the students were actually getting ready, at that point eight years ago, to go honor a massacre from 1968 of students that has never been investigated. So, that massacre was never investigated. And to the date, we don’t know if a dozen people were murdered or a few hundred people were murdered. But we do know that, hopefully, with this crime, that they have arrested a high-level official, that there will be more hope that there will be justice and we will finally know what happened to these 43 students.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Mexico’s Human Rights, Population and Migration Subsecretary Alejandro Encinas at a news conference last week in Mexico City, releasing the most recent findings from the Commission of Truth on the Ayotzinapa case.

ALEJANDRO ENCINAS: [translated] The collusion and participation of authorities from different government levels with local policemen from Iguala, Cocula, Huitzuco and Tepecoacuilco has been fully confirmed, and, of course, with the Guerreros Unidos crime organization, to carry out the disappearance of the youngsters. … There is no indication the students are alive. On the contrary, all the testimonies and evidence prove they were cunningly killed and disappeared.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Andalusia, if you can talk about why it’s believed these 43 young male students at a teachers’ college, what happened at that time, why they were disappeared? I want to go back to two relatives of the missing students who joined us in our Democracy Now! studio, before COVID, in 2015. We asked Antonio Tizapa if he thought his son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, was still alive.

ANTONIO TIZAPA: [translated] Absolutely, 100%. Like the rest of the parents, we are sure that they are alive. Independently, that what others say, that is completely false. We know that they are alive. We know that they are holding them alive, because they are being detained. We don’t know the reason. We do not know the reason.

AMY GOODMAN: What has the Mexican government told the families? Why don’t you believe it?

ANTONIO TIZAPA: [translated] Because the government says that this is a case that is a closed case. However, there is no evidence. There is no evidence that show us, that prove what the government says happened to them. And while there is no proof, we maintain that they are alive 100%.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Antonio Tizapa talking about his son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, speaking to me and Juan back, oh, seven years ago, believing that his son was alive. So many of these parents still believe that. But so, talk about that and the theory of what happened and how high up it went.

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Yes, many — the parents have been searching for their sons for the past eight years with the hope that they are still alive, because they have no evidence that they were murdered. And so it’s very difficult for anyone to accept that a loved one is dead without the proof, you know? So, that is why, especially in Mexico, where there’s a long history of disappearance and that sometimes people have turned up years later after being disappeared. So, that is also because they have been repeatedly lied to, as we have seen with this historical truth and many other parts of the government investigation. That is why the parents have still had this hope that their sons may be alive.

There have been three remains of students that have been identified and confirmed by external — to the Mexican government — forensic experts, and so it is believed these three students, where there’s just a small bone fragment — that someone just has a bone of their son’s foot, that the family members have told me, “How am I going to believe my son is dead if all I have is this bone?”

But as far as how far up this will go, as I mentioned, there are high-level officials that are being investigated, but still not the highest-level officials, as in the head of the Army. And it’s important to mention that López Obrador, while he has had a very different strategy towards the family members and in investigating this case and investing more resources, he still is very protective of the Army, did not want Cienfuegos to be investigated, and has repeatedly defended the Army, even though that night there was actually one student who was a soldier who had infiltrated the school and was communicating with the local battalion the entire night, until he was disappeared, and then the Army did not actually search for him, and he is still disappeared until this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: But the theory of why they were killed or disappeared? Why were these young students at a rural teachers’ college such a threat?

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Yes. There are various theories about why they were attacked. They have repeatedly suffered from attacks and repression, and the government has wanted to close down their school, which is a rural school for poor students and many Indigenous students that have no other access to education in Mexico. And they are of a leftist thinking. But there’s also a theory that really focuses on drug trafficking. And Guerrero is one of the top producers of poppy for heroin production in the entire world, and it is believed that one of the buses that they had taken that night had a secret compartment either filled with heroin or filled with heroin money, and that all of the force that was used against them and the attacks was because the police and military and members of the organized crime groups were protecting that shipment and didn’t want to lose their millions of dollars if that bus got out of Iguala.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andalusia, what does this mean for the — you mentioned before there’s a history of disappearances. About 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico in recent years. What does this mean, this case, in terms of potentially solving other disappearance cases?

ANDALUSIA K. SOLOFF: Yes. When the students went missing back in 2014, it inspired people in that local city of Iguala to go and look in the hillsides surrounding the town, in the rivers, and start digging, and they literally found hundreds of human remains. And since the government in the past three years have been searching, they have also found over a thousand human remains. So, this means that Mexico really is a clandestine grave, where over 100,000 people have gone missing. Their disappearances have not been investigated. Often when family members go to their local police, especially when they’re women, they say, “Oh, my daughter is missing,” they say, “Oh, she just ran off with her boyfriend,” and they don’t actually investigate.

And so, what happened with the Ayotzinapa case was that these parents stood up and did not accept the government lies and insisted that they search for them. They inspired hundreds or even thousands of other people who had family members that were disappeared to go and look for them. And so now there’s collectives all over the country that are combing the hillsides looking for their loved ones. It’s really a horrible situation, but there are now more investigations of disappearances.

But, really, what we see also with this case is that the first 24 or 48 hours are often the most important to know how to find someone that’s disappeared. This investigation that just came out this week showed that a few of the students were kept alive, according to them, for a few days. So, if the government had actually properly looked for them, they could have found them alive, but that did not happen.

So, hopefully, this case will help change this horrible situation where so many people are disappeared in Mexico. But, unfortunately, Mexico has seen really high levels of violence. Right now, just yesterday, a journalist was murdered in the city of Chilpancingo, right near where the students had been disappeared from. And the last column that he had written was about the report and about government complicity. So, there’s not much hope that the situation will change, but at least it is a positive development that high-level officials are being held accountable and that they are recognizing and charging these officials with the crime of disappearance, which was a crime that they did not charge people with before.

AMY GOODMAN: Andalusia Soloff, we want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist, author of the graphic novel Taken Alive. She has reported on the Ayotzinapa case since the 43 students disappeared, speaking to us from Mexico City.

Next up, the political crisis in Pakistan, where the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing new anti-terrorism charges, as television stations are barred from airing his speeches live. We’ll speak with the author and historian Tariq Ali. Stay with us.

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