On September 26, thousands of people will protest in cities across Mexico to demand justice for one of the country’s most infamous unresolved atrocities — the 2014 kidnapping and enforced disappearance of 43 student teachers in Iguala, Guerrero.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised when he was elected in 2018 to determine the truth about what happened to the students. Instead, he has allowed the investigation to stall, apparently to protect his allies in the military. His actions are not just a betrayal of his promise. They are a symbol of the president’s inability — or, more likely, unwillingness — to unravel the complex web of cartel violence, government and military corruption, and impunity that has plagued Mexico for decades.
Mexicans have grown sadly accustomed to violent atrocities. Tens of thousands of people are murdered every year. Over 100,000 are missing. Mass graves and clandestine cartel crematoria are regularly uncovered. When investigators attempt to unravel these crimes, it often becomes difficult to determine where drug cartels end and the government begins. The students’ disappearance was emblematic of this problem. Evidence now suggests that nearly every part of the government and military in the town of Iguala was working with — or for — the powerful drug cartel that apparently ordered the kidnapping.
The government’s initial response, under then-president Enrique Peña Nieto, was sadly typical. Rather than expose a messy web of corruption that might have led to the highest levels of government, the authorities attempted an elaborate cover up. They altered evidence and tortured witnesses to pin the disappearances on a few bad apples.
When López Obrador took office, he promised an end to this corruption and impunity. “Arriving at the truth and doing justice won’t weaken our institutions, it will strengthen them,” he said. He announced a fresh investigation into the whereabouts of the 43 students. He created an official truth commission, asked the attorney general to appoint a respected human rights defender as the special prosecutor for the case, invited a group of independent experts from the Organization of American States (OAS) to support his work, and issued an executive order instructing the entire government to cooperate.
But when investigators started scrutinizing the military’s role in the disappearance, they faced backlash — and President López Obrador’s promised support vanished. The special prosecutor resigned in 2022 and left the country after authorities intervened to prevent him from prosecuting senior military officials. And in July, the group of independent experts stepped down saying it was impossible to continue investigating while the military hid key evidence, including more than 80 pages of intercepted phone conversations between cartel members and authorities that, according to the international experts, could contain clues about what happened to the students.
President López Obrador has not used his authority to force the military to hand over the missing documents. When asked why, he told journalists that the military is a “fundamental institution for the Mexican state” and, absurdly, accused the international investigators of being part of a “campaign” to undermine the armed forces.
Unfortunately, his unwillingness to challenge the military is part of a pattern. He also refused to step in when another group of investigators, from the official truth commission documenting abuses against leftist activists during the Cold War, said in August that the military and intelligence services had refused them access to key files. And he did nothing when, earlier this year, it was revealed that the Defense Ministry had most likely been illegally hacking the phones of people investigating military abuses, including a senior member of his own government and the lawyers representing the 43 students’ families.
President López Obrador, once critical of Mexico’s famously abusive and opaque military, has now placed that same military at the center of his government. The Army and Navy carry out hundreds of once-civilian government tasks. They build megaprojects, run tourist sites, implement welfare programs, collect billions in customs revenue, and even run the pharmaceutical regulatory agency. Generals accompany the president almost everywhere. And López Obrador has encouraged state governors to consult the military before naming key positions in their cabinets.
The advances made in untangling the Iguala case over the past nine years are the result of sustained international scrutiny that allowed independent investigators to uncover the truth, even when it was uncomfortable for those in power. Mexico’s friends and neighbors should not remain silent as the government allows the investigation into one of the most infamous atrocities in the region’s recent history to stall. Nor should they be indifferent to the continuing crisis of disappearances and growing military empowerment.
The Secretary General and member states of the OAS, which sent the international investigators to support López Obrador’s initial commitment to justice, should urge the president to keep his word and press the military to cooperate.
In July, the families of the 43 missing students held a news conference, where they called on López Obrador to “make clear which side [the government] is on: the side of the Army’s lies or the side of the families and the truth.” The international community should also make clear where it stands.
Juanita Goebertus is Americas director at Human Rights Watch.