gomez fiscal

The Instruction: How the López Obrador Administration Blew Up the Ayotzinapa Investigation

Mexico’s president promised to deliver truth and justice for the 43 disappeared students and their families. The former special prosecutor reveals what happened instead

By John Gibler

SPECIAL REPORT

September 26, 2023

On Friday, August 12, 2022, Alejandro Gertz Manero, the octogenarian attorney general of Mexico, called the then head of the Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case (UEILCA), Omar Gómez Trejo, to his office.

“Omar,” Gómez Trejo said the prosecutor told him, “I need a favor, a worksheet where you tell me how the case is going, what’s going on, what progress is being made. I have a breakfast next Monday.”

For three years, Gómez Trejo, a 43-year-old human rights lawyer with a gray beard and tattooed arms, had been at the helm of the most extensive, complex, and arduous legal investigation in recent Mexican history: the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa during the long night of September 26-27, 2014.

Gómez Trejo didn’t know it then, but that breakfast would be attended by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Interior Minister Adán Augusto López, Supreme Court Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar, and Deputy Secretary of Human Rights Alejandro Encinas. He had no way of knowing it then, but during that breakfast meeting, Mexico’s highest public officials would all agree to a series of actions that would blow up the Ayotzinapa investigation and provoke his departure from the country.

So, unaware of what was to come, that summer Friday on the 25th floor of the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), Gómez Trejo told his boss that yes, he’d get right to it.

The Years of Terror
Around 5:30 p.m. on September 26, 2014, two buses of students left Ayotzinapa. The students had been trying for days to get buses and organize a caravan from the country's rural teacher training colleges. They planned to travel from Ayotzinapa to Mexico City to participate in the march commemorating the October 2, 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco.

Between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m., the two buses separated; one stayed at the Huitzuco intersection, a place known as Rancho del Cura, and the other headed to the Iguala toll booth. The students did not know that they had been infiltrated and identified, and that they were being monitored by military intelligence agents. And they had no way of knowing that the commanders of the two Army battalions in Iguala, the 27th and 41st, and many of their subordinates were part of an illegal enterprise known as Guerreros Unidos, which trafficked heroin from the mountains of Guerrero to the barrios of Chicago.

About an hour later, Ayotzinapa students took three more buses from the Iguala bus station and left for the highway by two different routes. Iguala police chased them and attacked them with gunfire, stopping the five buses in two different places. Police from nearby Huitzuco and Cocula, state and ministerial police, federal police, and soldiers arrived at different times to support or observe the attacks. None intervened in favor of the students. The police subdued and took 43 students from two of the five buses.

The attacks lasted all night. Journalists, civilians, and a soccer bus were also attacked. In the predawn hours it began to rain. When a group of reporters from the state capital of Chilpancingo arrived, they saw some of the wounded from the soccer team, the police checkpoints, the lifeless bodies of two students in the street, and masked soldiers moving in the shadows.

The first news reports were confusing. Uncertainty grew. But from the very beginning, the survivors and other witnesses said that it was the police who had attacked them and who took the 43 students.

Confronted with the facts, state policy during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto was to lie. To sustain the lie, the federal authorities in charge of the investigation tortured detainees, invented a crime scene, threatened witnesses, destroyed and planted evidence, falsified documents, hacked and spied on journalists, investigators, and the lawyers of the families of the disappeared students, and even killed and disappeared witnesses and people involved in the attacks.

In those years, from 2014 to 2018, the government insisted on its integrity and good will while inflicting torture—in sessions recorded by security agents—and lying. They had the audacity to baptize their policy of deception as “the historical truth.” And neither the testimonies of survivors and witnesses, nor the journalistic investigations, nor the first two reports of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)—created by mandate of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)—provoked more than minimal adjustments to their lie.

They were years of terror.

The Commitment
From the beginning, López Obrador's relationship with the struggle of the families of the 43 disappeared students was one of tension and distance. During the years of terror, his position was above all characterized by silence.

That was until May 25, 2018, when at a campaign event of the then-presidential candidate in Iguala, a commission of mothers and fathers of the disappeared students went on stage and asked him to take a stand. There, for the first time, López Obrador pledged to investigate the case and create a truth commission led by the IACHR and the United Nations.

“Since then, the president publicly stated that he was going to promote a truth commission,” says Santiago Aguirre, lawyer for the families and director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro PRODH). “The mothers and fathers, in good measure with the accompaniment of Tlachinollan [Human Rights Center] and the Centro PRODH, from that moment on said ‘No, here there is an issue of pending justice.’ The government should not only focus on clarifying the truth, but also on pursuing justice.”

Mario González, father of the disappeared student César Manuel González Hernández, told me in 2018 that he did not look favorably on the then-candidate’s proposal: “More than the truth commission, what we want is the truth. We already have the commission. We would have to start from the recommendations and investigations of the GIEI.”

López Obrador repeated his commitment on September 26, 2018, as president-elect. For the first time in the four years since the forced disappearance, he appeared alongside the families at a protest event: “We are going to know what really happened,” he said. “We will find the young men and punish those responsible.”

On December 4, 2018, in his first act of government, López Obrador created by decree the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Case (COVAJ) and ordered all state institutions to hand over any documentation they had on the disappearance of the students. The UEILCA was created almost seven months later, on June 26, 2019, by an agreement of Attorney General Gertz.

The Prosecutor
His brothers called him “the mute.” Omar Gómez Trejo says he was very withdrawn and quiet. He kept his hair long and always wore a baseball cap and jacket, a sport he played since he was a child. He liked ska and playing José José songs on his guitar. He spent entire days reading Fernando del Paso, José Saramago, and Antonio Tabucchi. He argued with his PRIista father. He believed in the rule of law.

He studied law at the Higher Studies Faculty, Acatlán, part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and did his social service at an office of the Organization of American States. A year after graduating, in 2004, he completed a six-month internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica. Back in Mexico, he studied for a master’s degree in human rights at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. He was then offered a job at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Guatemala, and began living between there and Mexico.

About five days after the attacks in Iguala, Gómez Trejo’s boss at the UN offices in Mexico City asked him if he could go with a colleague as a human rights observer to interview family members and students. “I remember we came back with a lot of information from those first interviews. When we were on our way back from the school, my UN colleague was crying in the back of the car and I was crying in front. And the driver didn’t understand what was going on.... That moment of the return was very hard, very hard, because you realize that you are facing something very, very terrible.”

basurero cocula

Image of the Cocula garbage dump taken by Omar Gómez Trejo when he visited it in October 2014. At that time, Peña Nieto's Administration wanted to turn it into a student crime scene.

A month later, the then attorney general of Mexico, Jesús Murillo Karam, called the head of the OHCHR in Mexico and offered him a helicopter trip to observe the Cocula trash dump, where, he said, two students were found. Gómez Trejo and his UN colleague were also selected for this task. They each went home for a change of clothes and then to the Attorney General’s Office (which was then known as the PGR). They boarded the helicopter and were flown to a soccer field in Cocula, which had been converted into a base of operations for the PGR and the Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR).

There they were asked to wait for the “boss,” who turned out to be Tomás Zerón de Lucio, director of the PGR’s Criminal Investigation Agency, who ordered them to be taken to the dump. “And then they put us in a van where there were two men armed with machine guns.... We were all cramped together.” Once in the dump, “the public prosecutors began to explain to us; down in the dump we could see how the experts were working. We stayed in the upper part.” The explanations were not clear: “I didn't understand anything at all,” Gómez Trejo says.

Three months later, on January 27, 2015, Gómez Trejo was sitting in a neighborhood restaurant eating lunch with two colleagues from the UN. Murillo Karam and Zerón’s press conference was being broadcast on television. During that press conference they presented the “historical truth” of what happened in Iguala, based on videos of three alleged confessions. The investigations led to the conclusion, according to Murillo Karam, that the 43 students were killed and incinerated in the Cocula garbage dump by members of Guerreros Unidos, who then put the remains of their charred bones in plastic bags and threw them into the nearby San Juan River. A colleague who had a lot of experience documenting cases of torture, upon observing the videos of the detainees shown during the broadcast said: “Look, those guys look really worked over.”

While the state was constructing its supposed truth, the GIEI arrived in Mexico. Gómez Trejo knew two of its members: Guatemalan prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz and Colombian lawyer Alejandro Valencia. It was the latter who sought him out to tell him that they needed to hire someone in Mexico to help them, and asked him if he was interested. “Yes, of course,” he replied. He then had an interview with another member of the group, the Basque doctor Carlos Beristain, who asked him to join immediately. From that day on he was the technical secretary of the GIEI.

The GIEI
I met Gómez Trejo at that time. One day in the spring of 2015 we traveled together to Iguala and Cocula with two other people. We went to conduct interviews with key witnesses in the Ayotzinapa case—me as a journalist, Gómez Trejo as the technical secretary of the GIEI. We talked to the two workers at the Cocula trash dump. They told us that they went to unload the garbage on Saturday, September 27, 2014. They went after noon because the road was wet due to the rain the night before. There was no one there. They did not see anything. They dumped the trash, and then they left. According to Murillo Karam and Zerón, hitmen were still incinerating the 43 students right there at that moment.

After that day, I only saw Gómez Trejo at GIEI press conferences and presentations of their reports. He continued to travel to Guerrero to conduct interviews and inspect sites. He participated in search expeditions; sometimes they would run into snakes, sometimes armed residents. Other times they were followed. When the GIEI met in his apartment, everyone put their cell phones in the refrigerator.

Just before the first anniversary of the attacks, in September 2015, the GIEI presented its first report. The document disproved, based on evidence, the PGR’s investigation. From that day on, the Mexican government began to close its doors to the group and hinder its work, while conducting a media campaign against it. Even so, the experts presented a second report six months later, which documented the participation of various state security forces in the disappearance of the students and the torture of the detainees.

The biggest revelation was a series of videos and photographs showing an operation by the PGR and the Navy, directed by Zerón, at the Cocula trash dump and the San Juan River, carried out—according to the recording of a couple of independent journalists, verified in the metadata of their images—on October 28, 2014. The GIEI assured that there was not a single document of that operation in the case file. Government officials returned a day later, when they supposedly found a plastic bag with bone fragments, including a single charred piece of bone belonging to the Ayotzinapa student Alexander Mora Venancio. What were they doing there the day before and why didn’t they document their actions, as required by law?

On October 30, Zerón showed his own videos at a press conference. He pointed to the moment when Gómez Trejo and his UN colleague arrived in Cocula as observers. He paused the recording and emphasized the fact that Gómez Trejo, working with the UN in 2014, was then the technical secretary of the GIEI.

Showing their faces and writing their full names on the screen, Zerón sent a double message. One was direct: the government did nothing wrong, even the UN observed us. And the other was indirect: we have you in our sights, Mr. Technical Secretary of the GIEI. Because it was a pantomime. The PGR tortured the detainees, nobody was incinerated in the Cocula trash dump that September night, they planted the bone fragment of Alexander Mora Venancio in the San Juan River. It was all a set-up.

And although they did not know it at the time, the government had already infected the cell phones of the members of the GIEI, Gómez Trejo, journalists, and lawyers for the families of the 43 disappeared students with the Israeli spyware program, Pegasus.

“Yes, it scared me,” Gómez Trejo tells me when I ask him about that time. “Because there were people who I later found out worked with Tomas Zerón who approached me. And then there was a day when they came to my house: ‘Oh, what’s up, boss?’ Is this where you live?’ And that's when I understood that I had to distance myself. So, I had to leave Mexico to avoid, well... whatever. I mean, those people were really powerful at that time.”

The government refused to renew the agreement with the GIEI, removing the group of experts from the case and the country in April 2016, days after the presentation of its second report. Gómez Trejo left Mexico with Chilean lawyer and GIEI member Francisco Cox on a flight to Santiago, Chile. He carried two suitcases. “It was hard,” he says. “There was a sense of guilt, you know? Why do I have to leave Mexico? We did good. We did good work.” From Chile he traveled to Guatemala, then to Washington, then on to New York, where he lived for a month in a hostel, wandering the streets of Manhattan until the UN offered him a job again at OHCHR, but this time in Honduras.

At the time, Juan Orlando Hernández—currently facing drug trafficking charges in the United States—was president. During his administration, Honduras had become the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders. On March 2, 2016, a commando in the service of a former military officer and businessman killed Indigenous defender Berta Cáceres in her home. Gómez Trejo was tasked with investigating her murder.

“So, Honduras turned out to be a disaster because of all the emotional weight of what Ayotzinapa represented,” he says. He resigned after a year with the idea of returning to Mexico and looking for a job as a waiter on the beach.

One day, as he was preparing to return, James Cavallaro, a law professor and former president of the IACHR, called him. He was in Honduras. They went to dinner and Cavallaro told him to go to Washington because the IACHR needed someone knowledgeable about the Ayotzinapa case to move forward with the follow-up mechanism it had negotiated with the Mexican government after it decided not to extend the mandate of the GIEI.

Gómez Trejo went to Washington to work for the Special Follow-up Mechanism for the Ayotzinapa Case (MESA). His work consisted of studying the case file, mainly the more than 400 volumes that had been added after the group of experts had departed.

“I was never allowed to travel from the United States to Mexico,” during that time, he says, “because apparently there was a request by someone from the Mexican state that I be prohibited from traveling to the country. They negotiated that with the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission.”

With the change of government when López Obrador entered office, the situation changed. Gómez Trejo returned to Mexico in March 2019. The return was difficult: “The first few days I was scared shitless. I wouldn't even leave the house. It’s just that all those who were [involved in the torture and manipulations in the PGR] in 2016, when I left, all of them were still in there.” (The PGR changed its name to the Fiscalía General de la República, FGR, in December 2018.)

Human rights defenders Ana Paula Hernández and Abel Barrera convinced him to apply for the position of special prosecutor for the Ayotzinapa case. At the time, the government was drafting the agreement that would establish the UEILCA. Gómez Trejo’s friends told him that he knew the case file like few others. He called the lawyer for the families of the disappeared students, Santiago Aguirre, to consult with him and ask him to discuss it with the fathers and mothers. When they said they agreed, Aguirre sent Gómez Trejo’s résumé to Human Rights Undersecretary Alejandro Encinas.

Alejandro Gertz Manero, the attorney general, interviewed him. Gertz asked him: “Why hasn't the case been solved? What do you think is the main motive for the disappearance of these students? And how old are you, brother?” Noting how young Gómez Trejo was, then 39 years old, he said: “I was already a prosecutor. I was a public prosecutor when you were not even born yet. Imagine that. We will be in touch with you. Thank you very much for the time you have taken. See you later.”

The interview for the position of special prosecutor in the most controversial case in Mexico in recent years lasted barely fifteen minutes. The following Monday he was summoned to take a “confidence exam” (similar to a background check), from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., with no time to eat. The next day he was the special prosecutor on the case.

omar gomez

Omar Gómez Trejo became head of the Special Investigation and Litigation Unit for the Ayotzinapa Case. After his resignation in 2022, he decided to leave the country. Picture: Mexican Presidency

Time to Purge
And so, from one day to the next, Gómez Trejo went up to the 25th floor of the FGR, took the oath of office before the constitution, and went down to the office, where 70 people were waiting for him. Looking them in the face he thought: “Holy shit, what are we going to do?”

The first thing he did was interview everyone in the office. He made an initial assessment of who actually worked and who said things like: “You won’t be able to do anything, boss, this is tied up from above.” “Whoever they bring in is not going to make it.” “No, boss, I can’t come to work tomorrow, the thing is, I’m the godfather of a quinceañera and it’s far away. I’m going to take my whole family. If you want, I’ll invite you. You should come along.”

One day, he recalls, “they had prepared a document for me with all the torture investigations and it was on my desk. One of those old public prosecutors who play dirty, who charge money for cases, and so on, came in and stole it from me. He put his documents on top of it and then picked it up, he took everything to his desk. I saw it. I went downstairs to look at the cameras, I saw when he left my office with my documents. I went to his desk and there were my documents.”

He asked for an internal proceeding to be filed and the thief’s superior told him: “I can’t do anything, boss. I trust him. He is my friend.” Gómez Trejo fired them both. To say that he fired them is a figure of speech, because in the world of the FGR you can't fire certain people from the institution, you can only move them from one part to another. And while Gómez Trejo was investigating and trying to respond to the document theft, another official arrived on the sly to make copies of that same document.

“So that's when I started firing people. I started to purge,” he says. “Every month I would take advantage and send five people out, 10 out. I let a lot of people go. The most important purge I did was in January 2020. On the last day of December, 15 to 20 staff members stopped working with me.”

While he worked on purging the team and firing officials, he gathered trusted collaborators and added young people like Damián, a pseudonym, an Agatha Christie-reading lawyer who knew about the Ayotzinapa case because he too had worked with the GIEI.

“We were like an oasis in the middle of the desert, in an institution with an archaic culture: it was people from that same institution who participated in the criminal acts [of the Ayotzinapa case],” says Julio, also a pseudonym, who joined Gómez Trejo’s team and, at the time of our interview, continued to work at UEILCA. “We had a lot of freedom in our work in the unit before August 2022. There were certain limitations when it came to finding [in the investigation] a high commander or a public servant linked to a renowned [state] organization. Many public servants from many spheres participated [in the tortures and lies], high-ranking officials who had not been prosecuted before. The director [Gómez Trejo] was very involved in the work of the investigation. We worked freely, but with a steady pace. We wanted to doing things right.”

Why are there three different agencies investigating the same case? What is each one’s role? The UEILCA is the specialized unit for the investigation and prosecution of the Ayotzinapa case that works within the FGR. Legally, it must have absolute independence. It is the only body with the legal power and authority to investigate, gather evidence, detain, bring the case before a judge, and present evidence against people involved in the disappearance of the students and crimes related to the cover-up, such as torture. The GIEI is a group of independent experts who provided technical assistance from March 2015 to April 2016 to the PGR, and then to the FGR from March 2020 to July 2023. The COVAJ is the strangest of the triad. Its name says it is a truth commission. According to Aguirre, one of the legal architects who designed it, it was created to give legal legitimacy to Encinas’s political work.

“The idea arose that there should be a presidential decree that would create a commission headed by Encinas so that it would have legal powers,” Aguirre tells me. “Not as a truth commission like the traditional ones that have existed in Latin America, which have the main task of producing a clarifying report, but as a mechanism that would remove the political obstacles in the case.”

The three agencies would work together, each with its own role, to investigate, gather, and share information to solve the case and pursue justice. That was the plan. It did not happen that way.

The agreement that created the UEILCA orders it to bring together all the legal cases related to the disappearance of the 43 students. This was one of the recommendations of the GIEI since 2015 and one of the requests of the families. Once the UEILCA’s work got underway, all the investigation files related to the events of September 26 and 27, and to the crimes committed by public officials during the “investigation” of the Peña Nieto government, began to arrive at the unit. Gómez Trejo ordered the creation of two teams: group A for the September 26-27, 2014 attacks and group B for the cover-up.

All of the charges in the PGR’s Ayotzinapa case were for kidnapping or homicide. At the UEILCA, Gómez Trejo and his team changed the classification of the crime against the 43 students to forced disappearance. “It was one of the first things we did: reclassify the crimes, re-orient the investigations, reorient the cases.”

“Get Rid of Him”
One of the first developments in the case happened in November 2019, but was made public in July 2020: the finding of a bone fragment in the Barranca de la Carnicería (The Butcher’s Ravine), about 800 meters from the Cocula dump. The piece of bone belonged to the right foot of student Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre, as confirmed by the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Christian Alfonso, his mother Luzma told me in December 2014, loved to dance above all things. In June 2021, the Innsbruck lab also identified a lumbar vertebra of student Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz. His sister Anayeli told me that Jhosivani was overjoyed in September 2014 because he had been chosen to be part of a special group of activists dedicated to political studies who live together in the Activist House in Ayotzinapa.

The person who told them where to look was a “witness” identified as Juan. His name, Gildardo López Astudillo, has been widely reported in the press. He was a mid-senior level hitman within the Guerreros Unidos structure in Cocula. Arrested and tortured in 2015, he was released from prison in 2019 and the following year offered the prosecution his testimony. He provided the information that led to the Barranca de la Carnicería, and he thus gained the trust of Gómez Trejo and other members of his team.

But López Astudillo also lies. I obtained a copy of his statement. He says that on the night of September 26, 2014, members of a rival cartel had gotten mixed in among the Ayotzinapa students. That’s why, he says, Guerreros Unidos attacked them. He claims that another member of Guerreros Unidos told him that that night “there had been more than 80 people killed.” But there is not a single photograph or video that shows unknown people mixed in with the students. Where are the families of the other 30 or so people he claims they killed? All the witnesses who were in the center of Iguala, whom I interviewed in the first days of October 2014, told me the same thing: the police were chasing and shooting at the students. No student survivor mentioned having seen unknown people among them, much less armed ones. López Astudillo’s statement contradicts, moreover, all the evidence in the case that demonstrates how the Army had infiltrated the youths at all times: there was no confusion about their identity. The police shouted “fucking Ayotzinapos” as they attacked them. They all knew exactly who the students were.

There are a couple of testimonies like that of López Astudillo in the UEILCA investigation in which people who participated in the events in Iguala mix truth and lies. A witness called Carla, for example, says that members of Guerreros Unidos received photos of several students from Ayotzinapa around 5:40 p.m. on September 26, and that those students were hitmen for the rival cartel, Los Rojos, something also claimed in the “historical truth” that lacks any basis in evidence. Carla also lies about the murder of the student Julio César Mondragón Fontes in narrating the macabre events that supposedly happened between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m. that night, when Julio César was still alive and with his schoolmates on Juan N. Álvarez Street.

Early on, López Obrador ordered all government institutions to hand over the information they had on the Ayotzinapa case to the UEILCA, the COVAJ, and the GIEI. But the military did not comply with the order. The only institution that obeyed was the National Intelligence Center (CNI), which replaced the Center for Intelligence and National Security (CISEN) in December 2018.

The boxes of CISEN documentation included videos of torture that detainees in the Ayotzinapa case suffered in the facilities of the Guerrero state government, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Navy, recorded by CISEN agents. Beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation with plastic bags—old methods of state terror still in force.

“In the videos you could see the Navy, you could see the CISEN, you could see government officials that were participating in torture,” says Colombian lawyer Ángela Buitrago of the GIEI.

According to Gómez Trejo, despite the UEILCA’s requests for an audio analysis of the videos to identify voices of people who did not physically appear in the recording, FGR officials refused to do so, claiming the audio quality was too poor. The UEILCA investigators wanted to compare the audio of the torture videos with FGR recordings of its employees during their background check and security clearance. “So, what I did was take the audios to Spain because they had trained the FGR’s experts, they used the same equipment,” Gómez Trejo explains. “The Spanish experts analyzed the files and identified a number of the officials whose voices can be heard.”

Several people who work in the UEILCA told me that this type of search for international support showed how the investigative unit did not stand idly by when the Attorney General’s Office wanted to block them. By taking the audio from CISEN’s torture videos to Spain, they were able to charge several PGR officials for crimes of torture.

Among those they were able to formally charge was Ignacio Mendoza Gandaria, a CISEN commander who participated in the torture. But the arrest warrant was never served. The excuse, says Gómez Trejo, was always the same: “Instructions. They said no, we can’t do this because of instructions.” Later, Gandaria was promoted. “And when we told the CNI authorities that this person was involved in the Ayotzinapa case,” Gómez Trejo continues, “they lobbied everywhere so that he would not be brought to justice. They hid him and later we found out that he tried to cross the border to the United States, [but] he got deported.”

Buitrago of the GIEI says that this was a turning point: “The crisis began because a person was going to be prosecuted, and that person was from the CISEN. The crisis began in November 2021, because even from within the Attorney General’s Office the order was given not to prosecute, even though the evidence was there.” 

“That’s when the uncomfortable days began,” says Gómez Trejo, “the days when officials came to give you instructions, to tell you that because of instructions from this or that high-profile official you cannot do something.”

campo marte

In 2022, three days before a new anniversary of the Iguala Night, relatives of the students held a rally outside Military Camp Number 1 demanding the punishment of the soldiers who participated in the events. Picture: Paola Macedo/ObturadorMX

On April 12, 2018, the newspaper Reforma revealed Blackberry text messages exchanged between members of Guerreros Unidos in Chicago and Mexico, intercepted by U.S. authorities as part of an investigation into heroin trafficking. The GIEI recommended that the PGR request the information from the U.S. government. The same month, ahead of Mexico’s July 2018 presidential elections, the government leaked some of the messages in what appeared to be a bizarre attempt to lend credibility to the official cover-up, which the Peña Nieto administration had dubbed “the historical truth.” It didn’t work. If true and correctly interpreted, the conversations showed that some of the students were still alive at 3:28 p.m. on September 27, 2014, when according to the PGR’s version of events, they had already been killed and incinerated.

Those messages became an obsession for Gómez Trejo and his team. When they began receiving and analyzing the information on the Guerreros Unidos case in Chicago, they realized that the messages the government requested spanned from September 26 to the end of October. But U.S. authorities had begun intercepting the criminal group’s communications in April 2014, six months before the disappearance of the students.

UEILCA requested the recordings, and the U.S. government denied them. Gómez Trejo insisted. After López Obrador brought the matter up with Vice President Kamala Harris, followed by months of meetings, in May 2022, U.S. authorities called Gómez Trejo and invited him to Chicago to review the documentation. Days later, he flew there with part of his team. “We get to Chicago… They introduce us to the prosecutor, to the people from the DEA division, and they tell me, well, here are the folders. This is the information. You have from nine o’clock until five in the afternoon to read all that.”

Gómez Trejo and his colleague were dumbfounded by what they were reading. When the U.S. agents asked him what he needed for their case, he answered: “All of it.”

“We returned to Mexico, refined the request for international technical assistance, and in a month, I went up to Washington to have the information sent to me. Why did I go up there myself? Because I was suspicious that, at any given moment, someone else would get hold of those disks and copy them. So, I go to the Department of Justice, collect the evidence in my own hand, and take it back to Mexico.”

“It contains very strong evidence of the Army’s involvement with organized crime,” says Gómez Trejo about the set of messages intercepted in the United States. “In the evidence from Chicago you get to see that they [the military] sell weapons, that they train [Guerreros Unidos members], that they receive money.”

Gómez Trejo believes that having obtained the evidence from the Chicago case was a turning point: “That’s when they understood that they were in trouble, that there was evidence that they didn’t control, there was a prosecutor that they didn’t control. That’s when they said: ‘Get rid of him.’”

The Collapse
The families of the 43 students despaired at what they perceived as the lack of progress in the investigation. In meetings with López Obrador, the COVAJ, and the GIEI, they listened as the group of international experts complained about the lack of access to the military archives and how the president continually insisted the Army must open them.

Finally, in April 2021, investigators gained access to some archives. Buitrago of the GIEI says that, even with López Obrador’s order, when the GIEI and the COVAJ arrived at different archives, the military told them there were no files about the Ayotzinapa case. In the Ninth Military Region, in Guerrero, Army officials assured them everything was “from 2021 onwards.” “Well,” Buitrago replied, “we’re going to have a look.”

In the 35th Military Zone in Chilpancingo, investigators came across mountains of paper. “We found a room with shelves where they put all the loose documentation,” says Buitrago. “They were bundles of paper, bundles, and there we found the sanction against Crespo. It was going to be destroyed.” That document, the sanction against José Martínez Crespo—the captain of 27th Infantry Battalion accused of being part of Guerreros Unidos and having participated in the disappearance of the students—shows that the Army conducted an internal investigation into the events in Iguala that it did not share with the PGR, the UEILCA, or the families. The Army denied, and continues to deny, the existence of that investigation.

Another key event was the murder of Juan Salgado Guzmán, uncle of the founders of Guerreros Unidos, on September 22, 2021, during an operation to arrest him. The operation was rushed, according to someone close to the case, so that López Obrador could boast about a breakthrough in his next meeting with the families of the students.

“Several informants had said that we could get information from [Salgado Guzmán], and in the operation they killed him,” says Santiago Aguirre, lawyer for the families and director of the human rights organization Centro PRODH. “The official government version is that they don’t rule out that it was an extrajudicial execution.” He says it was “a wake-up call” that people within the FGR were continuing to obstruct the investigation.

On September 24, 2021, on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the attacks in Iguala, the families of the 43 disappeared students met again with the president. They complained that arrest warrants resulting from the UEILCA’s investigation were not being served or were not moving forward, and that difficulties in accessing military archives remained. One mother told the president that if National Defense Secretary General Luis Cresencio Sandoval did not help, he should be removed. López Obrador got angry. He defended the Army, said they were collaborating, and later cancelled his subsequent meetings with the families.

During the Peña Nieto administration, the documents from the Ayotzinapa case were constantly leaked—part of the strategy of building and defending the government’s lies. With Gómez Trejo, from 2019 to 2022, there were no leaks. It was strange, then, that a few days after the tense meeting between the families and the president, Alejandro Encinas, the head of the COVAJ, published, “by instruction of the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador,” two pages of a military document containing excerpts of conversations between members of Guerreros Unidos on September 26 and October 4, 2014. What most surprised and alarmed the families was that the document proved that the Army had intercepted the criminal group’s phones, without a court order, on those dates, and that for seven years it had concealed and lied about that information.

In February 2022, the GIEI delivered its third report to federal authorities. The report includes information from Army documents that prove that the military knew about buses being used to traffic drugs from Guerrero to Chicago; that they monitored the political activities of the Ayotzinapa students and conducted special surveillance during the day of the attacks that, according to the documents, “ceases during the critical hours” of September 26, 2014; that they operated C4 security cameras in Iguala that night and diverted them when police patrol trucks passed with the abducted students; that they reported what happened to their superiors; and that they had lied about all this during the seven-year investigation and search for the disappeared.

At the Navy archives, the GIEI found video from a Navy drone that flew over the Cocula trash dump—where the Peña Nieto administration said the students had been incinerated during a rain storm in the predawn hours of September 27, 2014—for more than two hours on the morning of October 27, 2014. In the images, uniformed marines are seen lowering objects into the dump, scattering things, and lighting a small fire at the edge of the dump. Then Attorney General Murillo Karam and Zerón—the federal official at the head of the Ayotzinapa investigation from 2014 to 2016—arrived to supervise the work. All of this occurred before the site was declared a crime scene and one day before an illegal operation, documented in the GIEI’s second report, at the dump and the San Juan River, where officials would recover a single charred bone fragment from one of the students, a piece of bone we now know was planted there.

Meanwhile, by early 2022, the Army no longer allowed access to its archives. What’s more, it refused to deliver to the UEILCA documents that the GIEI had already found in its records. In response to federal prosecutors’ requests, the Army claimed those documents did not exist.

Aguirre, the families’ lawyer from Centro PRODH, thinks that the information published in the GIEI’s third report provoked a kind of “competition” with the federal government—that the president wanted to have his own report, to show that the state, the COVAJ, could also investigate. He wanted to be able to say that he had solved the case and fulfilled his campaign promise.

Indeed, on June 30, 2022, just months after the GIEI delivered its third report, López Obrador told the press “we already know what happened” with the disappeared students. “This year the Ayotzinapa case will be solved.” A week later, on July 8, he said again, “we are moving forward” in the case, and he acknowledged General Sandoval for opening Military Camp Number 1 and “all” the archives. 

The fathers and mothers of the 43 disappeared students asked López Obrador to share with them the information he had, if he “already knew” what happened. “This is a torment, it’s inhuman; we are waiting for an answer to know about our children, where they are, and [the president] is saying that he already knows. Why this attitude? Why has he not wanted to meet with us?” said Emiliano Navarrete González, father of José Ángel Navarrete González.

Five days later, on July 13, when the parents of the students met with Gómez Trejo and his team, they asked him about what the president knew. But at the UEILCA, no one knew what López Obrador was referring to. The families held a press conference expressing their concern about the president’s statements. “We, the parents of the 43 students, are also unaware if the president of the Republic is carrying out his own parallel investigation into our case and, if so, we are extremely surprised because to date he has not shared it with us, the people affected, nor with the UEILCA,” they said.

By that time, the UEILCA had moved forward with a large number of almost finalized arrest warrants against Huitzuco police, Guerrero state police, military personnel, marines, and members of Guerreros Unidos.

And then came August 12, 2022, that summer Friday when Attorney General Gertz called Gómez Trejo to the 25th floor and told him: “Omar, I need a favor, a worksheet where you tell me how the case is going, what’s going on, what progress is being made. I have a breakfast next Monday.”

amlo 43

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met with the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students five years after their disappearance. Picture: Mexican Presidency

Chronology of a State Instruction
Monday, August 15, 2022

Gómez Trejo prepared the worksheet, sent it, and went home to rest. On Monday, August 15, after breakfast, Gertz called him back to his office and told him: “We have to prepare a speech in which all these advances are described.”

Shortly thereafter, the special prosecutor spoke to Encinas by phone. The undersecretary told him about the breakfast with the president and mentioned that the COVAJ had evidence against five members of the military for the disappearance of the students. Gómez Trejo thought that was all well and good, but told him: “Well, there are 20 military personnel responsible.”

That day he met with the fathers and mothers of the disappeared students. They asked him again about the president’s statements that he “already knew” what had happened to their children. He reiterated that he and his team had no idea what López Obrador was referring to, and then told them about the arrest warrants they were preparing in the case.

In those days, Gómez Trejo and several members of his team were also getting ready for an official trip to Israel to talk to the Israeli authorities, present charges against Zerón, and ask for Israeli support to arrest Zerón and return him to Mexico.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Gertz called Gómez Trejo to his office again. He told him: “We need the arrest warrants for Murillo Karam and the military.” The prosecutor was surprised. For the military, as well as for many police, officials, and members of Guerreros Unidos, the warrants were almost ready, but for Murillo Karam, more evidence still needed to be gathered. He asked to consult with his team.

That day, the director of group B, the area of the UEILCA in charge of investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by public officials who participated in elaborating and defending the so-called “historical truth,” was out of the office. The lead investigator on Murillo Karam’s case was on vacation. A young public prosecutor was left in charge.

Gómez Trejo went down to his office to make calls.

Alfredo, a pseudonym, worked in the UEILCA’s group B. Alfredo told me that they were investigating the former attorney general, but they were not yet ready to prosecute him: “Jesús Murillo Karam was a long-term line of investigation, because of the chain of command. We had to put together everything from below to get to him. Torture was used in a systematic and generalized way in the 2014 investigation... and in general in Mexico.”

Meanwhile, Gómez Trejo went back up to the 25th floor to talk to Gertz. He could have the warrants for the military and others involved, but not for Murillo Karam. For that, he needed time.

“Give me a month,” he told Attorney General Gertz. “I’ll get the whole team on it. We get the evidence we need and we will feel more at ease. It will be before September 15. That’s one month.”

“No, no, Omar,” Gertz said, “this is not an issue of one month, this is right now. This is a decision of state. It is an instruction.”

“Well, I can’t carry it out, sir.”

“All right, then step aside. If your team isn’t capable, I’ll send a team that can do it.”

“At the same time that the attorney general pushed us aside from the Murillo Karam case and sent a team to get involved in the investigations that were in the UEILCA,” says Gómez Trejo, “the group A team began to prepare the other 83 arrest warrants because that investigation was well underway.”

Gómez Trejo went down to his office and continued working on the speech Gertz asked him to write, in which he named the 20 military personnel about to be charged. He sent it, along with the list of military personnel, to the Attorney General’s Office. “He always knew the number of military personnel that we had in the investigation and that we were going to charge at that moment, which was 20.”

Those 20 military personnel are General Rafael Hernández Nieto, Colonel José Rodríguez Pérez (now a general), Captain José Martínez Crespo, and the 17 intelligence agents and troops who went out on patrol that night. “They knew they were disappearing the kids,” says Gómez Trejo, “and when the authorities know about a forced disappearance and do nothing to stop it, and then lie to hide it, then they participate in the crime.”

Julio, who worked on the torture investigations, recalls that the trip to Israel was approaching when FGR officials began “to ask if they could find all the evidence that mentioned Jesús Murillo Karam in the investigation. It was very sudden. We didn’t have a lot of proof. I remember they said: ‘It is an instruction from the attorney general that Murillo Karam has to be prosecuted.’ And it was difficult. We were not used to that. We had been making every effort to make good progress.”

In group B, Alfredo recalls that Gómez Trejo supported the decision not to issue an arrest warrant within 24 hours, as Gertz requested: “Omar said he supported us.” He shared the list of people that Gertz was going to send to the unit. They came from what used to be the SEIDO (Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada)—then called the Fiscalía Especializada en Materia de Delincuencia Organizada (FEMDO)—and Internal Affairs. Gómez Trejo wanted to confirm with Alfredo if any of the officials were under investigation in the case.

“I check the list and two people were linked to the case,” says Alfredo. “They belonged to the same group [at SEIDO] as Blanca [Alicia Bernal Castilla, who is on trial in the case]: a conflict of interest.” Bernal Castilla signed several of the falsified documents of the “historical truth.”

“Tuesday was when the people from SEIDO and Internal Affairs arrived,” Alex, who also worked in the unit, tells me. “And that's when they started to take control of the case files,” Damián adds.

Five people arrived from what used to be SEIDO and five from Internal Affairs. Gómez Trejo told them: “As you know, the prosecutor [Gertz] wants this arrest warrant. We believe there is not enough evidence, but that is why you are here. Whatever you need, we’re here. He then instructed his team to help locating evidence.”

Alfredo, from group B, says: “We got to work. What is needed for an arrest warrant is the need for precaution, to tell a judge that this is the only way to bring a person to trial. We started looking for evidence for that requirement. That’s where it started to get uncomfortable. You have to show that you can locate the person. One option is a house search. They proposed to do the home inspection based on Google Maps. They took the street view image on Google Maps, but one said it was a photo the cops took. They saw it as super common. I objected. I told them that I thought it was not necessary to make a simulation. A lawyer from Internal Affairs said, ‘You know what, you’re right, it’s not necessary, let’s do it without that.’ But that's when my red light went on. I said, I have to pay triple attention with this new team. That’s when I said to myself, I don’t trust what’s going on here. My anxiety was going through the roof. My boss was out of the office. They were there under superior orders.”

They stayed working all day and all night. The lawyers sent by Gertz asked the UEILCA lawyers for documents, transcripts, or to make copies. The director of group B returned. He told a young public prosecutor that the Internal Affairs lawyer was going to ask her to sign the arrest warrant. “If I were you, I wouldn’t sign it and I would resign,” her boss told her. “It was a conversation we had always had,” Alfredo said. “If one day they asked for something wrong, we were going to resign. Omar himself said so.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

“I was up all night,” Alfredo says. “I was still at the office at sunrise. The director arrived and said we could go rest. The other team already had the arrest warrant. On August 17, the Internal Affairs lawyers sent the physical warrant and erased all digital copies from the UEILCA’s computers.”

Gómez Trejo continued to prepare for his trip to Israel.

“They sent the warrant to a judge,” says Julio, who still worked in the UEILCA at the time of our interview. “And it was a very short period of time in which the judge authorized the warrant.”

The GIEI documented these facts in its fourth report: “By means of an official letter FGR/FGAI/1260/2022, L. B. [Lidia Bustamante] from Internal Affairs was commissioned to perform the functions of an agent of the Public Prosecutor's Office, assigning her to the UEILCA.”

“On August 17, the day after being commissioned, and one day before the presentation of the report of the presidential commission, the COVAJ, Ms. Bustamante takes control of the investigation folder FED/S DHPDSC/OI-GRO/0000804/2019, and decides, without consideration of the timing or opinion of the UEILCA... to request the arrest warrant against former Attorney General Murillo Karam.”

murillo karam

In 24 hours, an arrest warrant was issued against former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, who was arrested on August 19, 2022 by the Federal Police.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

“On the 18th I arrived and found out that the judge said he was going to decide [whether or not to grant the arrest warrant] at a hearing,” says Alfredo. “FEAI [Fiscalía Especializada de Asuntos Internos, Internal Affairs] went alone to the hearing. The warrant was issued. They did not notify the UEILCA. The director of group B said: it is necessary for his team to stay at the office. He had a suspicion that there would be a search warrant. He was angry because he was not notified of the hearing.”

While the arrest warrant drawn up in 24 hours by people from outside the UEILCA was moving forward, another surprise was on the way.

A meeting was called with President López Obrador, the COVAJ, the GIEI, and the families. Also in attendance were many high-ranking officials such as the secretaries of the Interior, Navy, Defense, Security and Citizen Protection, and Foreign Affairs. Attorney General Gertz would read the speech that Gómez Trejo had prepared for him and Encinas would present a report that neither the GIEI nor the families knew anything about.

“The COVAJ had not told us anything about their report; we found out at the presentation with the president,” recalls Beristain, of the member of the GIEI. “When we got there, we could already see that it was a different COVAJ. In other words, there was an incredible mobilization of high-level people around. The whole state was there. They wanted us to be on the podium, on the stage. We didn’t know what was going to be said, we didn’t know what the message would be, we didn’t know how the report had been prepared, the parents have not been informed of anything, nor us. We said no, we will sit with the parents, we went down there and we listened.”

That day, Encinas complained about obstacles in the FGR, such as not executing arrest warrants, and in the Army, which did not hand over documents related to the case. He presented before the families of the missing students a 97-page document that took material from the GIEI’s third report, complemented with screenshots of the WhatsApp application with alleged messages about the events of September 26 and 27, 2014. The messages narrated the violence suffered that night by the children of the men and women seated below, who listened to everything without any psychological preparation. They relived the years of terror under the former prosecutors Murillo Karam and Arely Gómez. The report also accused five military personnel from Iguala of having participated in the disappearance of the students.

The problem was that those WhatsApp messages had been falsified, they had no credibility. But at that moment, in that state of shock, how could we know?

Neither the families, nor their representatives, nor the GIEI, nor even Gómez Trejo and his team had seen the COVAJ report or the messages. Both the group of experts and the COVAJ had worked well together and shared all their findings with each other, as well as with the UEILCA. Until that day.

Gertz denied that the prosecutor’s office had put up any obstacles in the case, and read the speech prepared for him by Gómez Trejo, which mentioned the 20 military personnel who would soon be arrested. Then the president spoke: “I want to tell you that your children, that your struggle has not been in vain; your children have been seeds of change. We have come to power so that this will not happen again.”

The families were crying. They left without speaking to the press. They went to the Centro PRODH, where they had a meeting with their lawyers and the GIEI. Immediately, they asked the group of experts to do an independent analysis of the screenshots to confirm their authenticity. Because, even at first glance, things seemed very strange. As they knew from the Chicago wiretaps, the Guerreros Unidos used Blackberry, not WhatsApp. And they spoke in code. But those WhatsApp messages included first and last names, precise locations, and narrative arcs as if they were scripts.

Beristain says everyone was terrified because, once again, the government was publishing unsubstantiated information without sharing it with anyone beforehand. “We went with the parents to have a meeting. I told them, ‘What’s the message going to be tomorrow? The screenshots. What should the message be? That it was a state crime. Period. That’s the message.’” But that message was once again buried in the reactions generated by the media blitz of false information. “After all this time,” says Beristain, “if we start again with processes that kick the victims, then we are on the road to destruction again.”

“And with that the parents went back to Guerrero, very sad,” says Aguirre. “The message was one of closure.”

Cox, of the GIEI, believed the same. “I thought: here what they are trying to do is close the case,” he says. “I don’t know if they are trying to close the case or not, but they wanted to give a final version of what had happened, without the necessary support in evidence.”

As Gómez Trejo was leaving the National Palace after the presentation of the report, the attorney general approached him and told him that Félix Santana, the COVAJ’s technical secretary, would be bringing a witness to testify before the UEILCA that afternoon. Gómez Trejo reminded him that he had to prepare for his trip to Israel the next day, that it would be better to take the statement upon his return. But Gertz insisted: “Receive that witness.”

“That witness was interviewed Thursday night,” says Gómez Trejo. “It was a long statement.”

He was a person that both the UEILCA and the GIEI had already ruled out as a reliable witness. Beristain was connected by Zoom during the testimony. “This [witness] said some things that had no consistency,” he recalls. “Félix went on to say others that had no consistency either. The internal tension increased a lot, the tension between the COVAJ and the UEILCA also increased a lot from that point on.”

That night, the lawyer from Internal Affairs said that the UEILCA should arrest Murillo Karam. Alfredo, from group B, says that the young public prosecutor assured them that she was not going to sign anything. She called her director, who had to be at the airport in a couple of hours, on his way to Israel. He arrived at the office in sweatpants, angry. A policeman showed him a picture of the Murillo Karam in the window of his house, taken that same day, around 8:00 p.m.

“At that time we learned that the inspection [of the defendant's location] was going to be conducted based on a photo they had taken hours earlier,” says Alfredo. “We were investigating something related to a mock police inspection and we didn't want to repeat the mistakes of 2014. I thought: I'm young, I have my life ahead of me, I don’t want to be burdened with an improper action. The young public prosecutor in charge went to her director and told him that she was not going to sign anything that had to do with that arrest warrant. The director told her that she had to. She told him that she would put her resignation on the table first. She started to cry. The director laughed at her. Then she announced her resignation.... In the end they didn’t use that falsified inspection, but since she had already resigned.”

Friday, August 19, 2022

Gómez Trejo and members of the UEILCA's group B traveled early to Tel Aviv. The people with the most authority, and supposed independence, in the Ayotzinapa case were on a transoceanic flight of more than 10 hours while outsiders to the case, including elements of the former SEIDO that the unit was investigating for crimes of falsification of evidence, torture, and forced disappearance, took control of their office.

“All that happened when Omar and the head of group B were in Israel,” Julio says. “That left the team unprotected. It was an invasion. SEIDO and Internal Affairs wanted to instruct the unit. But the unit was created independently and was investigating SEIDO. And all of that happened on the instruction of the attorney general.”

That day, Murillo Karam left his house in Lomas de Chapultepec and turned himself in to the Federal Ministerial Police. Eighty-three arrest warrants were also issued in the case, including 20 for military personnel.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

On Saturday, Internal Affairs prosecutors Lidia Bustamante and Sergio Navarro presented Murillo Karam before the judge. It was chaos.

“When we go to Murillo’s hearing as lawyers,” Aguirre says, “we don’t see Omar’s team anymore. We see other people. And the problems start at the hearing.”

“They had a mess of papers on the table,” Alfredo recalls. “They kept fumbling through the papers. The judge asked, ‘Is there anyone in the audience who is familiar with the case file?’ They say yes. The judge says, ‘Let them come up to the hearing. I’m going to give you 20 minutes to get your act together.’”

The news circulated quickly: “Judge reprimands prosecutors for ‘not being prepared’ in Murillo Karam’s hearing.”

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The GIEI released a statement saying that it did not participate in the preparation of the COVAJ report, that it did not know of its contents until the day it was presented, that it had not seen or analyzed the alleged WhatsApp messages, and that it was concerned about the fact that this information had not been shared with the GIEI and UEILCA as part of their joint investigative roles.

GIEI

Carlos Beristain and Ángela Buitrago offered the latest GIEI report last July. The Basque doctor warned about the risk that “lies become institutionalized as a response.”  Picture: Emiliano Molina/ObturadorMX

Thursday, August 25, 2022

López Obrador announced that he would send a “preferential initiative” to integrate the National Guard into the SEDENA. As has been widely documented, he has given more powers and more authority to the Army than any other president in Mexico’s history.

The following day, in the afternoon, Gómez Trejo returned from Israel.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Gómez Trejo met with Gertz to inform him about his trip. He was excited. He thought the Israeli authorities had been very receptive to the evidence against Zerón. The attorney general listened to him and then told him: “Look, right now I want you to be calm, not to investigate anymore, because I want to know what you have in your office. I am going to send you an audit. Internal Affairs is going to do an audit of all your investigations.”

The two Internal Affairs prosecutors who led the expedited preparation of Murillo Karam’s arrest warrant were still in the UEILCA offices, although their support team had withdrawn.

Little by little, Internal Affairs took control of the investigation. From one day to the next, they withdrew the UEILCA’s detectives. They said that they had to take some courses in Querétaro, in a place known as La Muralla (The Wall), where federal ministerial police are trained. The agents arrived, but received no courses or training. They could not leave, only go out to the garden, the sports facilities, and the gym. They were there for a month.

September 2022

On Monday, September 5, a team of six lawyers, all women, arrived with an official request to conduct an audit of the UEILCA. 

“They went through the investigations,” says Julio, who works in the unit. “They were looking like those who want to find something in particular.”

Buitrago, of the GIEI, noticed the same thing. “I arrive that day,” she recalls, “and I see a table of six people. For me, it was a grotesque image. People eating, bringing sandwiches, bringing everything on top of a table they had set up. Six people who came in and took a file and sat down to look at it. [She makes the gesture of someone reviewing a document page by page, without hurrying, without reading]. And all of a sudden you would see them stop, get up, make a call, come back, and sit. And excuse me, but... I know the size of the case files. You wouldn’t have been able to get to know a third of the investigation [working like that].”

The FGR’s invasion of its own special investigative unit was formalized as an audit on September 5. The GIEI noted in its fourth report: “At the beginning, the temporary mandate [of the audit] was between September 5 and 8, then it was extended to September 14, then to September 21 and then to September 30.... It is noteworthy that in three years of operation there had never been an audit in the unit.” 

After a couple of days, Buitrago and Beristain requested a meeting with the head of the team of lawyers sent by Gertz.

“Excuse me,” Buitrago said. “Why are you doing this audit?”

“We can’t give you that information.”

“What do you mean? You can give it to me because I am interested in knowing. Why are you doing this audit? I have been in this unit since 2019. There has never been an audit. Tell me why you are here without violating confidentiality. I am not telling you to violate confidentiality.”

“We can’t. It’s routine.”

“Ah, routine? And why did you only ask for the case files related to the 83 arrest warrants? When there are 70 cases in this unit?”

“We can’t tell you anything.”

“They left,” says Buitrago. The six women lawyers got up from the table and left the office. They returned the next day as if nothing had happened.

And the fact is that everyone realized that the audit had a very particular interest: the arrest warrants against military and other officials.

“First they came to look into our investigations because they were taking over Murillo,” says Julio, “but their task was the military. Then they announced the cancellation of the arrest warrants when Internal Affairs already had control.”

On Friday, September 9, less than a week after the arrival of the audit team, Sara Irene Herrerías Guerra, the special prosecutor for Human Rights, and Adriana Campos López, special prosecutor for Internal Affairs, signed the first official letters requesting the cancellation of 21 arrest warrants, 16 against military personnel, out of the 83 that the UEILCA had drawn up, and which had been granted by a judge. That same day, López Obrador formalized by decree the transfer of the National Guard to the SEDENA.

The following Tuesday, September 13, a federal public prosecutor sent the cancellation of those 21 arrest warrants to the court.

Two days later, Gómez Trejo and the director of the UEILCA’s group A sent a letter to the judge who had authorized the 83 arrest warrants. “We questioned him about the reasons why he had canceled them,” he says, “why he had broken the secrecy, why he showed other FGR officials the arrest warrants, and why he had listened to other prosecutors to cancel them.” Then he went up to the 25th floor for the last time to hand in his resignation.

“I go to Israel. The arrest warrants are granted,” said Gómez Trejo. “And then, when I come back, I have no detectives, I can’t continue investigating, they’re going to audit me and all that. And then there is this other team that comes to cancel the arrest warrants. And then the attorney general says: ‘Don’t move, don’t do anything.’ That’s when I was paralyzed.”

At that time, he called Undersecretary Encinas and told him that something was happening that he did not understand. “I tell him: I don’t know what is going on. And then he told me: it is because you prosecuted the military. I told him: but that was the request. In other words, there was a request, we were ready to prosecute and we did it. Well, it wasn’t like that, [he said,] because you exceeded the number of military personnel. In the end they explained to me that, apparently, the different government offices that made those agreements didn’t coordinate properly.”

Gómez Trejo realized that he had been pushed aside, he could not investigate, and the people who took control of the office were doing improper things like canceling arrest warrants that were based on evidence and granted by a judge. He did not want to lend himself to all that. Buitrago and Beristain told him that he should try to hold on and report all the irregularities.

But when he learned, from acquaintances at the court, of the cancellation of the 21 warrants, and realized that the Internal Affairs prosecutors did not even warn him that they were going to ask for it, he said: “That’s it.” “That’s when I understood that I didn't have an office anymore. It was impossible for me to continue working under those conditions.”

That same day, September 15, retired General José Rodríguez Pérez was arrested for organized crime and forced disappearance in connection with the Ayotzinapa case. He was one of the five military personnel included in the COVAJ report.

“Omar arrived and told us that he had been pushed out of the case,” recalls Aguirre, “that his people had not been there [to attend Murillo Karam’s hearing] because Internal Affairs had intervened. And at the same time, we had been informed of the arrest of Colonel Rodríguez Pérez of the 27th Battalion.”

Gómez Trejo met with the families the next day and explained his reasons for resigning: “They are not acting according to law; they are not doing things right. They are doing the same thing again: a very high-level direct intervention in the investigation.”

On September 27, news of Gómez Trejo's resignation was published. Two days later, the GIEI presented its fourth report, which questions the WhatsApp messages attributed to Guerreros Unidos made public by the COVAJ.

That same day, on September 29, in his morning press conference, López Obrador expressed his support for Encinas: “Action will be taken based on the report presented by the [COVAJ]. And in that report come the names of those allegedly responsible. As there are interests in all this, they tried to blow up the investigation, talking about more people involved in the case, for example, from the military, holding 20 responsible when in the investigation there are five.”

The president seemed to refer to the breakfast he had on August 15 with Encinas, Gertz, López, and Zaldívar: “The report includes a list of those responsible. We agreed with the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary that this was going to require the collaboration of the institutions... that in such an important matter we had to help each other. So, when we have the report, we tell the prosecutor, here is the report. And we want action to be taken. But we want it to be done now.”

He then attributed Gómez Trejo’s resignation to professional jealousy: “So, the prosecutor's claim is that he was not taken into account. He worked in coordination with Alejandro Encinas. I took it for granted that they had all participated. Yes. So, they did not like the way it was done. Nor did he like the report, the prosecutor who was there. That is why he resigned.”

A day later he would mention his breakfast conversation again. “In no case did I have resistance from the attorney general, Gertz Manero, nor from the president of the court, because I spoke with them, I asked them for support and collaboration, and they both always [were] willing to help,” the president said, acknowledging once again that the top echelon of state officials met to agree on a criminal investigation that implicates hundreds of police, military, and public officials in crimes against humanity.

“Just imagine,” López Obrador added, “if for years they have been saying ‘it was the state,’ [Fue el estado], well, yes, and ‘it was the Army,’ well, yes, but not the institution: they’re soldiers.”

October 2022

On October 5, 2022, Gómez Trejo handed over the UEILCA office to Tabasco native Rosendo Gómez Piedra, a lawyer with no experience in cases of torture or forced disappearance, who had just come from working on the controversial Maya Train project as legal director of the National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism. One of his first actions was to move from the 13th floor to the 11th, and to close the view to his office. “[Before] we had glass offices where everything was visible,” recalls Álex, who in 2015 collaborated with the GIEI and worked at the UEILCA from 2020 to 2022. “And on the floor we moved to, the new prosecutor’s office is closed. It’s big, and you can’t see anything. It even has a little waiting chair outside.”

Over a couple of winter days in a city in the United States, Gómez Trejo told me his story. He says that when the president began to mention him in his morning press conferences—saying that Gómez Trejo wanted to protect Murillo Karam and that he started a mini-rebellion within the Attorney General’s Office and wanted to blow up the investigation—he got scared.

“What he’s saying,” says Gómez Trejo, “is ‘I took all my support away from him. He doesn’t belong here anymore. He challenged me. He defied the Army.’ That can trigger any reaction from any angle. There are people from organized crime, there are people from the state, there are people who have resources, there are people who can do anything. I felt very vulnerable. Super exposed. For the president to criminalize you on his morning show… it’s another level of message he sends. I had to leave. And it’s not easy. Now I have to invent another life.”

Damián, another member of the UEILCA, submitted his resignation shortly after Gómez Trejo’s departure. He says that one of the lawyers sent by Gertz told him that he could then take his vacation, even though that was against regulations since he had already done so. “It’s an instruction,” the lawyer replied, letting Damián know that they just wanted him gone already.

“That’s the word,” Damián says. “I want to write something where the title is ‘The instruction,’ because that’s the only thing they know how to respond. You say, ‘That’s wrong.’ And they answer, ‘No, it’s the instruction.’ Or, ‘Hey, that can’t be done.’ ‘No, no, no, it’s the instruction.’ And I say, maybe in their eternal ignorance these people don’t understand what it would mean, for example, to have said that in the Nuremberg trials [where the Nazis attributed their crimes to obedience to superior orders], because obviously they don’t understand human rights. In other words, Omar’s departure does not only mean blowing up the case, which is already serious and complicated. It also means dismantling a model for how to confront the crudest reality that this country is experiencing, which are the more than 100,000 disappearances.”

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A participant among the march organized in Mexico City two years ago to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of the young people. Picture:  Mayolo López Gutiérrez/ObturadorMX

The Aftermath
The families of the missing students met again with López Obrador after Gómez Trejo’s resignation. They were distraught. The president tried to explain to them the conflict over the number of military personnel included in the arrest warrants. He said that Gómez Trejo had tried to blow up the investigation by increasing the number to 20 defendants: “They told me there were five,” the president said, referring to the discredited, apocryphal COVAJ report based on falsified WhatsApp screen captures.

“Maybe it’s our NGO naiveté, but why would the president have to be negotiating with the Army the number of defendants in a context of a legal case based on evidence?” says the human rights lawyer Aguirre, who was present at the meeting. “It’s whoever the evidence tells you. If it’s one, it’s one. If it’s two, two. But, as the president was explaining to the families his theory of how the number had varied, he was confessing to the manipulation of justice. And that’s what we’ve been trying to escape in this case. That was what was going to change.”

On October 31, 2022, the GIEI convened a press conference in which it released the result of the independent expert analysis of the WhatsApp messages in the COVAJ report. In short, the GIEI concluded that “it is not possible to guarantee the originality of the messages.” The dates of the metadata do not match the dates of the messages. “There can’t be metadata subsequent to a previous message, it’s inconsistent,” says Francisco Cox, former member of the GIEI. “So, that information is useless. Useless.”

Several features of the images on the COVAJ report, such as the double blue check mark, did not exist on WhatsApp in September 2014, the date of the alleged messages. The COVAJ report was completely discredited. But it mattered little by then: the president supported it, Gertz backed the president, and they had taken control of the UEILCA.

Cox and fellow international expert Claudia Paz y Paz resigned from the GIEI in protest of political meddling in the investigation. Angela Buitrago and Carlos Beristain stayed on, although they would also leave the group and the case in July 2023, denouncing the Army’s lies and refusal to hand over all documents related to the case, particularly the full transcripts of intercepted calls between members of Guerreros Unidos.

In the presentation of the GIEI’s sixth and last report, Beristain said: “The concealment and the insistence on denying things that are obvious prevent us from obtaining the truth.... The GIEI has reached with this report the limit of where it has been possible to investigate as technical assistance. The GIEI finds it impossible to continue with its work.… In order to solve the case, it is necessary to have all the information that the state has had since the day of the events in order to know the fate and whereabouts of the young men.... The risk we have faced is that lies become institutionalized as a response, which is unacceptable.”

In June 2023, when it was already known that the GIEI would leave the country in protest, the 16 arrest warrants against military personnel that had been canceled in 2022 were reinstated. The new warrants contained the same evidence as the first ones, showing that their cancellation was due to a political instruction and not lack of evidence. On July 8, General Rafael Hernández Nieto, commander of the 41st Battalion in Iguala at the time of the disappearance of the 43 students, was detained, but a few weeks later he was allowed to face charges of forced disappearance while under house arrest. On July 25, Gualberto Ramírez, a former official in the organized crime division of the Attorney General’s Office accused of torture and forced disappearance, was arrested. Murillo Karam is still in jail, and Zerón remains at large in Israel, where a recording of a secret meeting, reported by The New York Times, captured Alejandro Encinas, then head of the COVAJ, offering Zerón immunity in exchange for information on the case.

The arrest warrants against Iñaki Blanco, the former state prosecutor of Guerrero, and Lambertina Galeana, the former president of the state Superior Court of Justice, were never reactivated. Both enjoy de facto amnesty.

After the presentation of the GIEI’s sixth and final report—with new details of the Army’s participation in the forced disappearance of the students and its almost nine years of denials and lies—López Obrador rejected the experts’ findings and instead expressed his support for the Army.

ayotzinapa amlo

On September 21, 2023, the president showed a couple of letters in which he requested the Secretary of Defense to proceed with the arrest of soldiers involved in the case. Picture: Gabriel Pano/ObturadorMX

On September 21, 2023, in his morning press conference, the president showed two letters he sent to Secretary of National Defense Sandoval. The first was sent on August 12, 2022, the same day that Attorney General Gertz told Gómez Trejo to prepare a file with the advances in the Ayotzinapa case for a breakfast he would have a few days later with López Obrador. In the letter, the president asks the secretary of defense to locate and arrest five military personnel involved in the disappearance of the students, based not on the UEILCA’s investigation, but the now discredited and abandoned COVAJ report. In other words, the president asked the general to arrest five soldiers based on false evidence. There was evidence against them—in the Chicago wiretaps and the analysis of the military’s telephone records—but not in that report.

In the second letter, sent on May 23, 2023, the president asks the secretary of defense for his support in arresting 16 members of the Army in relation to their drug trafficking ties and their refusal to prevent the disappearance of the students. These are the same 16 military personnel whose arrest warrants were canceled in September 2022, and which were reissued—with the same evidence obtained by the UEILCA—amid the GIEI’s criticism of the Army for not handing over all the documentation on the case.

The same day the president showed the letters, September 21, 2023, it became known that the last remaining prosecutors from the original UEILCA team had been fired.

In little more than a year, the López Obrador administration stopped the investigations and took control of the case.

“The best investigation this country has had in years was blown apart,” says former UEILCA attorney Damián. “There are legal arguments to take this to the Inter-American Court, because the fact is, if you hire somebody clueless, who brings 60 more people who don’t know and have no idea how the work is done, then the forced disappearance continues—they perpetuate the disappearance.”

At the end of October 2022, after the press conference in which the GIEI announced that two of its members were leaving in protest of the manipulations of the case, Mario González, father of the disappeared student César Manuel, approached Claudia Paz y Paz and Francisco Cox to say goodbye. He hugged them and said: “They gave us hope only to take it away. It is as if they had given us wings to cut them off when we were flying high.”   

Nine years later, the families are still facing a state that lies, and still fighting to find their children.

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 This story was originally published in Spanish by Quinto Elemento Lab, and later translated and republished by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

Main image: Picture by José Manuel Jiménez / Proceso

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