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MEXICO CITY – Mexican authorities on Friday arrested the country’s former attorney general and accused him of torture and enforced disappearance in the mass kidnapping of 43 students in 2014, as the government took its boldest step yet to solve one of the country’s worst human rights scandals last decades.
The arrest stunned Mexicans after eight years of slow investigations and what investigators have described as a cover-up under former President Enrique Peña Nieto. On Thursday, Alejandro Encinas, the government official in charge of the case, described the enforced disappearances as a “state crime” involving police, the armed forces and civilian officials alongside a Guerrero state-based drug trafficking gang.
Scores of people were arrested in the case, including police officers and suspected gang members, and many were later released due to lack of evidence or indication that they were tortured. But Jesús Murillo Karam, the former attorney general who was arrested Friday, was the senior former official charged. High-ranking Mexican politicians have always enjoyed impunity, even as allegations of government corruption swirled.
Murillo Karam did not immediately plead, and it has not been possible to locate his attorney.
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The arrest “is a clear sign of the prosecutor’s interest in fully investigating the obstruction of justice and human rights abuses that have occurred in the case and in holding officials at all levels accountable for their illegal actions,” the vice vice president said Maureen Meyer President of Programs, Washington Office for Latin America.
Still, some analysts questioned whether Mexico’s weak, ineffective justice system could successfully secure convictions in the complex crime. Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, tweeted that the case could become “a long back-and-forth with both sides processing the investigation and there is never anything that resembles justice.”
The 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College were last seen at the hands of local police on September 26, 2014 in the southern city of Iguala. The students had impounded several buses to go to a protest, following a local custom. But that night, police officers and other gunmen attacked the vehicles. Murillo Karam, who led the initial investigation, said in 2015 that police turned the students over to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, who burned their bodies at a dump in the nearby town of Cocula.
International legal and forensic experts have disputed this account, as has the Attorney General’s Office and a Truth and Justice Commission set up by current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Encinas said Thursday the students likely unknowingly stole a bus loaded with drugs or money that was part of the gang’s courier system to ship narcotics to the United States. The military and federal and state police had done nothing to stop the mass kidnappings, he said — despite knowing about it thanks to surveillance systems and an army spy who had infiltrated the student group.
“Federal and state authorities at the highest level have been indifferent and negligent,” Undersecretary for Human Rights Encinas said at his news briefing Thursday. His comments suggested authorities may be ready to take over powerful individuals and institutions involved in the attack or cover-up, such as the military. However, he said there was no evidence of Peña Nieto’s involvement.
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The Ayotzinapa case provoked global condemnation and sparked mass protests in Mexico. It drew attention to the burgeoning crisis of the disappeared, who have now numbered more than 100,000. Most have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels in 2006. The military, crime gangs and corrupt security officials working for human traffickers have all played a role, authorities say.
Murillo Karam, a member of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, was arrested without resistance outside his home on Friday, authorities said.
López Obrador took office and promised to solve the case, but there were no convictions. The remains of three of the students were found and identified, and Encinas said the others were presumed dead.
Gabriela Martinez and Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City contributed to this report.