“Historic Truth” or Historic Lie?
Shortly after, the Guerrero government announced that it knew who was behind the killings: The mayor of Iguala and his wife, who supposedly became incensed that the students’ disorderly behavior was interfering with a political event and ordered them handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel.
This story soon fell apart, while evidence of federal-level collusion accumulated. Students who survived the attack had reported seeing federal and state police at the scene – they wouldn’t have answered to the mayor.
Authorities then announced that they’d found the bodies of the lost students in various pits around the Iguala. But when the remains were tested, none turned out to belong to the students; instead, they were from at least 28 unrelated people. In the end, so many unrelated mass graves were found in the area that some local families formed a new group, “The Other Disappeared of Iguala,” to advocate for their recovery and identification. Their efforts have led to the exhumation of more than 160 bodies, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a series of protests in late 2014, Mexicans took to the streets to express outrage over the Ayotzinapa killings and disappearances.
Alejandro Ayala/Xinhua/Alamy Live News
This series of injustices and blunders left Mexicans outraged. “Only a few days after the attacks … [it] seemed clear that the government would do everything in its power to make it impossible to find the 43 students, and equally impossible to know what happened that night,” wrote Gibler. The families of the 43 led a procession of 15,000 in Mexico City, carrying images of their lost loved ones.
In January 2015, then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam officially closed the case at a press conference that quickly became infamous. He announced that as far as the Mexican government was concerned, the “historic truth” had been established and there was nothing more to say about the matter: All 43 students had been held by police and turned over to a drug gang, who allegedly executed them and incinerated their remains.
It was a good story. The only problem was that there wasn’t much evidence for it. An international team of investigators set up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found evidence confirming students’ accounts that federal police had been on the scene of the shootings — and that the army had been monitoring the students all night from a command center in Iguala. But they were blocked from interviewing soldiers or visiting their barracks, despite multiple requests.
Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto,
later found that, while these investigators were in Guerrero, not long after they publicly criticized the government for interfering with their investigation, two attempts were made to inject NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware into their phones.
Beristain, the group member, said they strongly felt they were being surveilled while in Guerrero. When they later learned about the Mexican government’s use of Pegasus, “it sounded a lot like the things we had suffered,” he said.
“We had many problems with the phones we used … there were suspicious people present when we met, we received strange messages, especially SMSes with links.”
In one case, he said, three members of the group received strange text messages just at a moment when they were drained after performing a particularly grisly task: exhuming the student who had been tortured.
“We left the exhumation and I received a message that said — I don’t know exactly, because that phone broke — but it said something like, ‘We are waiting for you to organize the funeral.’ That is, it was not a general message, it was a message designed so that obviously I would click it.” He said he didn’t take the bait.
When the investigators’ report was finally released, in April 2016, it rubbished the government’s “historic truth” narrative, saying there was no evidence that any bodies had been burned at the dump – in fact, it appeared to be scientifically impossible to generate enough heat there. While the remains of 19 people were found at the dump, analysts couldn’t find evidence tying them to the missing students.
This caused an outcry. It also confirmed the suspicions of the parents of the 43, who had insisted for years that the conflicting and incomplete narratives offered up by authorities pointed to a cover-up.
“What would be the point of covering up for … police from Iguala?” a lawyer for the families, Vidulfo Rosales, told OCCRP. “That’s not very logical. In the case of Ayotzinapa, high-level officials are involved who wanted to erase evidence, who wanted to cover up for senior officials, and that is why a very messy investigation was carried out.”
In the aftermath of this chaos, new Pegasus Project data shows, the phone numbers of at least four Ayotzinapa family members were selected for targeting with Pegasus:
Bautista, Ortega, Felipe de la Cruz, the father of a surviving student, and David Cabanas, the brother of a disappeared student.
Rosales, along with his colleague Abel Barrera, a renowned anthropologist who runs a human rights center providing legal aid to poor indigenous families.
Although Pegasus Project data doesn’t allow reporters to pinpoint exactly who placed the Ayotzinapa families on the list and why, there aren’t many possibilities. Just three government agencies in Mexico reportedly have access to the tool: the National Intelligence Center, the National Defense Secretariat, and the attorney general’s office, which signed the $32 million contract for the Mexican government’s acquisition of Pegasus in 2014.
The head of the office at the time was Jesus Murillo Karam — who would later become attorney general who closed the investigation into the missing students. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“A Great Struggle”
Parents and lawyers had complained for years that they felt harassed by the Peña Nieto government. The president made no secret of his distaste for their noisy protests against the government’s handling of the case. At one point, he suggested they were backed by forces seeking to destabilize the country and “attack the national project that we have been building.”
“It was very difficult for us,” said Bautista, recalling a constant whir of helicopters above her home during those years.
A 2015 protest outside a church in Detroit to raise awareness of the Ayotzinapa case. Benjamin Ascencio Bautista's uncle, Cruz Bautista, is at right, holding a sign bearing his face.
Jim West/Alamy Live News
The families made the rounds of universities and human rights groups in Mexico and other Latin American countries to meet with activists and experts. They even testified at a hearing in Peru, and one in Washington. Rosales and de la Cruz joined a program called Caravan 43 that allowed them to travel widely to talk to community groups about their experience.
“We were in this fight demanding the continuation of the investigation, continuing the search, and obviously the government had the position: ‘We already investigated, the truth has been told, and what you are doing is denying the truth,’” explained Rosales.
In April 2016, private telephone conversations between him and his wife were splashed across the front pages of Mexico’s biggest newspapers and magazines. They captured him, in a moment of frustration, speaking with contempt about the indigenous families he was helping. “Fucking lousy Indians,” he called them. An army of Twitter bots emerged to denounce him, all using the hashtag #fuckinglousyindians.
It’s still unclear how the conversations were leaked. Pegasus Project data shows that Rosales’s name was included on the list of alleged targets in 2017, but the data does not precede 2016, making it difficult to know if he might have been spied on earlier.
The families say that Peña Nieto’s successor in the presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been more responsive to their concerns. Three days after he took office, he set up the Presidential Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Case, and since then
there have been a number of arrests and other developments in the case.
Cristina Bautista, though, isn’t satisfied. The remains of her son have never been found. She still speaks of “Benja” in the present tense – “My son is very affectionate and respectful,” she told reporters in a shaky voice. “We are looking for him.”
Cristina Bautista stands outside a memorial to the 43 students abducted from Ayotzinapa school.
She knows that he is almost certainly dead, but she can’t rest, or revert to the past tense, until she knows. Still, she is comforted by the fact that she and the other parents of Ayotzinapa refused to accept that their children could simply disappear.
“They built their historical lie – it was easy for them because we are peasants. It was easy for them to ‘disappear our children,’ because we are peasants – what are we going to do?” said Bautista.
“But they were wrong about us.”