Mexico City – Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has promised to reopen the case of the 43 missing students from a rural teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, who disappeared after the police intercepted them on their way to a protest four years ago.
The case has drawn widespread condemnation, symbolising how the state of corruption and impunity that has become the norm in the country.
The government of outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto effectively closed the case a few months after the incident, claiming they had obtained confessions from local drug gang members who said they burned all 43 bodies in a dumpster after being instructed by the police to murder the students.
However, international experts dispute that account, pointing to a number of irregularities with the case, including confessions obtained by torture, illegal arrests of key suspects and lack of physical evidence to sustain the arguments.
In an unprecedented ruling in July, a court ordered the creation of a special commission to reopen and pursue the case. But a coordinated government effort halted its progress claiming such a commission would be overstepping jurisdictions. Earlier this week another court upheld the creation of the commission.
Lopez Obrador, who will be taking office in December, told reporters on Wednesday that he will see to it that the commission moves forward in investigating the case.
“No matter what, on December 1st, I will issue an executive order to create the investigative commission and set up the procedure to access truth and justice,” he said, surrounded by relatives of the missing students. He added that he will “open the doors” to all international organisations that have been “fighting against all odds to prevent this case from closing”.
Epifanio Alvarez Carbajal, father of Jorge Alvarez Nava, one of the missing students, shared the stage with Lopez Obrador.
“We feel great hope,” Carbajal said, choking back his tears. “If that’s not the case [accessing justice], I’d rather die. I can’t go on watching all these parents in pain.”
Clemente Rodriguez Moreno, whose son, Christian, also went missing, told Al Jazeera that he feels “stronger, stronger, strengthened, because no other president had given us hope before.”
A cold trail?
Mario Patron Sanchez, director of Centro Prodh, a human rights NGO that has been closely monitoring the case and co-organised Wednesday’s meeting, told Al Jazeera he believed solving the case four years later is “totally feasible”.
“This case is emblematic because it represents the heart of corruption and impunity of the country, and the main challenge is breaking impunity pacts,” Patron said. “Today’s meeting is important because there’s a clear expression of political will to solve this case.”
But not everyone agreed. Francisco Rivas Rodríguez, director of Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, an NGO that monitors crime and justice, told Al Jazeera he is sceptical that the case can be solved because it’s been so long time since the incident, local authorities were negligent in handling the case and the federal government’s initial reaction was too slow.
While he said it’s good news that the investigation will continue, he is concerned that a “politically-motivated promise can cause more pain for the victims”.
“Opening the case does not necessarily mean the case can be solved,” he said. “This case is iconic and that’s why we understand its significance, but in reality these cases are all too common and they rarely are solved. Access to justice is poor in Mexico.”
According to Ernesto Schwartz Marin, a forensic anthropologist at Exeter University who co-founded citizen-led forensic database Ciencia Forense Ciudadana in Mexico to help families find their disappeared relatives, “Ayotzinapa is just the tip of the iceberg”.
“This case is being pursued because it’s been on the spotlight, but there’s thousands of disappeared that won’t access justice unless the system is changed from its roots,” Schwartz told Al Jazeera. “Morgues are overridden with bodies.”
‘Alive they took, alive we want them back’
Following Wednesday’s meeting and press conference, thousands joined the parents of the disappeared students to protest the government’s handling of the case.
Protesters chanted “alive they took them, alive we want them back”. A banner read “from Iguala to Los Pinos [the presidential house], prison to the murderers. The entire goddamn system is guilty.”
At the end of the rally, parents took turns speaking to the crowd.
“We’re very sad four years later, and we’re very angry at the government,” one of the mothers said, contesting the official account of what happened the night the students disappeared.
“Today we feel hopeful, we see a possibility with Lopez Obrador,” a father said.