Mexico arrests former attorney general in case of 43 missing students

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FILE - A woman carries a banner that reads in Spanish "We are missing 43," referring to the 43 missing students from a rural teachers college during a march in Mexico City, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015. The Truth Commission created to find out what happened to the missing students presented on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, a report that hints at the possible responsibility of the Mexican army in the disappearance. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
A woman at a 2015 march in Mexico City holds a sign that reads "We are missing 43!" — a reference to 43 students who disappeared the year before. (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Federal prosecutors in Mexico said Friday they had arrested the attorney general from the previous administration, apparently on charges he mishandled investigations into the 2014 disappearances of 43 students from a radical teachers college.

Jesús Murillo Karam was attorney general from 2012 to 2015, under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto.

In 2020, current Atty. Gen. Alejando Gertz Manero accused Murillo Karam of “orchestrating a massive media trick” and leading a cover-up in the case.

The arrest came a day after a commission investigating the disappearances said the army bore at least partial responsibility. It said that a soldier had infiltrated the student group involved and that the army didn’t stop the abductions even though it knew what was happening.

Corrupt local police, other security forces and members of a drug gang abducted the students in the city of Iguala in Guerrero state, southwest of Mexico City, although the motive remains unclear eight years later.

Murillo Karam, under pressure to solve the case, announced in 2014 that the students had been killed and their bodies burned at a garbage dump by members of a drug gang.

But the investigation turned up indications of torture and improper arrests, as well as mishandling of evidence that has since allowed most of the directly implicated gang members to walk free.

The crime occurred near a large army base, and independent investigations have found that members of the military were aware of what was occurring. The students’ families have long demanded that the investigation look into soldiers at the base.

On Thursday, the truth commission looking into the case said one of the abducted students was a soldier who had infiltrated the radical teachers college, yet the army did not search for him despite having had real-time information that the abduction was occurring. It said the inaction violated army protocols for cases of missing soldiers.

The Defense Ministry has not responded to the Associated Press’ request for comment.

Federal prosecutors previously issued arrest warrants for members of the military and federal police as well as Tomás Zeron, who at the time of the abductions headed Mexico’s Criminal Investigative Agency.

Zeron is being sought on charges of torture and covering up forced disappearances. He fled to Israel, and Mexico has asked the Israeli government for help in his arrest.

Gertz Manero said that in addition to Zeron’s suspected crimes connected to the case, he has been accused of stealing more than $44 million from the attorney general’s office.

The motive for the students’ abduction remains a subject of debate.

On Sept. 26, 2014, local police from Iguala, members of organized crime and authorities abducted 43 students who were riding on buses. The students periodically commandeered buses for transportation.

Murillo Karam said the students were turned over to a drug gang, which killed them, incinerated their bodies at a dump in nearby Cocula, and tossed their burned remains into a river.

Later investigations by independent experts, the attorney general’s office and the truth commission have dismissed the claim that the bodies were incinerated at the Cocula dump, although recovered burned bone fragments have been used to identify three of the missing students.

There is no evidence that any of the students could still be alive.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.