Prosecutor quits case of 43 missing Mexican students amid new turmoil

MEXICO CITY — The prosecutor in charge of Mexico’s most notorious human rights case has quit, throwing into disarray the eight-year-old investigation into the disappearance of 43 students while raising questions about the authorities’ willingness to take on 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 allegedly involving drug traffickers and their ties to politicians and security forces. The veteran human rights lawyer was appointed just months after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018, vowing to secure justice for the families of the missing students from the teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa.

The prosecutor won judicial approval last month for 83 arrest warrants, including one for a retired army general—a rare indictment of a senior military figure. But the Mexican Attorney General’s Office recently persuaded a judge to vacate 21 of the arrest warrants; 16 of which were for military officials.

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive who had contributed research to Gómez Trejo’s investigation, said the resignation reflected disarray in the government and the sensitivity of charging the military with human-rights violations.

“I would be very surprised if the military remains a target of this investigation,” she said.

Mexico putting civilian-led national guard under military control

The 43 students vanished on Sept. 26, 2014, after commandeering several buses to go to a protest rally — a common practice. They were last seen in custody of local police. The case unleashed a storm of protest in Mexico and abroad, as signs emerged that politicians, the police, the military and a local drug-trafficking gang were involved in the crime or a subsequent coverup. No one has been convicted.

The focus on the military’s role in the disappearances comes at a particularly charged moment. López Obrador recently moved the civilian-led National Guard under formal army command. He is also pushing Mexico’s congress to extend the military’s mandate to do law enforcement 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 away from civilian control.

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

Mexican government control threatened by crime groups

As a special prosecutor, Gómez Trejo enjoyed unusual autonomy, able to order wiretaps and investigate a wide range of crimes. Yet the attorney general’s office—his employer—seemed to be quietly running a parallel investigation. Recently, while Gómez Trejo was abroad, other prosecutors secured an arrest warrant for the former attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, for alleged involvement in the Ayotzinapa case. (He has pleaded innocent).

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

Stephanie Brewer, who formerly worked at the center and is now at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Gómez Trejo’s resignation was “clearly a reaction to the fact that his 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 the students’ disappearance on local police and politicians allegedly tied to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos. Authorities said the traffickers apparently mistook the students for members of a rival group, killed them and burned their bodies in a garbage dump.

Independent experts have since debunked many of those conclusions. A recent report from a government truth commission stated that federal and state officials—including army officers—were aware of the kidnappings and took no action. The report accused the military and police of later participating in a coverup. It raised the possibility that the students were targeted because they unwittingly seized a US-bound bus carrying drugs for the Guerreros Unidos.

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

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

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