Christy Thornton:Turning back to Mexico now, with President Enrique Peña Nieto scheduled to meet with President Obama, we wanted to look more deeply into the role that his government, including federal police and military forces, may have played in the disappearance of those 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college. An explosive recent investigation, published in the Mexican magazine Proceso, has found evidence that the Mexican federal police and military were directly involved in the incidents on the night of September 26 in Iguala, Guerrero. Joining us to discuss that evidence and what its implications are for Peña Nieto’s response to the crisis, is one of the co-authors of that Proceso investigation, Steve Fisher.
Steve’s a Fellow at the Investigative Reporting program at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Steve, thanks for joining us so early there on the West Coast, we really appreciate it.
Steve Fisher: Thanks for having me, Christy.
Of course. So, first, your piece, co-authored with Anabel Hernández, makes the case that what you call the “official story” of the Peña Nieto administration about what happened in Iguala and afterwards, is a cover-up. Remind our listeners what that official story was. Who, according to the Mexican authorities, is responsible for this attack on the students?
Right, so according to the message of the government, and their story for the past three months, what happened the night of Sept. 26 was essentially that students came into the city of Iguala with the specific intent of disrupting an event that the mayor and his wife were hosting. Essentially, what the government says is that the mayor learned of the arrival of the students and ordered his local municipal police to do away with the students, to take care of them. He was hoping to avoid an embarrassment that night, according to the government, and he also contacted a local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, and essentially said, take care of this problem for me, and take them away. And that has been, up until our report, that has been the story that media has been repeating and has been proliferated widely and internationally.
Your piece shows that far from just being orchestrated, the Mexican federal police and military were actually directly involved. So, what was their involvement, and what kinds of evidence did you find to support that claim, what sorts of things did you use, were you able to uncover in this investigation?
So, what we found in our investigation, and this is through thousands of pages of official documents that we acquired via the Attorney General’s investigation in the Guerrero State investigation, essentially this criminal file which unfortunately is not public record. So we obtained those documents and through that found that the federal police that night had actually been following students from the time they left the school campus, so that would have been about 6 PM that night, at least were monitoring them from that time on. We know this from a number of different documents, including the federal police having called in to a central command center, which is sort of like an emergency center where a number of those officials are represented. So we’re talking about an official from the military, an official from the federal police, the state police and the municipal police, who they called into this town en route to Iguala. So they called in and they said, these busses are leaving, and they actually gave the number for the busses, and gave specific details like the types of tour busses and everything. The students, of course, headed out and they were en route and on the highway when the federal police then met them on the highway – we know this again from documents, and there were no altercations en route, but when the students then arrived, eventually in Iguala, they came to obtain a few busses for their school, a few sort of commercial busses, and we know that the federal police followed them there and were aware of their movements the entire time. And then we have some depositions of students showing that the federal police were the ones – this is directly from the students’ testimony – were the ones firing on the students that night, that’s what they say. What we know for sure is that the federal police were following the students from hours before all the way up into the attack, and were present throughout.
Yeah, I really want to highlight that piece of your story, because I think it’s a really crucial thing that as you say, the official story doesn’t cover this document that comes from this command center, the Center of Control, Command, Communications and Computing, known as a C4 center in Chilpancingo, that the federal police actually actively knew about, even when these students just left their school and began to travel, long before any supposed incident would have happened, they were tracing these students.
Right, that’s right. And I mean ¬it directly undermines the official story in that the mayor’s events that night, that haven’t been reported either. Keep in mind, Christy, that there are some very basic points in this story that just haven’t been investigated, because people didn’t have the information to first do it. And the government had sort of a stronghold on this story, they looked to sort of coopt it and take it more or less where they wanted to, but then the main event ended two hours prior to the arrival of the students in the city. So before the first shots were ever fired, the mayor had already left the event with his wife, his family and some of his in-laws, and went to a taqueria nearby to enjoy dinner in the street.
Right, and so the official fear that the students were coming to interrupt this event actually makes no sense because the event had long since been over by the time the students arrived in town.
Right, it’s really difficult to figure out why it would have merited such a strong response, when yet there’s absolutely no correlation between the mayor’s event and the actual students arriving there. And the other part I wanted to speak about was the military – you asked about the federal police and the military. And if the military is aware – the military may have gotten the same information that the police did – that you mentioned, at this command center, and they also were aware of the students’ movement that night, and we have documents that show that not only did the military go to a local private clinic to follow and find the students. And not only did they then take the students’ cell phones and take their shirts and photograph everyone and say, “give us your real names, or you might be disappeared.” They also came to the local municipal police station under the auspices that the commander coming with a good number of armed military personnel, came to the municipal police station looking for what he said was a white moped, which could have been, I mean there’s so many of these mopeds in that town. He basically said, “I’m here to look for it,” and they went through the entire municipal police station on the cells, the bathrooms, the patios, and it’s such a tiny space, and of course that was very suspicious, and then they left. And that was during the attack, or during the lull of the attack.
So can you explain to the listeners what you think the implications of that visit from the commander to this local police space is? What does that mean that it comes in the middle of the lull in this attack?
What we know is that the military was aware of the movements of the students. The military base is five minutes away from the location of the attack, and this is just another data point to suggest that the military was essentially, was very likely seeking out these students that night, and based on the way that they treated the students in the private clinic. These data points suggest that the military did not have a positive reason for seeking out these students that night. We don’t know the exact reason why they were there, but it seems very suspicious that they were there when in fact the Attorney General of Mexico came out and said, the military was not aware of any movements that the students made until two hours after the attacks, which is absolutely false. Throughout the Attorney General’s very own investigative report, and in criminal files, the military was aware of the presence of the students. So again, this is another example of an extraordinary cover-up by the Mexican government, and covering up by the Mexican police and the Mexican military, when in fact it’s hard to understand why they would think they could get away with that when in their own investigation there are so many points to the contrary.
Right, so in addition to these documents about the criminal investigation that you along with the co-author, Anabel Hernández, who of course is one of Mexico’s most important and most well-known investigative journalists, so in addition to these documents that you were able to obtain, you also have these videos, cell phone video and audio shot by surviving students who were present during the attack. So how did you obtain these videos, and what do they show?
So the way we obtained the videos – we got around 12 and chose to publish the three that were the most important representatives of what happened that night – was through a representative of the students. What the videos show is of course, an incredible fear that the students were experiencing that night during the attack, and a lot of disorientation. They were very confused. I think one of the most important parts of the video is where there’s a student off-camera who’s having a conversation with his companions and says, “You know, man, the local police are going to leave, and the federal police are going to stay,” which essentially means that the federal police are going to stay and harass us. And again that’s just another point that supports what we have in documents and supports our investigation showing that the federal police were there. And as one student mentioned in their deposition, that the federal police were the ones firing on the students. Another important part of the video is that the students were yelling at police. And in the videos it’s very difficult to see, it’s very dark, and we don’t see exactly who the police are in the street, it’s very difficult to tell. But they say, they are yelling, “why are you trying to recover the gun shell? Stop recovering the gun shells! Stop picking them up.” Because they want to show that there was evidence of the attack that night. In depositions, certainly in the criminal style, we see the same aspect of police going around picking up all the shells and trying to cover up what they were doing.
Michael G. Haskins, co-host: Steve, this was happening actually as the federal police were firing on the students, they were saying this?
What we know is based on the videos, you don’t see the actual police members who are firing on the students, so it could have been a number, it could have been the municipal police, it could have been federal police… But yes, there was a lull in the shooting and during that time the students are repeatedly asking why they are recovering the shells. Yes, it was during a lull in that night, and the attack lasted a few hours.
One of the crucial claims that your piece makes is that these students were attacked specifically for their political beliefs and ideological opposition to the government. Of course, the Ayotzinapa Normal School was no stranger to opposition with the federal government, there was that incident a few years prior when two students were killed on the highway. So if these students were not, as the official story alleges, on their way to Iguala to disrupt the speech of the mayor’s wife, where were they going and why do you think that they were being targeted?
That’s a very important question. The members of the Ayotzinapa School, and the members of many normalista schools in Mexico are very much on the radical side, on the ideological side, in which they see themselves as revolutionary. They see themselves as fighting for their communities and they have been doing so for a very long time. And the students that came to pick up these busses, many of them were part of groups within the school that help determine where school funds go, who determined the direction of the teaching, the curriculum, they had very important roles within the schools. And these roles were given to the more radical students who moved the ideology of the schools forward. Large numbers of students who were disappeared were directly from that group. People at the very top, leading the ideology of the Ayotzinapa School.
So it’s important to remember that there was a very important revolutionary named Lucio Cabañas who was shot by the Mexican government more than 40 years ago, and he comes from this school, and he’s sort of been the icon of the normalista schools and what they represent, which is essentially, a guerrilera side to them, in which they are struggling against the imposition of the Mexican government. And these students who go there, and if you spend some time at the school, you’ll see enormous murals of Lucio Cabañas, Che Guevara, you’ll see all these different revolutionaries there, and the school is very much a political place. It’s not just a teacher’s school, but a place where ideologies are supported very directly against the Mexican government. So I believe this is no mistake. They have voiced their opinion against the Mexican government all the time, especially the military and the federal police.
Right, and so they were very much seen as a threat to those institutions and to the local and national governments.
Very much so. And as to your question regarding what were the students doing in Iguala if they weren’t attacking the mayor and his wife: every year, there’s a normalista school that is chosen to pick up a certain number of busses for an annual event, and this year it was the Ayotzinapa school. And so the students were charged with going out and finding commercial busses and bringing them back and having them prepared to bring their fellow students out to a meeting that year. Now this sounds rather suspect, potentially criminal act, but this is very normal. They take over these busses, they co-opt them, tell the chauffeur they have to drive them to certain places, and in the end they pay the chauffeur and everything, but there’s this activity that they’ve been doing for years and years, so this is not specifically fodder for the federal police to come in or the military or even the municipal police to come in and disappear 43 students. This is something that happens very regularly and the government has found ways to deal with it.
Another central piece of the argument that you publish in Proceso that I want to get to is the confessions of these Guerreros Unidos members, that underpin the state story about what happened to the students, were obtained under torture. How did you determine that, and what are the implications of that finding?
What we have in our documents again is the actual medical examinations of at least five of the primary witnesses for the Attorney General, were brutally tortured. In addition we have documents showing that these people actually denounced the fact that they were tortured by the Marines, the military, and the federal police. And this was prior to testimony speaking directly to the supposed finance manager of Guerreros Unidos, who said, “we paid off Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, we paid him off and here’s how we did it, we exchanged these funds. And yes, we work for the municipal police,” and all of these things. Everything that the Attorney General of Mexico has on the mayor and the municipal police being directly responsible for the attack comes directly from those witnesses. And we’re talking about one of the most important events in Mexico, one of the most important stories in the past decade, if not in the past half-century , and they chose to base their investigation on witnesses who had been directly tortured. I can spare you the details but it’s really inappropriate for radio audiences. We’re talking about very severe feeding and use of electrical tools to torture these people.
Right. And so given this, having obtained these confessions under torture, given all of the ways in which everything that you’ve uncovered in these documents and in the testimonies of the surviving students, seems to point to a government cover-up, right, by the Peña Nieto administration, by the Attorney General Murillo Karam, so what does this all mean for the investigation of what happened there? We know that there are these foreign forensic experts, because as Laura Carlsen was saying earlier, very few people actually trust the Mexican government to carry this out. But those foreign forensic experts are of course being directed by the federal investigation. What do you think – is this investigation compromised, can there be any justice coming out of it?
I think that there can be justice. But I don’t think at the moment it comes from the hands of the Mexican government. The Mexican government has not shown to us, and Anabel Hernández and myself have seen very directly how the Mexican government has chosen to lead this investigation. It’s clear that while they have a lot of very important information, they’ve chosen not to act on it and not to investigate the federal police and the military. And we haven’t heard any indication that they were going to investigate, because for the last three months they haven’t done so, when there’s so much proof that they were involved. You know that alone shows that they’re not being diligent at the very least, and I think that the fact that they’re basing the majority of their investigation on tortured witnesses cuts off at the knees this entire investigation, and shows the Mexican government’s incompetence to actually get to any sort of justice for these students.
I believe that if justice is going to happen, it’s going to come through additional investigative reporting, it’s going to come through the parents demanding that something happen, and not letting up, and bringing this story international as they have been doing, bringing it to the public. As far as the future of the investigation, I think that from what we’ve seen, the Mexican government needs to go back and do some very strong investigations of the military and the federal police. For example, the day after this event happened, after the attack on the students, the Guerrero state government demanded that investigators be allowed into the military space in Iguala, the military refused. Nothing came of that! That should have been a red flag in and of itself. They didn’t allow them to review the premises. So there are many many many avenues that the Mexican government could be taking to shed some light on exactly what happened, but in turn, instead, the very institutions that were directly involved that night, the Mexican military at least being complicit, and the federal police being on the scene, those institutions are in charge of looking for these students and are, in many ways, in charge of investigating.
Steve, I wonder, just as we wrap up, we have just a few more minutes left, I wondered how your piece has been received in Mexico. There have been subsequent investigations, new facts are coming to light all the time, maybe you could talk about some of those. For instance, it was recently revealed that the heads of the municipal police in Cocula, the town where the remains are supposed to have been recovered, that those heads of the municipal police were actually ex-military members, again sort of the speaking to the imbrication of these institutions. I wonder how your piece has been received in Mexico, what this further investigation and what other work is being done, and if there’s been any response to your piece from the federal government.
Our piece has been widely disseminated in Mexico because for two months before the release of our investigation, very little had changed. There were very few new information and people were so desperate for new information, for new avenues to pursue. So when our story came out, it lit a fire that hasn’t stopped since in the past month. The Attorney General of Mexico had to come out on the stand and basically said, he didn’t know that the witnesses were tortured, he didn’t know, that based on an interview that a prominent newspaper did in Mexico, the federal police were not involved, so that said to him that they weren’t involved, which means that he hasn’t even solicited a response from them, and he also says that the military wasn’t involved. But this is of course the man that is telling us, prior to our investigation that there were military involved, that many of the same things. So again, word is losing a lot of clout, and the official story is not the case. I mean, you mentioned to landfill in Cocula where supposedly these students were burned, and there’s a huge study that came out of a prominent Mexican university that said, this is absolutely impossible. There’s no way that these students could have been burned there, it requires this amount of resources and these things. Certain things would have had to remain there in the landfill. So we have information that shows it was incredibly unlikely that the students were burned there. And regarding local mayors, only in this case, I think there’s no doubt that in many situations these mayors are directly involved in illegal activity or are complicit at the very least, but it’s also much much bigger. And I think it’s important to note that the Peña Nieto government has directed the attack, and the accusations surrounding this incident, onto the opposition party. They put that directly on them and tied it up in what they thought was a neat little bow and said, there you have it, that’s what happened.
Obviously your investigation has opened a lot of windows for us and really begun to question what you call the official story of what’s happening in Mexico. We have been speaking with Steve Fisher, co-author of this piece in Proceso Magazine, La historia no oficial. Steve, thanks so much for being with us this morning. We’ll continue to follow up on this story.
Thanks so much, Christy.
Christy Thornton is a co-host on the WBAI Morning Show on 99.5FM in New York. She is earning a doctorate in Latin American history at New York University and is a board member of the North American Congress on Latin America.
Steve Fisher is an Investigative Reporting program fellow focusing on U.S.-Mexico relations. He has written for the National Geographic, New America Media and Fusion. He graduated from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.