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7 years later, parents of missing Ayotzinapa students are still searching for answers

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

More than seven years ago, students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in Guerrero, Mexico, commandeered some buses. Their aim was to travel to Mexico City, but they never arrived. Halfway there, they were ambushed and attacked. Forty-three went missing.

ANAYANSI DIAZ-CORTES: Shortly after that night, the federal government launches into what they call an investigation, which really turned out to be, like, a huge cover-up on their part.

KEITH: Investigative reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Reveal has been following what happened after that night.

DIAZ-CORTES: All the evidence around it was basically stomped out. And there was a theory that was kind of fabricated, I think, two months after the event that was actually labeled the historical truth, la verdad historica, which is like saying it's, like, the absolute truth. And that was kind of the theory that the former government ran with.

KEITH: In a new Reveal series, "After Ayotzinapa," Diaz-Cortes and Kate Doyle from the National Security Archive detail the cover-up, the investigations upon investigations and how parents reacted to the government's initial theory, which blamed corrupt police and drug gangs. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITEOF PODCAST, "AFTER AYOTZINAPA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Whatever it is, I need to know. I need the truth. I want my son to return, to achieve his dreams of being someone in this life.

DIAZ-CORTES: The message to the families of the missing is clear. This is finished. You need to turn the page.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We were having dinner, and we just stared at each other. We didn't believe it. We couldn't accept it. All we could think was, this is a historic lie that they're making up.

DIAZ-CORTES: Instead of calming things down, the government's response leads to more outrage.

JIM CAVALLARO: The Mexican government is hoping this case will go away, and the case doesn't go away.

DIAZ-CORTES: That's Jim Cavallaro. He was with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the time. It's part of the United Nations in Latin America. In a very smart move, the parents had reached out to Jim when they were pushing for a new investigation.

CAVALLARO: There is a sense that this is going to be extremely politically detrimental, if not devastating, for the Mexican government, possibly to the level of seeing the Mexican government fall.

KEITH: We should be clear that even today, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what actually happened that night and why an elaborate cover-up ensued. I asked Diaz-Cortes what it was about the government's initial version of the story that left parents of the missing boys feeling like they'd been lied to.

DIAZ-CORTES: I think the kind of watershed moment was that the parents are told, OK, we found a mass grave. They're likely the students. And it turns out that they weren't the students, obviously, and that this grave was a whole other set of different people.

This launch is a movement in Mexico. People take to the hillsides. And, you know, we talk about them poking the floor with sticks and finding more graves. So the 43 became, like, a symbol of this watershed moment of, if these aren't the boys, then who are they? And it launched a movement in Mexico that we now know today of 90,000 disappeared people.

KEITH: What is shocking about this story is that they're finding other mass graves in the search for these students is just devastating.

DIAZ-CORTES: Right. And, you know, all these years later, we talk about the privilege of the case, right? I'm here on NPR. I did this two - you know, this three-parter for a reveal. It's gotten so much attention from media globally, mostly because these parents were like, look, world. Look at us. But really, it's just one case. So the issue here becomes, if Mexico can't solve this one kind of very privileged case, what does that mean, right? What does that mean?

KEITH: You spent a lot of time in this series with a prosecutor named Omar Gomez Trejo. Briefly tell us who he is. And how did he get involved in the case?

DIAZ-CORTES: Omar Gomez Trejo is the - you know, the special prosecutor investigating the Ayotzinapa case today. He was sworn into office in June 2019, when the investigation reopened under the new president, but he's not new to this case. He'd actually been kind of the assistant of the experts that were kicked out of Mexico for investigating the case. So he had been in close contact with the case since his - since the earliest days. Like, he was basically obsessed with the case a week after that night.

KEITH: And he uncovered torture. People were tortured into forced confessions to somehow back up the original government story.

DIAZ-CORTES: From the beginning, there was a sense that there had been torture and that it's just, like, generalized. It's just, like, an investigative strategy in Mexico. But it wasn't until Omar was sworn into office and then this video was leaked of a person being tortured that it kind of not only becomes clear that everyone involved in the Ayotzinapa case was tortured but that also that Omar was able to then indict people that had tortured to get them back into the kind of the criminal justice system and to collaborate with him to figure out the truth, you know, what they knew.

KEITH: Is there an authoritative answer yet to what happened to the boys?

DIAZ-CORTES: This is so the challenge, right? It's, like, a case that was so covered up, where evidence was so tampered with and fabricated. Like, and then you open it up after seven years. You know, we talk about - like, we might never know the exact timeline of what happened to the boys from the moment they were taken up until where they are. But I think they're working a little bit backwards, where they now have found remains for two boys that completely - that is a completely different theory from the theory that they thought. So they know a lot more.

What our investigation is able to kind of give is kind of the role of the U.S. and the zoom-out of the larger war on drugs and how we are connected and bear responsibility on this side. But as a parent, as a mother, you want to know what orders were given and what day and what moment and what minute. And that is frankly something that isn't known yet.

KEITH: There's a line you delivered in Episode 1 that struck us. You said, this case was a crucial test for Mexico's justice system. What do you mean by that?

DIAZ-CORTES: If you cannot solve a case that has so much media attention, that has so much global attention, that has so many resources right now with this new government, if you cannot indict the mastermind of the cover-up - Tomas Zeron, who's now in Israel - and, you know, they're looking to take him out of Israel into Mexico to be tried. If you cannot do that, if you cannot, you know, indict without torture, really, then you do kind of have a failing state.

KEITH: We have been speaking with Anayansi Diaz-Cortes about the new three-part investigative series from Reveal called "After Ayotzinapa." Thank you.

DIAZ-CORTES: Thank you so much for having me, Tamara.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOYCE KWON SONG, "SONG OF PLATITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.