Mexican investigators have obtained dramatic new leads on the 2014 forced disappearance of a group of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, according to an article in the Mexican newspaper Reforma.
The report, published April 12, describes a series of text messages sent in the hours and days following the students’ disappearance between Mexican drug traffickers based in Chicago and their criminal partners operating inside Mexico. US drug enforcement agents obtained the messages through electronic intercepts during a 15-month narcotics investigation in northern Illinois and subsequently provided them to the Mexican government.
According to the article, the Blackberry chats sent by members of the criminal gang Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) in Chicago – where they ran a drug distribution ring – revealed they were issuing orders and monitoring developments shortly after fellow gang members in Iguala, Guerrero, joined local police to attack the students on the night of September 26 and morning of September 27, 2014. The messages contain new details about the events, including the names of gang members involved, the demands of the Chicago bosses that municipal police from neighboring towns participate, and their orders that the Guerrero prosecutor and other state officials intervene to support them.
The texts do not reveal the fate or whereabouts of the missing students.
When the students were abducted, the crime sparked outrage and grief around the world. At the time, the young men had left their rural school for teachers in Ayotzinapa and were traveling in buses they planned to use in a few days’ time to go to Mexico City to take part in an annual demonstration commemorating the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco. As the buses passed through the town of Iguala, local police and Guerreros Unidos gang members stopped the vehicles and savagely attacked the students. At least six people were killed during the melee and 43 young men were forcibly taken away.
Since then, the families of the students, their lawyers, and national and international human rights groups have demanded the return of the missing men and the arrest of the perpetrators. But from the very beginning, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared unable or unwilling to mount a serious investigation. His attorney general’s botched theory of the case, along with evidence of possible government complicity in the crime, led in 2015 to the appointment by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of five international experts to assist in the inquiry and provide support and liaison to the families.
It was the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, by its Spanish acronym) that discovered the existence of the 2014 indictments against Guerreros Unidos members in Chicago. The experts obtained the complaint affidavit filed with the Office of the US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, which contained clues about what might have happened in Iguala to provoke such a savage attack on the students. According to the complaint, the US-based gang members used commercial passenger buses to smuggle cocaine and heroin into the United States and ferry their cash proceeds back to Mexico, using special compartments they built to hide them. The buses came from the state of Guerrero.
The experts theorized that the students may have inadvertently taken one the buses used by the traffickers to conceal and move their drugs. In their first progress report, issued in September 2015, GIEI recommended that Mexico request the transcripts of cell phones listed in the complaint that were active on or around September 26-27, 2014. But according to the group’s second and final report (April 2016), Mexico fumbled the request to the United States at least twice, delaying the process in a way the group called “incomprehensible.”
Thus the appearance of the cell phone messages two and half years after GIEI’s report serves as the very delayed response by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government to their recommendation.
Some of the messages contain fleeting but vivid references to the students in coded language. On the afternoon of September 27, a trafficker known only by his alias, “Silver,” received a report from someone called “Aníbal”: “It’s just that they’re hauling 60 packets [a reference to detained-disappeared persons] under guard and others among them are with San Pedro [dead], and on this side there are only wounded…”
The text is striking because it directly contradicts a key element of Mexico’s flawed theory of the case. The government has always contended – and continues to maintain, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that after being pulled off the buses, the students were taken to a garbage dump in nearby Cocula town in the early morning hours of September 27, where they were killed immediately, their bodies burned to ash and bone in a great conflagration. GIEI, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, and international fire experts have refuted the government’s assertion. The newly released text indicates the students were still alive in the afternoon of September 27, hours after the government claims they had been executed.
Reforma’s article – based on access to the transcripts given to reporter Roberto Zamarripa (presumably by the Mexican government) – describes the violence against the students as the result of a mistaken belief on the part of the local Guerreros Unidos that the buses carried members of a rival gang called Los Rojos, which sought to seize control of Iguala and its lucrative drug trade by force. In one text, “Silver” orders his Iguala counterpart to get help from state officials to “move against the vehicles.” A character identified as “Soldier of Love” responds from Mexico, “They’re gonna close off all the entrances [to the town].”
Some of the gang members chatting appeared to be taken aback by the magnitude of the incident. A week after the attack, Pablo Vega, one of the criminal leaders in Chicago, comments in a text to “Cobra” that there were “50 young guys disappeared.” “Cobra” replies: “Shit. So many …. But, where did they put them all? So many.”
Although the reported cell phone chats contain tantalizing leads that may be helpful in expanding the investigation, they leave many aspects of the case still unknown and unexplained. For example, they do not appear to reference the Mexican military or the federal police, both of which were present that night and played roles in monitoring the students as they traveled in the buses toward Iguala, communicating with each other and with local police about their progress, and observing the violent events of that night and the following morning without intervening.
In a press release published after the article, human rights organizations – including Centro Prodh, whose lawyers represent the families of the missing students, and the Guerrero-based Tlachinollan – called on the government to exploit the new information to revive its investigation into the case. The groups also highlighted what they considered to be some of the most important revelations raised by the texts.
First, the messages make clear that far from being a provincial criminal gang, Guerreros Unidos had international reach, shipping cocaine and heroin from southern Mexico to a major city in the northern United States. That new perspective on the group’s operations complicates Mexico’s characterization of the attack as a limited, local struggle and raises the possibility that the violence that night may have reverberated well beyond Guerrero and had broader impact for the gang and its corrupt government allies.
Second, the reported texts put an end to the suggestion – made by some commentators and government officials – that the students were “infiltrated” by narcos (thereby bringing their grief upon themselves). There are several points in the chats, as reported by Reforma, where Chicago gang members express surprise and disapproval (because it will be bad for business) that the students were targeted. Nowhere do they link the missing young men with their own criminal activities.
In Mexico, the government’s credibility on the Ayotzinapa case was shattered long ago. As the group of experts documented in their second and final report, the Peña Nieto investigation into what happened to the 43 students has been marred by dishonesty, delay, and the destruction of evidence. Mexico should use the intercepted phone messages to steer the course of its investigation into more credible waters, immediately.
The United States also has a role to play. Although the National Security Archive has filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act request on the Ayotzinapa case, the US government has yet to declassify and release the relevant records. Our attempts to clarify exactly when the United States released the Chicago transcripts to Mexico and in what form have also gone unanswered.
Beyond declassifying documents that might shed light on the events, the US government could support the case by providing investigators with additional information about the operations of Guerreros Unidos in the United States. If the tragedy in Iguala is understood within the context of transnational criminal operations and widespread corruption in Mexico (instead of as a local, limited accident of mistaken identity), perhaps the scope of the investigation will open wide enough to get to the bottom of what happened – and clarify why the Mexican government has been so determined to cover it up.
Weeks after the students disappeared, as the government swept up dozens of gang members and police suspected of participating in the attack, Pablo Vega in Chicago lamented in a message to someone called “Spider Woman,” “As long as the guys are missing, they [the arrests] will continue.”
“Spider Woman” replied: “It would be so easy just to say where they are.”