Mexico’s former justice minister accused of mishandling the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in 2014

Federal prosecutors said Friday they have arrested the attorney general of Mexico’s former administration on charges that he mishandled investigations into 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a radical teacher school.

Jesus Murillo Karam served as Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2015 under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto. The office of the current attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said Murillo Karam was charged with torture, official misconduct and enforced disappearance.

In 2020, Gertz Manero said that Murillo Karam had been implicated in “orchestrating a massive media stunt” and leading a “generalized cover-up” in the case.

The arrest came a day after a commission set up to establish what happened said the army bore at least partial responsibility in the case. It said a soldier had infiltrated the student group involved and the army did not stop the abductions even though it knew what was happening.

Corrupt local police, other security forces and members of a drug gang abducted the students in the city of Iguala in Guerrero state, although the motive remains unclear eight years later. Their bodies has never been foundhowever, fragments of burnt bone have been matched to three of the students.

Murillo Karam, under pressure to quickly solve the case, announced in 2014 that the students had been killed and their bodies burned in a garbage dump by members of a drug gang. He called that hypothesis “the historical truth.”

Mexico's former attorney general detained
Mexico’s Justice Minister Jesus Murillo Karam holds a press conference in Mexico City on December 7, 2014.

Marco Ugarte / AP

But the investigation included cases of torture, wrongful arrest and mishandling of evidence that have since allowed most of the gang members directly implicated to walk free.

The incident took place near a major army base and independent investigations have found that members of the military were aware of what was going on. The students’ families have long demanded that soldiers be involved in the investigation.

On Thursday, the truth commission investigating the case said one of the abducted students was a soldier who had infiltrated the radical teachers’ college, but the army was not searching for him despite having real-time information that the abduction was taking place. It said the inaction violated Army protocols for missing soldiers cases.

The Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, to which both Murillo Karam and Peña Nieto belonged, wrote on its Twitter account that Murillo Karam’s arrest “is more a matter of politics than justice. This action does not help the victims’ families get answers.”

Mexican federal prosecutors have previously issued arrest warrants for members of the military and federal police, as well as Tomás Zeron, who at the time of the abduction headed the federal investigative agency, Mexico’s Bureau of Detectives.

Zeron is wanted on charges of torture and covering up enforced disappearances. He fled to Israel, and Mexico has asked the Israeli government for help in his arrest.

Mexico missing students
A woman carries a banner that reads in Spanish “We are missing 43,” referring to the 43 missing students from a rural teachers college during a march in Mexico City, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015.

Eduardo Verdugo / AP

Gertz Manero said that in addition to Zeron’s alleged crimes related to the case, he is said to have stolen more than $44 million from the Attorney General’s Office budget.

The motive for the students’ abduction remains a subject of debate.

Murillo Karam claimed the students were handed over to a drug gang, who killed them, burned their bodies in a landfill in nearby Cocula and threw the burned bone fragments into a river.

Later investigations by independent experts and the Attorney General’s Office, and confirmed by the truth commission, have rejected the idea that the bodies were incinerated at the Cocula landfill.

There has been no evidence that any of the students could still be alive.

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