Federal prosecutors said Friday they have arrested the attorney general of Mexico’s previous administration on charges that he committed abuses in the investigation of the 2014 disappearances of 43 students from a radical teachers’ college.
Prosecutors also announced that they had issued arrest warrants in the case against 20 military officers, five local officials, 33 local police officers and 11 state police officers, as well as 14 gang members.
The raid included the first arrest of a former attorney general in recent history and one of the largest mass arrests ever made by civilian prosecutors of Mexican army soldiers.
Jesús Murillo Karam served as Attorney General from 2012 to 2015, under then President Enrique Peña Nieto. The office of the current Attorney General, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said that Murillo Karam was accused of torture, official misconduct and enforced disappearance.
In 2020, Gertz Manero said that Murillo Karam had been implicated in “orchestrating a massive media stunt” and leading a “widespread cover-up” in the case.
The arrest came a day after a commission set up to determine what happened said the army bore at least partial responsibility in the case. He said that a soldier had infiltrated the student group involved and that the army did not stop the kidnappings even though they knew what was happening.
Corrupt local police, other security forces and members of a drug gang kidnapped the students in the city of Iguala, in Guerrero state, although the motive remains unclear eight years later. Their bodies have never been found, although burned bone fragments have been found with those of three of the students.
Murillo Karam, under pressure to quickly resolve the case, announced in 2014 that the students had been killed and their bodies burned in a dump by members of a drug gang. He called that hypothesis “the historical truth.”
But the investigation included cases of torture, wrongful arrests and mishandling of evidence that has since allowed most of the gang members directly implicated to walk free.
The incident occurred near a large military base, and independent investigations have found that members of the military were aware of what was happening. The families of the students have long demanded that the soldiers be included in the investigation.
On Thursday, the truth commission investigating the case said that one of the kidnapped students was a soldier who had infiltrated the radical teachers’ school, but the army did not search for him despite having real-time information that kidnapping was happening. He said the inaction violated Army protocols for missing soldiers.
The Defense Ministry has not responded to a request for comment.
The soldiers and officers wanted under Friday’s orders, and the other officers, police and gang members, face charges of murder, torture, official misconduct, criminal association and enforced disappearance.
It was not immediately clear if all of the suspects faced all charges or if the suspects were among dozens previously arrested and charged during previous investigations.
Before reforms in Mexican law, the military had long been allowed to refer soldiers accused of wrongdoing to separate military tribunals. But now the soldiers must be tried in civilian courts, if their crimes involved civilians.
The accused soldiers served at the base near where the kidnapping occurred in 2014.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, to which both Murillo Karam and Peña Nieto belonged, wrote on its Twitter account that Murillo Karam’s arrest “is more a matter of politics than of justice. This action does not help the families of the victims to get answers.”
Mexican federal prosecutors previously issued arrest warrants for members of the military and federal police, as well as for Tomás Zeron, who at the time of the kidnapping headed the federal investigative agency, the Mexican detective agency.
Zeron is wanted on charges of torture and covering up enforced disappearances. He fled to Israel and Mexico has asked the Israeli government for help in arresting him.
Gertz Manero said that in addition to Zeron’s alleged crimes related to the case, he is accused of stealing more than $44 million from the budget of the Attorney General’s Office.
The motive for the kidnapping of the students is still the subject of debate.
On September 26, 2014, local Iguala police, members of organized crime, and authorities kidnapped 43 students from buses. Students periodically commandeered buses for their transportation.
Murillo Karam claimed that the students were handed over to a drug gang that killed them, cremated their bodies in a landfill near Cocula, and dumped the burned bone fragments into a river.
Subsequent investigations by independent experts and the Public Ministry, and corroborated by the truth commission, have dismissed the idea that the bodies were incinerated in the Cocula landfill.
There has been no evidence that any of the students may still be alive.