The prosecutor dismisses the case of 43 missing Mexican students amid new unrest

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MEXICO CITY — The prosecutor in charge of Mexico’s most infamous human rights case has resigned, throwing the eight-year-old investigation into the disappearance of 43 students into disarray while raising questions about authorities’ willingness to take on politicians and the military.

Omar Gómez Trejo had spent more than three years on the investigation, seen as a crucial test of Mexico’s ability to solve a case allegedly involving drug traffickers and their ties to politicians and security forces. The experienced human rights lawyer was appointed just months later President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018 and promised to ensure justice for the families of the missing students from the teachers’ college in the city of Ayotzinapa.

Prosecutors won judicial approval last month for 83 arrest warrants, including one for a retired army general — a rare accusation against a senior military figure. But the Mexican Attorney General’s Office recently persuaded a judge to vacate 21 of the arrest warrants; 16 of them were for military officials.

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive who had contributed research to Gómez Trejo’s investigation, said the resignation reflected disarray in the government and the sensitivity of accusing the military of human rights abuses.

“I would be very surprised if the military remains a target of this investigation,” she said.

Mexico puts civilian-led National Guard under military control

The 43 students disappeared on 26 September 2014 after commandeering several buses to go to a protest rally – a common practice. They were last seen in local police custody. The case sparked a storm of protests in Mexico and abroad as evidence emerged that politicians, the police, the military and a local drug-trafficking gang were involved in the crime or a subsequent cover-up. No one has been convicted.

The focus on the military’s role in the disappearances comes at a particularly charged moment. López Obrador recently moved the civilian-led National Guard under formal army command. He is also pushing Mexico’s Congress expand the military’s mandate to conduct law enforcement until 2028.

López Obrador’s reliance on the military for everything from arresting drug traffickers to building airports and running seaports has fueled fears that Mexico’s democracy is slipping away from civilian control.

The president says the military is needed to fight heavily armed organized crime groups. On Tuesday, he said Gómez Trejo resigned “because he did not agree with the procedures followed to approve arrest warrants.” The president added that he supported the rulings.

Mexican government control threatened by crime groups

As a special prosecutor, Gómez Trejo enjoyed unusual autonomy, able to order wiretaps and investigate a wide range of crimes. Still, the attorney general’s office — his employer — appeared to be quietly running a parallel investigation. Recently, while Gómez Trejo was abroad, other prosecutors secured one arrest warrant for former Minister of Justice Jesús Murillo Karam, for alleged involvement in the Ayotzinapa case. (He has pleaded not guilty).

The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights, which has represented the families of the 43 students, called the latest development “extremely troubling.”

Stephanie Brewer, who previously worked at the center and is now in the Washington Office in Latin America, said Gómez Trejo’s resignation was “clearly a reaction to his office being sidelined.”

There was no response to requests for comment sent to Gómez Trejo and the attorney general’s office.

The Mexican government initially blamed the students’ disappearance on local police and politicians allegedly tied to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang. Authorities said the smugglers apparently mistook the students for members of a rival group, killed them and burned their bodies in a garbage dump.

Independent experts have since debunked many of these conclusions. A recent report by a government truth commission stated that federal and state officials – including army officers – were aware of the kidnappings and took no action. The report accused the military and police of later participating in a coverup. It raised the possibility that the students were attacked because they inadvertently seized an American bus carrying drugs to Guerreros Unidos.

Lawyers for four military officers charged in the case said this week that the allegations were based on uncorroborated testimony from a protected witness and that their clients were innocent.

So far, only the remains of three of the 43 students have been found.

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