The Instruction: How the López Obrador Administration Blew Up the Ayotzinapa Investigation (Part III)

AMLO promised truth and justice. The former special prosecutor reveals how the administration derailed the case and sided with the Army.

November 22, 2023

The Instruction (Part III) by John Gibler. "State terrorism." (THIAGO DEZAN / CIDH / CC BY 2.0)

This investigation was originally published in Spanish by Quinto Elemento Lab on September 26, 2023. This is Part III of a three-part English translation. Read Part I and Part II.

From a city in the United States, Omar Gómez Trejo, former head of the Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case, details how a “State decision” made it possible to cancel in 2022 the arrest warrants against 16 military personnel and to put together in 24 hours the arrest warrant for former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, the author of the “historical truth.” This is Part III of the story of how the Mexican government dismantled the team in charge of investigating the forced disappearance of the 43 students.

Chronology of a State Instruction Continued

September 2022

On Monday, September 5, a team of six lawyers, all women, arrived with an official request to conduct an audit of the UEILCA. 

“They went through the investigations,” says Julio, who works in the unit. “They were looking like those who want to find something in particular.”

Buitrago, of the GIEI, noticed the same thing. “I arrive that day,” she recalls, “and I see a table of six people. For me, it was a grotesque image. People eating, bringing sandwiches, bringing everything on top of a table they had set up. Six people who came in and took a file and sat down to look at it. [She makes the gesture of someone reviewing a document page by page, without hurrying, without reading]. And all of a sudden you would see them stop, get up, make a call, come back, and sit. And excuse me, but... I know the size of the case files. You wouldn’t have been able to get to know a third of the investigation [working like that].”

The FGR’s invasion of its own special investigative unit was formalized as an audit on September 5. The GIEI noted in its fourth report: “At the beginning, the temporary mandate [of the audit] was between September 5 and 8, then it was extended to September 14, then to September 21 and then to September 30.... It is noteworthy that in three years of operation there had never been an audit in the unit.” 

After a couple of days, Buitrago and Beristain requested a meeting with the head of the team of lawyers sent by Gertz.

“Excuse me,” Buitrago said. “Why are you doing this audit?”

“We can’t give you that information.”

“What do you mean? You can give it to me because I am interested in knowing. Why are you doing this audit? I have been in this unit since 2019. There has never been an audit. Tell me why you are here without violating confidentiality. I am not telling you to violate confidentiality.”

“We can’t. It’s routine.”

“Ah, routine? And why did you only ask for the case files related to the 83 arrest warrants? When there are 70 cases in this unit?”

“We can’t tell you anything.”

“They left,” says Buitrago. The six women lawyers got up from the table and left the office. They returned the next day as if nothing had happened.

And the fact is that everyone realized that the audit had a very particular interest: the arrest warrants against military and other officials.

“First they came to look into our investigations because they were taking over Murillo,” says Julio, “but their task was the military. Then they announced the cancellation of the arrest warrants when Internal Affairs already had control.”

On Friday, September 9, less than a week after the arrival of the audit team, Sara Irene Herrerías Guerra, the special prosecutor for Human Rights, and Adriana Campos López, special prosecutor for Internal Affairs, signed the first official letters requesting the cancellation of 21 arrest warrants, 16 against military personnel, out of the 83 that the UEILCA had drawn up, and which had been granted by a judge. That same day, López Obrador formalized by decree the transfer of the National Guard to the SEDENA.

The following Tuesday, September 13, a federal public prosecutor sent the cancellation of those 21 arrest warrants to the court.

Two days later, Gómez Trejo and the director of the UEILCA’s group A sent a letter to the judge who had authorized the 83 arrest warrants. “We questioned him about the reasons why he had canceled them,” he says, “why he had broken the secrecy, why he showed other FGR officials the arrest warrants, and why he had listened to other prosecutors to cancel them.” Then he went up to the 25th floor for the last time to hand in his resignation.

“I go to Israel. The arrest warrants are granted,” said Gómez Trejo. “And then, when I come back, I have no detectives, I can’t continue investigating, they’re going to audit me and all that. And then there is this other team that comes to cancel the arrest warrants. And then the attorney general says: ‘Don’t move, don’t do anything.’ That’s when I was paralyzed.”

At that time, he called Undersecretary Encinas and told him that something was happening that he did not understand. “I tell him: I don’t know what is going on. And then he told me: it is because you prosecuted the military. I told him: but that was the request. In other words, there was a request, we were ready to prosecute and we did it. Well, it wasn’t like that, [he said,] because you exceeded the number of military personnel. In the end they explained to me that, apparently, the different government offices that made those agreements didn’t coordinate properly.”

Gómez Trejo realized that he had been pushed aside, he could not investigate, and the people who took control of the office were doing improper things like canceling arrest warrants that were based on evidence and granted by a judge. He did not want to lend himself to all that. Buitrago and Beristain told him that he should try to hold on and report all the irregularities.

But when he learned, from acquaintances at the court, of the cancellation of the 21 warrants, and realized that the Internal Affairs prosecutors did not even warn him that they were going to ask for it, he said: “That’s it.” “That’s when I understood that I didn't have an office anymore. It was impossible for me to continue working under those conditions.”

That same day, September 15, retired General José Rodríguez Pérez was arrested for organized crime and forced disappearance in connection with the Ayotzinapa case. He was one of the five military personnel included in the COVAJ report.

“Omar arrived and told us that he had been pushed out of the case,” recalls Aguirre, “that his people had not been there [to attend Murillo Karam’s hearing] because Internal Affairs had intervened. And at the same time, we had been informed of the arrest of Colonel Rodríguez Pérez of the 27th Battalion.”

Gómez Trejo met with the families the next day and explained his reasons for resigning: “They are not acting according to law; they are not doing things right. They are doing the same thing again: a very high-level direct intervention in the investigation.”

On September 27, news of Gómez Trejo's resignation was published. Two days later, the GIEI presented its fourth report, which questions the WhatsApp messages attributed to Guerreros Unidos made public by the COVAJ.

That same day, on September 29, in his morning press conference, López Obrador expressed his support for Encinas: “Action will be taken based on the report presented by the [COVAJ]. And in that report come the names of those allegedly responsible. As there are interests in all this, they tried to blow up the investigation, talking about more people involved in the case, for example, from the military, holding 20 responsible when in the investigation there are five.”

The president seemed to refer to the breakfast he had on August 15 with Encinas, Gertz, López, and Zaldívar: “The report includes a list of those responsible. We agreed with the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary that this was going to require the collaboration of the institutions... that in such an important matter we had to help each other. So, when we have the report, we tell the prosecutor, here is the report. And we want action to be taken. But we want it to be done now.”

He then attributed Gómez Trejo’s resignation to professional jealousy: “So, the prosecutor's claim is that he was not taken into account. He worked in coordination with Alejandro Encinas. I took it for granted that they had all participated. Yes. So, they did not like the way it was done. Nor did he like the report, the prosecutor who was there. That is why he resigned.”

A day later he would mention his breakfast conversation again. “In no case did I have resistance from the attorney general, Gertz Manero, nor from the president of the court, because I spoke with them, I asked them for support and collaboration, and they both always [were] willing to help,” the president said, acknowledging once again that the top echelon of state officials met to agree on a criminal investigation that implicates hundreds of police, military, and public officials in crimes against humanity.

“Just imagine,” López Obrador added, “if for years they have been saying ‘it was the state,’ [Fue el estado], well, yes, and ‘it was the Army,’ well, yes, but not the institution: they’re soldiers.”

The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts investigating the Ayotzinapa case visit Mexico, November 15, 2022. (CIDH / CC BY 2.0)

October 2022

On October 5, 2022, Gómez Trejo handed over the UEILCA office to Tabasco native Rosendo Gómez Piedra, a lawyer with no experience in cases of torture or forced disappearance, who had just come from working on the controversial Maya Train project as legal director of the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism. One of his first actions was to move from the 13th floor to the 11th, and to close the view to his office. “[Before] we had glass offices where everything was visible,” recalls Álex, who in 2015 collaborated with the GIEI and worked at the UEILCA from 2020 to 2022. “And on the floor we moved to, the new prosecutor’s office is closed. It’s big, and you can’t see anything. It even has a little waiting chair outside.”

Over a couple of winter days in a city in the United States, Gómez Trejo told me his story. He says that when the president began to mention him in his morning press conferences—saying that Gómez Trejo wanted to protect Murillo Karam and that he started a mini-rebellion within the Attorney General’s Office and wanted to blow up the investigation—he got scared.

“What he’s saying,” says Gómez Trejo, “is ‘I took all my support away from him. He doesn’t belong here anymore. He challenged me. He defied the Army.’ That can trigger any reaction from any angle. There are people from organized crime, there are people from the state, there are people who have resources, there are people who can do anything. I felt very vulnerable. Super exposed. For the president to criminalize you on his morning show… it’s another level of message he sends. I had to leave. And it’s not easy. Now I have to invent another life.”

Damián, another member of the UEILCA, submitted his resignation shortly after Gómez Trejo’s departure. He says that one of the lawyers sent by Gertz told him that he could then take his vacation, even though that was against regulations since he had already done so. “It’s an instruction,” the lawyer replied, letting Damián know that they just wanted him gone already.

“That’s the word,” Damián says. “I want to write something where the title is ‘The instruction,’ because that’s the only thing they know how to respond. You say, ‘That’s wrong.’ And they answer, ‘No, it’s the instruction.’ Or, ‘Hey, that can’t be done.’ ‘No, no, no, it’s the instruction.’ And I say, maybe in their eternal ignorance these people don’t understand what it would mean, for example, to have said that in the Nuremberg trials [where the Nazis attributed their crimes to obedience to superior orders], because obviously they don’t understand human rights. In other words, Omar’s departure does not only mean blowing up the case, which is already serious and complicated. It also means dismantling a model for how to confront the crudest reality that this country is experiencing, which are the more than 100,000 disappearances.”

The Aftermath

The families of the missing students met again with López Obrador after Gómez Trejo’s resignation. They were distraught. The president tried to explain to them the conflict over the number of military personnel included in the arrest warrants. He said that Gómez Trejo had tried to blow up the investigation by increasing the number to 20 defendants: “They told me there were five,” the president said, referring to the discredited, apocryphal COVAJ report based on falsified WhatsApp screen captures.

“Maybe it’s our NGO naiveté, but why would the president have to be negotiating with the Army the number of defendants in a context of a legal case based on evidence?” says the human rights lawyer Aguirre, who was present at the meeting. “It’s whoever the evidence tells you. If it’s one, it’s one. If it’s two, two. But, as the president was explaining to the families his theory of how the number had varied, he was confessing to the manipulation of justice. And that’s what we’ve been trying to escape in this case. That was what was going to change.”

On October 31, 2022, the GIEI convened a press conference in which it released the result of the independent expert analysis of the WhatsApp messages in the COVAJ report. In short, the GIEI concluded that “it is not possible to guarantee the originality of the messages.” The dates of the metadata do not match the dates of the messages. “There can’t be metadata subsequent to a previous message, it’s inconsistent,” says Francisco Cox, former member of the GIEI. “So, that information is useless. Useless.”

Several features of the images on the COVAJ report, such as the double blue check mark, did not exist on WhatsApp in September 2014, the date of the alleged messages. The COVAJ report was completely discredited. But it mattered little by then: the president supported it, Gertz backed the president, and they had taken control of the UEILCA.

Cox and fellow international expert Claudia Paz y Paz resigned from the GIEI in protest of political meddling in the investigation. Angela Buitrago and Carlos Beristain stayed on, although they would also leave the group and the case in July 2023, denouncing the Army’s lies and refusal to hand over all documents related to the case, particularly the full transcripts of intercepted calls between members of Guerreros Unidos.

In the presentation of the GIEI’s sixth and last report, Beristain said: “The concealment and the insistence on denying things that are obvious prevent us from obtaining the truth.... The GIEI has reached with this report the limit of where it has been possible to investigate as technical assistance. The GIEI finds it impossible to continue with its work.… In order to solve the case, it is necessary to have all the information that the state has had since the day of the events in order to know the fate and whereabouts of the young men.... The risk we have faced is that lies become institutionalized as a response, which is unacceptable.”

Marchers demand justice on the seventh anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances, September 26, 2021. (LEONARDO RAMIREZ / CIDH / CC BY 2.0)

In June 2023, when it was already known that the GIEI would leave the country in protest, the 16 arrest warrants against military personnel that had been canceled in 2022 were reinstated. The new warrants contained the same evidence as the first ones, showing that their cancellation was due to a political instruction and not lack of evidence. On July 8, General Rafael Hernández Nieto, commander of the 41st Battalion in Iguala at the time of the disappearance of the 43 students, was detained, but a few weeks later he was allowed to face charges of forced disappearance while under house arrest. On July 25, Gualberto Ramírez, a former official in the organized crime division of the Attorney General’s Office accused of torture and forced disappearance, was arrested. Murillo Karam is still in jail, and Zerón remains at large in Israel, where a recording of a secret meeting, reported by The New York Times, captured Alejandro Encinas, then head of the COVAJ, offering Zerón immunity in exchange for information on the case.

The arrest warrants against Iñaki Blanco, the former state prosecutor of Guerrero, and Lambertina Galeana, the former president of the state Superior Court of Justice, were never reactivated. Both enjoy de facto amnesty.

After the presentation of the GIEI’s sixth and final report—with new details of the Army’s participation in the forced disappearance of the students and its almost nine years of denials and lies—López Obrador rejected the experts’ findings and instead expressed his support for the Army.

On September 21, 2023, in his morning press conference, the president showed two letters he sent to Secretary of National Defense Sandoval. The first was sent on August 12, 2022, the same day that Attorney General Gertz told Gómez Trejo to prepare a file with the advances in the Ayotzinapa case for a breakfast he would have a few days later with López Obrador. In the letter, the president asks the secretary of defense to locate and arrest five military personnel involved in the disappearance of the students, based not on the UEILCA’s investigation, but the now discredited and abandoned COVAJ report. In other words, the president asked the general to arrest five soldiers based on false evidence. There was evidence against them—in the Chicago wiretaps and the analysis of the military’s telephone records—but not in that report.

In the second letter, sent on May 23, 2023, the president asks the secretary of defense for his support in arresting 16 members of the Army in relation to their drug trafficking ties and their refusal to prevent the disappearance of the students. These are the same 16 military personnel whose arrest warrants were canceled in September 2022, and which were reissued—with the same evidence obtained by the UEILCA—amid the GIEI’s criticism of the Army for not handing over all the documentation on the case.

The same day the president showed the letters, September 21, 2023, it became known that the last remaining prosecutors from the original UEILCA team had been fired.

In little more than a year, the López Obrador administration stopped the investigations and took control of the case.

“The best investigation this country has had in years was blown apart,” says former UEILCA attorney Damián. “There are legal arguments to take this to the Inter-American Court, because the fact is, if you hire somebody clueless, who brings 60 more people who don’t know and have no idea how the work is done, then the forced disappearance continues—they perpetuate the disappearance.”

At the end of October 2022, after the press conference in which the GIEI announced that two of its members were leaving in protest of the manipulations of the case, Mario González, father of the disappeared student César Manuel, approached Claudia Paz y Paz and Francisco Cox to say goodbye. He hugged them and said: “They gave us hope only to take it away. It is as if they had given us wings to cut them off when we were flying high.”   

Nine years later, the families are still facing a state that lies, and still fighting to find their children.

John Gibler is the author of four nonfiction books about politics in Mexico including I Couldn’t Even Imagine that They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa (City Lights, 2017).

The author would like to thank Global Exchange for support for research and translation.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.