Prosecutor’s Office Drops Case of 43 Missing Mexican Students Amid New Unrest

MEXICO CITY — The prosecutor in charge of Mexico’s most notorious human rights case has resigned, derailing an eight-year investigation into the disappearance of 43 students and raising questions about authorities’ willingness to confront politicians and the military.

Omar Gómez Trejo had spent more than three years on the investigation, seen as a crucial test of Mexico’s ability to unravel a case that allegedly involved drug traffickers and their ties to politicians and security forces. The veteran human rights lawyer was appointed a few months later President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador He took office in December 2018, pledging to ensure justice for the families of the missing students from the teachers’ college in the city of Ayotzinapa.

The prosecutor obtained judicial approval last month for 83 arrest warrants, including one for a retired army general – a rare accusation from a high-ranking military figure. But Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office recently convinced a judge to nullify 21 of the arrest warrants; 16 of which were for military officers.

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive who contributed to the Gómez Trejo investigation, said the resignation reflected the disorder in the government and the delicacy of accusing the military of human rights violations.

“I would be very surprised if the military is still the target of this investigation,” he said.

Mexico puts civilian-led National Guard under military control

The 43 students disappeared on September 26, 2014, after commandeering several buses to go to a protest demonstration, a common practice. They were last seen in local police custody. The case sparked a storm of protest in Mexico and abroad, as evidence emerged that politicians, police, the military and a local drug gang were involved in the crime or a subsequent cover-up. No one has been convicted.

The focus on the military’s role in disappearances comes at a particularly charged time. López Obrador recently placed the civilian-led National Guard under the formal command of the army. He is also pressuring the Mexican Congress to extend the military mandate to enforce the law until 2028.

López Obrador’s reliance on the military for everything from arresting drug traffickers to building airports and operating seaports has raised fears that Mexico’s democracy is slipping from civilian control.

The president says the military is needed to fight heavily armed organized crime groups. On Tuesday, he said that Gómez Trejo resigned “because he did not agree with the procedures followed to approve the arrest warrants.” The president added that he was in favor of the arrest warrants.

Mexican Government Control Threatened by Criminal Groups

As a special prosecutor, Gómez Trejo enjoyed unusual autonomy, able to order wiretaps and investigate a wide range of crimes. However, the attorney general’s office, his employer, seemed to be quietly conducting a parallel investigation. Recently, while Gómez Trejo was abroad, other prosecutors secured a arrest warrant against the former attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, for alleged participation in the Ayotzinapa case. (He has pleaded not guilty).

The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, which has represented the families of the 43 students, called the latest developments “extremely worrying.”

Stephanie Brewer, who previously worked at the center and is now at the Washington Office of Latin American Affairs, said Gomez Trejo’s resignation was “clearly a reaction to the fact that her office has been sidelined.”

There was no response to requests for comment sent to Gómez Trejo and the attorney general’s office.

The Mexican government initially blamed local police and politicians allegedly linked to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, for the students’ disappearance. Authorities said the traffickers apparently mistook the students for members of a rival group, killed them and burned their bodies in a dumpster.

Since then, independent experts have discredited many of those conclusions. A recent report by a government truth commission indicated that federal and state officials, including military officers, were aware of the abductions and took no action. The report accused the army and the police of later participating in a cover-up. He raised the possibility that the students were targeted because they unknowingly seized a US-bound bus carrying drugs for Guerreros Unidos.

Lawyers for the four military men charged in the case said this week that the allegations were based on the uncorroborated testimony of a protected witness and that their clients were innocent.

So far, the remains of only three of the 43 students have been found.

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