The news that Mexico had been dreading finally came on Saturday: a team of Argentine forensic scientists had identified the remains of 19-year-old Alexander Mora, one of 43 students abducted by police officers in the town of Iguala in late September.
The clearest indication to date that the students were massacred, the identification was made from a fragment of charred bone that the Mexican government claims to have recovered from a river in the neighboring municipality of Cocula.
Citing the testimony of three suspects, the government says members of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang killed the students at a nearby landfill site, then burned their bodies and threw the ashes in the river.
However, many students’ families do not believe the official account of events. They suspect that the government planted Mora’s remains by the river in order to corroborate the detainees’ testimony.
The independent forensic experts from Argentina also cast doubts on the government version this week, stating that they could not verify the claim that Mora’s ashes were recovered from a bag found by government investigators in the river. The forensic scientists said they were not present when the discovery was made and noted that the only evidence connecting the remains to the river and the landfill site was the testimony of the arrested gang members.
Evidence of this nature is far from conclusive and it is not uncommon for suspects in Mexico to be tortured into giving false declarations in order to rapidly solve politically inconvenient cases.
How could they have burned all 43 bodies?
The suspects in custody said that over the course of 12 to 14 hours they burned the students’ bodies to ashes on a giant funeral pyre built from wood, tires and gasoline.
But scientists from Mexico City’s UNAM university said on Wednesday that they would have needed 33 tons of wood or 995 tires in order to incinerate that many bodies. Such a fire would have to have reached around 1,500 degrees Celsius and it would have generated huge clouds of ash visible for miles, said UNAM’s head of physics, Jorge Montemayor.
“It’s impossible that they were burned in Cocula and the authorities are in serious problems because if they weren’t burned in Cocula then who burned them and where?” Montemayor said.
Criminologist David Martínez-Amador also noted last month that it takes one hour to incinerate just 45 kilos of human weight in a crematorium. Therefore it would have taken much longer than 14 hours to burn the 43 bodies over an open fire, especially considering that it was raining heavily in Iguala on the night that the students disappeared.
Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam has disputed reports that it rained in Cocula that night, claiming last week that there were “isolated showers” that may have only fallen on Iguala and not the surrounding areas.
But even if this were the case, the government has yet to put forward a convincing explanation as to how so many bodies could have been incinerated so quickly on a rather rudimentary bonfire.
Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, who has played a prominent role in the search for the truth about what happened to the students, has speculated that their bodies may have been incinerated at the local army base in Iguala.
“It would not have been impossible [to incinerate 43 bodies] if they burned them in military crematoriums,” he told the author. “The army base in Iguala has crematoriums.”
Such a scenario is not as far-fetched as it might sound, Father Solalinde added, noting that “several government institutions, including the army, have been involved in disappearances of people.”
In fact, the 27th Infantry Battalion, which is based in Iguala, stands accused of kidnapping six young males in 2010. “There is strong evidence pointing to the involvement of the army in this crime,” Human Rights Watch noted in an investigation of that case.
Government denies army involvement
When asked if investigators had checked the Army base in Iguala for the missing students last week, Murillo Karam replied, “That’s absurd… we’re not going to look there because we know they’re not there.”
Yet questions remain over the army’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the students’ disappearance.
The students were just two kilometers from the army base in Iguala when police attacked them, shooting six people dead and wounding another 20 over the course of three hours. Yet the army did not leave its barracks to intervene.
Mexico’s Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos said last month that the army did contact the police on the night of the attacks, only for the Iguala police chief – who is now a fugitive – to tell them there had been no reports of any shootings.
Rumors of army involvement first circulated four days after the students disappeared, when the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a leftist guerrilla organization based in Guerrero, claimed that they were being tortured at a military base.
In the following weeks, community-organized search teams complained several times that soldiers blocked their entrance to sites where they believed the students might be found. The army also reportedly refused to accompany the search teams – who were often threatened by local drug gangs – when they required their help and protection.
Moreover, a month after the abductions, a banner hung outside Iguala identified two officers from the 27th Battalion as members of Guerreros Unidos.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper revealed that the head of the 27th Batallion, Colonel Juan Antonio Aranda Torres, was a close friend of Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca, the man accused of ordering the abduction of the students.
Aranda reportedly gifted the mayor a plot of land belonging to the army and accompanied him at many public appearances, including on the night the students disappeared.
But with the government refusing to even investigate the possibility of military involvement, it has been left to the likes of Father Solalinde to fight for the truth.
Having spoken to trusted sources with knowledge of the case, Solalinde was the first person to announce that the students had been incinerated, several weeks before the government admitted that this was the most likely outcome.
Yet he believes the authorities knew what happened from the outset.
“The government has manipulated the situation for political gain and damage control,” he said. “But it’s not up to me [to speculate what happened]. The government has to tell us the truth about what happened, why and how.”