Arrest of Mexican Army general ordered in case of missing students

Mexican prosecutors have obtained an arrest warrant for an army general and 15 other soldiers in connection with the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, a crime considered one of the worst atrocities in the country’s recent history.

It is widely believed that students were massacred in central Mexico after a night of violence in the city of Iguala, when police officers accused of collaborating with the area’s criminal cartel forced them off buses, shot some of them and they took the others away. . Authorities have identified only the remains of three students.

Investigations by the government’s truth commission into the case and a panel of independent experts said all levels of government were involved, including the military, who they said had been closely monitoring the attack on the students in real time, but they did not use that information to help locate them.

The general, Rafael Hernández Nieto, was accused of involvement in organized crime and the soldiers were charged with organized crime and enforced disappearance, according to the order of the judge who issued the warrants, which has been reviewed by The New York Times. A former judge, to whom some of the students were taken before being handed over to the cartel, has also been charged with enforced disappearance.

The development was a sign of some progress in the government’s investigation into the crime, which has suffered a series of setbacks and has raised questions about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s willingness to hold the army accountable for its alleged role.

Prosecutors first obtained the arrest warrants for General Nieto and 19 other soldiers last August but then, in a sharp reversal, asked a judge to lift most of them about three weeks later, citing “evidence insufficient” in their case. Four members of the military were arrested, including a general, but the rest went free.

The lead prosecutor on the case resigned soon after. Two of the four independent experts investigating the case have also resigned. Mr López Obrador defended the decision at the time, saying “the investigation continues and there is no impunity”.

César González, a lawyer representing the soldiers, said Wednesday the government’s case against its clients was weak and criticized the attorney general for relying on testimony from cartel members.

The attorney general’s office, González said, is “manipulating at will the statements of members of organized crime to try to give a little more support to a case that is falling apart.”

Santiago Aguirre, the lead lawyer representing the families of the missing students, said the government has solid evidence against the soldiers and the original warrants were only overturned due to political pressure.

“The president directly informed the families that the charge of such a large number of soldiers had angered the army,” Aguirre said in an interview, describing a meeting between the students’ families and Mr. López Obrador in September . “And that prompted Attorney General Alejandro Gertz to order his men to suspend some of the warrants.”

The parents of the victims continued to call for more soldiers to be arrested, Aguirre said, and the other independent experts said they would continue their work on the case only if the warrants were reissued.

“It was a requirement for us to continue our work because there was evidence to support the warrants and the decision to withdraw them had been arbitrary,” said Carlos Beristain, one of the experts. “An investigation must be done on the basis of evidence, not pressure.”

Mr. López Obrador has given the military sweeping new powers and has consistently championed them despite criticisms that he is paving the way for the rise of a military state.

However, the disappearance of the 43 students has become a political sore point for the president, who made resolving the case one of his top priorities after taking office in 2018 but has struggled to show consistent progress.

After the Attorney General handed the case over to a prosecutor with little experience in the matter last fall, concerns have grown about Mr. López Obrador’s commitment to building a robust criminal case against everyone involved, including, perhaps, more soldiers .

“This case has shown the power that the military has and its insubordination to civilian authorities,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, an expert on the military at the Mexican Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

The new arrest warrants, he said, were “just an early sign of a cap on that power.”

Emiliano Rodriguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.