Forensics Reveal Mexico’s Credibility Gap in Missing Students Case

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Mexico’s conspicuous effort to incorporate foreign forensic teams into its investigation of the Iguala mass kidnapping seems aimed at giving the inquiry a dose of credibility. But it may have accomplished precisely the opposite.

In the four months that have passed since 43 student protesters disappeared from Iguala, Guerrero, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and the victims’ families have brought teams of investigators from Argentina and Austria, and relied on laboratories in the US and Austria, to assist in the search for the students’ remains. These teams were part of a broader attempt by Mexican authorities to tout their investigation as serious, open, and honest. The government also, for instance, celebrated the number of interviews, raids, and arrests it carried out as it pursued the culprits.

Ideally, these forensic teams would have supported the findings that Mexico’s government announced last month: the students were abducted by members of the Guerreros Unidos and their police allies in Iguala; they were taken to a trash dump in nearby Cocula, they were executed and their bodies incinerated, and their remains were finally thrown into a nearby river.

Foreign forensic teams have been some of the leading voices casting doubt on Mexico’s official narrative.

Instead, foreign forensic teams have been some of the leading voices casting doubt on the official narrative. The Argentines publicized a series of errors made by the Mexican forensic team, and they raised questions over assertions that the bodies were all incinerated in a single fire at the trash dump.

Additionally, foreign forensic teams have disclosed that the remains of other victims — unrelated to the 43 students — were present in the Cocula trash dump. These teams have also noted that they were not present when Mexican authorities recovered the garbage bags from the river — from which they sent 17 samples, but only manage to connect one of them to a victim’s remains — leading to further worry that the recovery was somehow manipulated.

InSight Crime Analysis

The collaboration with the foreign forensic teams is presumably meant to inject a bit of a credibility into the Mexican government’s response, which has been attacked around the world as being ineffectual and unserious. Analysts and activists have picked on Peña Nieto for dithering while Guerrero burns, and they have attacked some of Mexico’s foremost political figures for their support of the politicians most directly implicated in the Iguala case.

Against such a backdrop, public distrust in the government’s investigation is inevitable. Thus, bringing in the Austrian and Argentine forensic teams is a way to insulate the investigation from Mexicans’ widespread suspicion of their governing class.

Inviting foreign experts to help investigate high-profile incidents isn’t an unusual practice in Mexico. US investigators were called in to assist the probe into the 2008 Mexican City plane crash that killed Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and former drug czar Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos. American forensic experts also participated in the investigation into the 2009 fire that killed 49 children at a daycare center in Sonora.

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Nevertheless, the presence of a few foreign experts hasn’t covered up the Mexican government’s stumblings in the Iguala investigation. On the contrary, it has only brought more attention to it. The inconsistencies flagged by the non-government forensic teams — whether from Austria, Argentina, or within Mexico — have only intensified doubts over the Mexican government’s version of events.

Consequently, within days after the Peña Nieto government announced that it considered the Iguala case closed, the investigation threatened to break down into a morass of skepticism and counterclaims, in which the public never reaches nor accepts a consensus version of the truth. Meanwhile, the Mexican government launched a series of attacks against the Argentine forensic officials, questioning their scientific expertise and demanding that they stop fostering doubts over the government’s official conclusions. 

The Mexican government can’t obtain credibility via shortcuts.

Yet Mexican authorities have been unable to answer several other lingering doubts about the case. The proposed motive behind the killing — that the students were affiliated with a rival gang known as the Rojos — seems far-fetched, and is unsupported by any corroborating evidence, such as the presence of weapons among the victims. Furthermore, as Proceso has reported, some of the detainees whose testimony led to the conclusion about the Rojos say they were tortured while interrogated. Local forensic scientists have also determined that a fire capable of incinerating all of the victims at the trash dump verges on a physical impossibility. And nothing in the official investigation has calmed suspicions that federal troops also participated in the students’ disappearance and murder.

Amidst this confusion, the participation of foreign forensic teams is at best window dressing for the Mexican government. The Iguala case — and Mexico’s back-and-forth relationship with foreign expert investigators in general — demonstrates that the Mexican government can’t selectively display its credibility. Nor can it obtain credibility via shortcuts. The Mexican government can’t show that it is serious about investigating official abuse only when the public outcry becomes sufficiently intense — or else when the circumstances of a case make it convenient to do so. There’s nothing wrong with foreigners adding their expertise, but their presence often only calls attention to the Mexicans’ inability or unwillingness to police the darkest recesses of the nation.

The commitment to honest investigations needs to be genuine and perennial for any government to enjoy widespread credibility. Simply put, Mexico’s security apparatus has not demonstrated that commitment — over a period of several presidential administrations — in various areas in the country, in a series of high-profile crimes. That’s why Mexican citizens and others around the world instinctively distrust the Mexican government, and it’s not a problem that can be solved by entrusting key investigations to neutral outsiders.

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