A woman holds a flyer with a photo and information on one of the missing 43 students of the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college, during a demonstration in Mexico City.

(New York) – The Mexican government delayed investigations into the enforced disappearances of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero State, and the killing of 22 people in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, Human Rights Watch said today. In the Tlatlaya case, state prosecutors sought to cover up military wrongdoing by coercing false testimony from witnesses. 

The Mexican government should ensure thorough investigations of both episodes, Human Rights Watch said. Officials who failed to respond promptly to these incidents or sought to cover them up should be held accountable.

“These are the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in years, but they are hardly isolated incidents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely the consequence of the longstanding failure of Mexican authorities to address the problem.”

Human Rights Watch visited Guerrero and Mexico City beginning on November 3, 2014,  to meet with parents of the missing students, witnesses to both incidents, and senior government officials in Mexico City, including Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam.

Murillo Karam and other justice officials expressed their commitment to finding the Guerrero students and ensuring full accountability for abuses. However, the office’s initial response to these cases was marred by significant delays. In the Iguala case, the office waited 10 days after the students disappeared before opening an investigation. In the Tlatlaya case, it took the Attorney General’s Office three months to intervene. 

“These inexcusable delays have badly damaged the credibility of the Attorney General’s Office and generated mounting pressure for it to show results,” Vivanco said. “But it would be a grave mistake to go from doing little or nothing on these cases to rushing to reach unsubstantiated conclusions to appear to resolve them.”

In the Tlatlaya episode, military personnel killed 22 people inside an empty warehouse on June 30. Accounts from witnesses and a report by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said that at least 12 of them were extrajudicially executed.

State prosecutors detained two of the three surviving witnesses, beat them, repeatedly asphyxiated them with a bag, and threatened them with sexual abuse to force them to confess that they had links to people killed in the incidents and to say that the military was not responsible for the killings, the CNDH found. Police threatened and mistreated a third witness who saw how the military executed her daughter during the incident. Police also forced the three witnesses to sign documents whose content they could not read.

For weeks, the Defense Ministry, the governor of the State of Mexico, and the state attorney general upheld the official account that the fatalities had occurred in a shootout and that the soldiers had acted properly.*

The federal Attorney General’s Office only got involved in the investigation of the alleged executions three months later, after Esquire magazine on September 17 published an interview with one of the witnesses with her account of the events.

On September 25, the military justice system detained 24 soldiers and one lieutenant who allegedly participated in the incidents, and accused 8 of them of breaches of military discipline. On September 30, the Attorney General’s Office charged 7 soldiers and the lieutenant with “undue exercise of public service.” Three of the soldiers were also charged with “abuse of authority, aggravated homicide of eight people, and altering the crime scene.” The lieutenant was also charged with cover-up.

In the Iguala attack, approximately 30 municipal police officers opened fire on September 26 without warning on three buses carrying about 90 students from a rural school that trains teachers in Ayotzinapa, wounding more than 15 students, including one who was shot in the head and is in a vegetative state. During that incident and a subsequent one in which unidentified people opened fire on the students and others, 6 people were killed.

The students were returning home after commandeering the buses in Iguala to travel to Mexico City to participate in demonstrations commemorating the 1968 massacre of protesters in Tlatelolco.

The policemen ordered students in the third bus to leave the bus, beat them and forced them at gunpoint to lie down on the side of the road, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The policemen then forced the students into at least three police cars, and drove away with them. The whereabouts of 43 students remain unknown.

State and federal authorities failed to intervene to protect the students, despite local human rights activists having alerted the state government while the incident was in progress, and that the buses had been stopped 100 meters from a military installation.

More than 50 people have been detained and over 20 charged for their alleged involvement in the Iguala incidents.

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch published “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” documenting 149 cases in which there was compelling evidence of enforced disappearances involving state agents from all branches of the country’s security forces during the administration of President Felipe Calderón. No one has been successfully prosecuted in these cases, or in any other cases of enforced disappearance committed after 2006, according to official information.

*Correction: The original version of this news release stated, "For weeks, the Defense Ministry, the governor of the State of Mexico, and the state attorney general upheld the official account that the soldiers had died in a shootout with the 22 civilians and that the soldiers had acted properly."