The arrest caught Mexicans by surprise, after eight years of slow investigations and what investigators have called a cover-up under the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto. On Thursday, the government’s key person in the case, Alejandro Encinas, called the disappearances a “state crime” involving police, armed forces and civil officials, as well as a drug gang based in the state of Guerrero.
Dozens of people have been arrested in the case, including police officers and suspected gang members, and many were later released for lack of evidence or signs that they were tortured. But Jesús Murillo Karam, the former attorney general arrested on Friday, was the highest-ranking former official charged. Historically, the highest-ranking Mexican politicians have enjoyed impunity, even as corruption charges swirled around the government.
Murillo Karam did not immediately plead guilty and his lawyer could not be reached.
The arrest “is a clear sign of the interest of the National Prosecutor’s Office in thoroughly investigating the obstruction of justice and the human rights violations that occurred” in the case “and holding officials at all levels accountable for their illegal actions.” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Still, some analysts questioned whether Mexico’s weak and ineffective justice system could secure convictions for this complex crime. Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, tweeted that the case could become “a long tug of war, in which both parties end up litigating the investigation and there is never anything resembling justice.”
The 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural school for teachers were last seen at the hands of local police in the southern city of Iguala on September 26, 2014. The students had commandeered several buses to go to a protest demonstration. , following a local custom. But that night, police and other armed men attacked the vehicles. Murillo Karam, who led the initial investigation, said in 2015 that police handed the students over to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, who burned their bodies at a landfill in the nearby city of Cocula.
International legal and forensic experts have challenged that narrative, as have the attorney general’s office and a truth and justice commission established by the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Encinas said Thursday that the students likely inadvertently robbed a bus loaded with drugs or money that was part of the gang’s courier system to ship narcotics into the United States. The military and federal and state police took no action to stop the mass kidnapping, he said, despite being aware of it thanks to surveillance systems and an army spy who had infiltrated the student group.
“Federal and state authorities at the highest level were indifferent and negligent,” said Encinas, the undersecretary for human rights, at his press conference on Thursday. His comments suggested authorities might be willing to take on powerful individuals and institutions involved in the attack or cover-up, such as the military. He said, however, that there was no evidence pointing to Peña Nieto’s involvement.
The Ayotzinapa case generated worldwide condemnation and triggered mass protests in Mexico. He focused attention on the growing crisis of the disappeared, whose number has ballooned to more than 100,000. Most have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels in 2006. The army, criminal gangs and corrupt security officers working for traffickers have played a role, authorities say.
Murillo Karam, a member of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, was detained outside his home Friday without resistance, authorities said.
López Obrador took office promising to solve the case, but there have been no convictions. The remains of three of the students have been found and identified, and Encinas said the others are believed to be dead.
Gabriela Martinez and Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City contributed to this report.