General Salvador Cienfuegos, Chief of Staff of the Mexican Army, four stars, sat on a high-backed leather chair with both feet flat on the floor in front of him and his hands over the knees of his dress uniform. He was facing the camera at a slight angle, the lighting was warm, the room designed in the Louis XV style, the wall behind him a subdued shade of melon with white boiserie, an antique bookcase filled with hardback volumes to his right, the banner of the Mexican Republic to his left.
The general was without his hat, and a microphone was clipped to his coat lapel.
This interview in early October was, the host of the program told us, a very rare thing for a top Mexican military man to do. But it was a moment when some serious explaining seemed to be in order.
In the most recent investigations of the horrific incident in September last year where 43 underclassmen from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa were rounded up in the town of Iguala and then disappeared—a brutal scandal that continues to send tremors through the Mexican state—the role of the Mexican Army has come to appear problematic.
On Jan. 27 this year, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam declared the 43 young men officially dead, kidnapped by municipal police on the order of the mayor of Iguala, and murdered by a local drug cartel.
In that official version, the killers incinerated their victims’ bodies at a trash dump in the town of Cocula and disposed of the ashes in the Río San Juan. The trash dump fire was how the government explained how the only traces of the disappeared students to be detected so far are fragments of bone incinerated nearly beyond the point of DNA testing.
Finally, researchers at the University of Innsbruck managed to identify the remains as those of Alexander Mora, age 19, and Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, 20.
On Sept. 6 this year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, released a 560-page report on the disappearances. The commission found “no evidence whatsoever exists” to support the government’s claim that the students’ bodies were cremated at a trash dump at Cocula. This scenario had been crucial to the government’s case, and when accredited scientists voided it, the so-called confessions on which it was based were then equally irrelevant. The case collapsed.
A new Mexican attorney general has re-launched the search, reopened the investigation, and extended the term that the panel of experts from the commission has to remain in Mexico. The experts, in turn, have presented the Peña Nieto government a list of the names of soldiers in the Mexican Army whose sworn statements from the first Ayotzinapa investigation they found contained gaps. The experts wished to interview the soldiers whose names appeared in the list.
Which brings us back to the appearance of Gen. Cienfuegos’ appearance on “El Noticiero con Joaquín López-Dóriga.” The unmistakable takeaway from that session was that the commission would interview the Mexican soldiers over the general’s dead body.
Two Mexican legislators in the political opposition made the same request of the general and met with a similar attitude. He forbade them from questioning the soldiers unless done in the presence of a superior officer—to protect the men from “intimidation.” In the television interview, he said he would forbid the commission from questioning the soldiers at all.
“The agreement that the government of the Republic has made with the Inter-American Commission, and specifically with its panel of experts, is that they are here to supplement the investigations of our authorities,” said the general. “At no point does it say they can interrogate. It’s not possible. The laws do no permit it.”
The general’s remarks elicited consternation from panel members as well as leading officers of the commission in Washington, D.C.
Emilio Álvarez Icaza, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission, questioned by whose authority the general was refusing the commission’s request.
“As I understand it,” Álvarez said “the civilian authorities are the ones in charge in Mexico.”
Álvarez was referring to how the general’s hard line diverged from the pledges the commission had received from President Peña Nieto and his new Attorney General Arely Gómex to incorporate the data from the commission’s report into their own investigations. Part of that data, of course, concerns
gaps the panel detected in the sworn statements of the soldiers active in Iguala on the night of the disappearances.
Claudia Paz y Paz, a former judge and attorney general in Guatemala, reaffirmed the panel’s motives in requesting to be present and participate in follow-up interviews with the soldiers. .
“For us it is clear that the Mexican Army was present at various moments and had different involvement, and that is why we have doubts and, therefore, it is necessary that we be present during the interrogations of the soldiers, and ask follow-up questions in the course of their responses, that would help to resolve the questions we have.”
Contrary to what the attorney general’s office has maintained to this point, the statements of personnel from the Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion reveal that soldiers were present and observed the attacks against the students in Iguala and did not intervene to stop to them. The soldiers, in fact, were monitoring the students from the time they left the school at Ayotzinapa in the afternoon.
The students’ willingness to engage in direct action was no secret to the Army, nor to Gen. Cienfuegos. On television, he noted how commonplace it had become for the Army to monitor the Ayotzinapa students when they travel off-campus, as they did on September 26. The general mentioned that the students took over a toll booth at the entrance to Iguala and collected donations from motorists. He mentioned that they seized three intercity commercial buses from the terminal in Iguala. He mentioned how on previous occasions they had stolen chips and soda from delivery trucks. “And in every one of those instances we knew they had gone out and what they were doing, and we didn’t intervene once. Why should we have intervened this time?”
Well, the obvious reason is that this time the students were attacked with live ammunition in a series of assaults that converted a busy stretch of downtown Iguala into a shooting gallery for as many as four hours.
Anabel Hernández, the noted Mexican investigative journalist and author, has listened to audio recordings from that night made while the attacks were in progress. Hernández reports for Proceso and is also currently at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley. She described the noise in one of the recordings as 10 minutes of continuous, ear-splitting gunfire directed against unarmed students.
Steve Fisher is Hernández’s co-author on several in-depth investigative reports on the Ayotzinapa case. Like her, Fisher is a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC-Berkeley. He and Hernández have studied many of the documents the commission consulted in its report. “The soldiers in their depositions acknowledge they were present at practically every point of the attacks that occurred that night,” Fisher said. He also said that shell casings from 7.62-caliber bullets—a caliber used by the Army—were recovered at the scene.
No one asked the soldiers if they fired on students or played a role disappearing them, Fisher said, and no forensics tests were performed to determine if the soldiers fired their weapons that night. This was one of numerous omissions by investigators that Fisher said nagged at him as he read through the soldiers’ depositions.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, despite paying lip service to the commission’s report, has not acknowledged that the Army knew of the attacks on the students as they unfolded in real time.
Asked why the 27th Infantry Battalion did not intervene, Gen. Cienfuegos said that the battalion commander had taken at face-value the assurances from the municipal director of public safety in Iguala that “nothing is happening, no confrontation with the students, no arrests, no shots fired.” The Army’s hands were tied so long as no civilian authority made a formal request for it to intervene, he said.
Carlos Beristain, a member of the commission’s panel of experts, said that the degree of violence in the attacks and the reports of fatalities that night transcended disputes over whether and to what extent the Army can act without the consent of the municipal or state authorities. More problematic still, the governor of Guerrero state at the time of the massacre, Ángel Aguirre, and his attorney general Iñaki Blanco have made recent statements that directly contradict what Gen. Cienfuegos said.
To a group of legislators on a fact-finding mission, Aguirre revealed that on the night of the student disappearances, he made a request for assistance to the highest ranking Army commander in Guerrero at the time. Blanco said he made a request to the 27th Infantry Battalion, which was denied.
The comments of General Cienfuegos indicate the Peña Nieto government appears determined to shield the soldier-witnesses in Iguala from the next phase of the Inter-American Commission’s probe. General Cienfuegos accused the experts of deliberately seeking to tarnish the image of the Army. “They want to interrogate them and then, after the fact, make it seem as though they were somehow involved with, and not support them,” he said.
“I cannot allow my soldiers to be treated like criminals.”