Human Rights at a Crossroads: 24 months after Ayotzinapa

What can we learn from analyzing data around organizing and media responses to the Ayotzinapa case? Part two in our series on Ayotzinapa after two years.

September 27, 2016

This article is the second part in a NACLA series reflecting on the Ayotzinapa case and commemorating the 43 disappeared students after two years. Read part one here. Be sure to check out the Ayotzinapa timeline in its new home at NACLA here.

A protest in Mexico City's Zócalo shortly after the disappearance of the 43 students two years ago. (Photo:

Yesterday marked two years since the disappearance of 43 college students at the hands of Mexican police.  After months of tireless efforts by civil society activists and the parents of the students themselves, 42 of 43 students still remain unaccounted for, one student is in a coma, and six other people are dead. The one student’s whose corpse was located shows signs of torture.

As of yet, no federal police or military who are implicated in the disappearances have been criminally charged, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration continues to stall investigation into their possible involvement. While the recent resignation of lead investigator Tomás Zerón was seen as a positive step, it’s not clear if this signals any real change in the investigation itself.

Meanwhile, the International Group of Experts, (GIEI, for its Spanish initials), appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) after widespread denunciations of the quality of the Mexican Attorney General’s investigation into the case, issued a critical final report in April. Their investigatory work has been championed by the parents of the missing students. However, the Mexican government chose not to renew their mandate, but agreed instead to a watered-down mecanismo de seguimiento (follow-up mechanism) to provide occasional international oversight into the investigation.  

Today, U.S.-Mexico relations are dominated by reactions to Trump’s xenophobia, and Peña Nieto’s politically disastrous meeting with him. Substantive discussions of the human costs of the militarized border, drug war, and human rights in both countries today are scant.

Given these realities, it is tempting to write off the case as emblematic of a series of failures—of justice, of Mexico’s democracy, of the international human rights community. But the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students and the subsequent investigations and struggles for justice still holds lessons about the nature and status of human rights, and the power of social movements compared to the power of states. The case also speaks to the wide gap between Mexico’s history of supporting pro-human rights agreements and agendas, versus the ways these laws actually function in practice.

Mapping Responses to Ayotzinapa

Since September 26, 2014, we— a group of researchers working on social movements in Mexico— have put together a timeline, now available on, in English and Spanish, highlighting key events of the Ayotzinapa disappearances and its aftermath, including local, state and international state and non-state reactions, key protests, and advances in the investigation. The contents of the timeline are a living, visual memory constituting an important piece of the puzzle in the struggle for human rights and dignity in Mexico today.

The timeline visually traces actions and reactions, from state responses to protests, the establishment of the International Group of Experts (GIEI), and state efforts to discredit them. The timeline covers the ways in which Mexican citizens have kept vigil for these students on the streets and within domestic non-governmental organizations.  In addition, we systematically analyzed 334 different utterances made by those closest to the case. We also pored over judicial data and reporting to try to understand how the calls for justice translated—or didn’t—into actual changes.

Our research has led to a series of conclusions about the post-Ayotzinapa movement so far. First, we have found that the protests and international pressure and consensus around “Sí, fue el estado!” (“Yes, it was the state!”) have not led to significant changes in accountability or transparency surrounding the case. This year, on Mexico’s Independence Day, September 15, Mexicans took to the streets to express their discontent with the Peña Nieto administration, calling for his resignation—with the simple and poignant slogan motivos sobran— loosely translated as “there are more than enough reasons.” Protesters cited ongoing impunity, corruption, and specifically, the government’s disastrous handling of the Ayotzinapa case. Despite these ongoing protests, which have been covered by several international media outlets, and historically low approval rates, however, Peña Nieto maintains his office.

The international cost of a discredited government is hard to measure. We would hope that Peña Nieto’s international reputation has suffered. From the U.S., which since 2008 has disbursed at least $2.5 billion USD to Mexico through its bilateral security package, the Mérida Initiative, we have seen an increase in critical reporting by prominent news outlets, such as the New York Times, particularly in the wake of the release of the second GIEI report. Recently, 69 members of U.S. Congress called for the State Department to prioritize human rights in U.S.-Mexico relations.  In 2015, the U.S. withheld five million dollars, 15% of its counternarcotics funding to Mexico due to human rights concerns. In June, the Congressional Appropriations Committee has recommended that a portion of foreign military financing be withheld due to concerns over “disappearances and other unsolved crimes in which the security forces are implicated,” and specifically stresses that the Mexican government must cooperate with IAHCR efforts surrounding Ayotzinapa.

However, these small amounts are clearly more symbolic than anything else. It remains to be seen whether withholding U.S. foreign aid based on human rights abuses will translate into material costs for Peña Nieto and the Mexican State— or whether U.S.-Mexico security strategy will be rethought in the long run.

The International and Domestic Community Responds

While the ongoing costs of impunity in the Ayotzinapa case are unclear, the work of the international human rights community over the last two years has changed how we understand possibilities of international pressure. In an unprecedented action, the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) sent the GIEI to conduct their own investigation into the disappearances in early 2015. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, already in Mexico at the time of the disappearances, has played a similar role—derailing the state’s attempts to close the case with flawed forensic “science.”

Importantly, these international groups are—or were—embedded within Mexico. The GIEI and Argentine forensic team have not only had an international impact, but they have also assumed an important role in influencing how Mexicans themselves understand the facts of this case. The Mexican press carefully covered the GIEI, who presented their findings in Mexico City, despite the fact that IACHR headquarters are in Washington. The Argentine forensics team has set up shop in Mexico City, providing independent and ongoing monitoring of the government’s forensic investigations, not only in the Ayotzinapa case but in others in which the government is implicated as well.

The physical presence of these groups marks an important shift in conventional understandings of the role of international institutions within sovereign states like Mexico. Proponents of international human rights have long sought to establish that no one is above the law by strengthening international courts and institutions. The actions of the GIEI and the Argentines show us that embedded international actors can leverage their legitimacy and advocate for accountability in domestic courts.

Namely, the presence of these international actors prevented Mexico from successfully delegitimizing campaigns against the IACHR and the GIEI. In March 2016, Mexico opened, and then was pressured to close, a politically motivated investigation of the executive secretary of the IACHR, who was involved in establishing the Expert Group. While the Mexican government ultimately succeeded in pushing the GIEI out of Mexico after its two reports, it has found itself forced to cooperate with an indpendent IACHR follow-up mechanism, a stripped-down version of the embedded, collaborative design of the Group of Experts.

Key to the impact of the Argentines and Group of Experts has been the support and diligent reporting and organizing of local human rights organizations like Tlachinollan Human Rights Center and Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (CentroPro). In our work, we have coded the “utterances”—each time an organization makes a public pronouncement including the term “Ayotzinapa”—of 14 relevant state and 17 non-state actors (12 of which are international) and found that Mexico-based NGOs led the reaction to Ayotzinapa (see below).

Public announcements re: “Ayotzinapa” by organizations (Source:

We track the beginning of the Ayotzinapa movement to less than two weeks after September 24, 2014, when 101 national and international civil society organizations signed a joint statement condemning the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students and calling for organized action. Protests included the “usual suspects”—locally-based rights groups, leftist students and long-established NGOs. But notably, the protests quickly expanded to include new groups, like the Contingente Carriola (the Stroller Brigade), government sanitation workers, urban punks, and new civil society groups like Los Otros Desaparecidos (The Other Disappeared), a group of 400 families from Guerrero all looking for their missing family members. These efforts have helped put the broader issue of disappearances—which total at least 26,000 cases since 2006, according to the government’s own estimates—at the forefront of citizens’ minds. These groups used coordinated social media, including more than 25 trending hashtags like #CompartimosElDolor and #AyotzinapaSomosTodos, to organize and mobilize.

And mobilize they did: we documented 38 protests and marches—21 in Mexico City, and 17 in the state of Mexican state of Guerrero, in the year following the disappearances. By sourcing from the three national and three local newspapers, we determined that participants in these protests rose to a high of about 75,000 protesters in Mexico City in November 2014—nearly two months after the disappearance of the students. By May of 2015, monthly protests in Mexico City fell to a low of about 250 people. This more or less coincides with our coded data on media utterances: by June of 2015, chatter had slowed down to a back-and-forth between the GIEI, the federal government and the lead Mexican NGOs. However, smaller monthly protests, on the 26th of each month, have continued in Mexico throughout 2016, and notably, on the one year anniversary of the disappearances the protests again swelled to 35,000 people. Yesterday, parents of the missing students led a march in Mexico City, drawing thousands, while supporters also took to the streets in Los Angeles, New York, Australia, Barcelona, Paris, and beyond.  More protests are expected throughout the week.


A Failing Security Policy

Our investigations of the lack of transparent and consistent judicial records across Mexico reflect an urgent need for reforms that can facilitate the transparent and timely punishment of human rights crimes in Mexico. Indeed, the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students could be read as a distressing example of how a close ally of the United States is unmoved by massive domestic and international mobilization.

However, the embedding of international actors and the deepening of civil society networks tell us that the struggle for human rights in the wake of Ayotzinapa is adapting and vibrant. Even United States policymakers have taken note. The Congressional Appropriations report from June questions the successes of the Mérida Intiative's militarized approach in combatting organized crime. Whether this rhetoric will lead to further insights about the harms of this militarized and profit-led approach, or translate into actual changes, remains to be seen, but it is an important first step for mainstream policymakers.

Not only has the Mérida Initiative not succeeded in decreasing illicit drug flows, as the Congressional report notes, it has continued to pour money into a Mexican security apparatus that is corrupt and incapable of respecting international human rights standards. It has also fueled the fire of violence against Mexican communities. The disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students—and the ongoing failure of the Mexican government to investigate this case—should serve as a constant reminder and confirmation that the current U.S.-Mexico security policy is failing, and with dire consequences. Making a change to such policies will not come quickly enough for the family members of the disappeared, who tirelessly continue their search for their lost loved ones, unsupported and undermined by the state.  

Editor's Note: Sections of this piece were adapted from an earlier article on OpenDemocracy<

Janice Gallagher is an Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University-Newark Department of Political Science. She holds a PhD in Government from Cornell University, and earned an MA in Teaching at Brown University. She conducted more than two years of fieldwork in Mexico and Colombia, and previously worked as a human rights accompanier in Colombia.

Paula Martinez Gutierrez and Camila Ruiz Segovia are originally from Mexico City. Both are undergraduate students and research assistants at Brown University. Ms. Martinez majors in International Relations, and Ms. Ruiz majors in Political Science. Both are frequent contributors to the Brown Political Review.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.