FOUR BUSES PULL UP to the base of the Mexican Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion.

It is January 12, a bright, clear afternoon in the southern state of Guerrero, nearly four months since 43 college students disappeared, most in the backs of municipal police vehicles, during a night of shooting and murder in the city of Iguala.

The majority of the students were seized at an intersection less than 2 miles from the army base. Hundreds of their family members and classmates, from a teacher-training college known as Ayotzinapa, have come to protest. They want answers. Not only that, they want inside.

“Today, we come to demand that they deliver our children to us,” one of the fathers yells. “They know where they have them.”

Another parent shouts, “Return our sons!”

A truck plows into the front gate of the base. Parents pull at the barbed wire surrounding the installation, and young people with their faces wrapped in T-shirts and bandanas stream inside. Hundreds of soldiers and police are waiting.

Stones fly through the air. Volleys of glass bottles rain down. Tear gas fills the area, and a military helicopter circles above.

The parents repeat a chant that has become their rallying cry.

“¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!”

They were taken alive, we want them alive.

Forty-three male students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were disappeared on September 26, 2014 at the hands of local police working in conjunction with drug traffickers. The basketball court at the school serves as the nerve center for most activities related to the movement for information and justice that has developed around the case of the missing students. A woman supporter of the students knits while waiting for any news beside the court.

Outside the basketball court at Ayotzinapa that serves as a nerve center for the families of the missing students.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller for The Intercept

FROM THE MOMENT the students disappeared, their parents have demanded their return. Though it seems unlikely they are alive, their parents have drawn attention to inconsistencies in the official account of what happened, highlighting the government’s reluctance to tell the public everything it knows.

The Intercept has conducted a six-month investigation into the government’s case, based on a review of a portion of sealed files prepared by the office of Mexico’s attorney general — Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR — which includes statements by police officers and gang members allegedly involved in the events that night. The Intercept has also examined communications records from security forces in the area, conducted dozens of interviews, including with students who survived the night’s violence, and analyzed months of reporting by Mexican investigative journalists.

Far from an isolated incident, the disappearance of 43 young men in one evening of violence was unique mainly in the attention it received.

The investigation has revealed the federal government’s concerted effort to place blame squarely on municipal actors, despite ample evidence of a broader circle of responsibility. Senior officials in Mexico City have presented a narrowly tailored scenario of a mass kidnapping committed by local officials ending in murder carried out by gangsters in the Iguala area. But evidence buried in the state’s own files points to a case of enforced disappearance, which, unlike kidnapping, includes the involvement — either active or passive — of state actors, and can constitute a crime against humanity under international law.

Throughout the case, the Mexican government has leaned heavily on the statements of detained suspects rather than physical evidence. The approach has drawn skepticism in a country with a well-documented history of authorities using coercion or torture to extract false confessions. Statements in the federal file suggest the government has presented a skewed selection of evidence in its account of what happened — information that supports its narrative has been publicly presented, while details that contradict the official version have been downplayed.

The Intercept provided an extensive list of questions to the PGR and the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Despite repeated requests, neither the PGR nor the Embassy provided answers on the record to any of the questions, or made officials available to respond on the record.

“The police are disguised within the narco-traffickers. … They are one.”

Though there is still little clarity on the question of why the students were disappeared, or where they were taken, statements in the federal investigation map out a criminal takeover of the region, exposing the corruption that has swallowed many of Guerrero’s governing structures. Coordinates provided by one detained gang member, for example, led authorities to a fetid swamp in an area called La Laguna, where the rotting corpse of a former Iguala police chief was recovered. The suspect also described a ranch known as Los Naranjos — The Oranges — a patch of property where gangsters dumped bodies. Another burial site, described by two suspects, stood out early in the case. There, the men said, they had buried some of the students from Ayotzinapa. When investigators examined the site they indeed found bodies — 28 of them in mass graves — but none were the students.

As more and more unidentified corpses were exhumed last fall, while the international community looked on in horror, certain truths about the Mexican state were unearthed. Far from an isolated incident, the disappearance of 43 young men in one evening of violence was unique mainly in the attention it received. Their story is emblematic of the country’s crisis of unsolved disappearances, secret graves, and the integration of organized crime into law enforcement and politics. As the mother of one of the disappeared students put it, “The police are disguised within the narco-traffickers. … They are one.”

Relatives of 43 missing students leave after a private meeting with  Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong and Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam in Chilpancingo, Guerrero State, Mexico on November 11, 2014. Protesters angry at the alleged killing of 43 Mexican students torched the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regional headquarters in Guerrero state in another demonstration over a case rocking President Enrique Pena Nieto's government.  AFP PHOTO/ Pedro PARDO        (Photo credit should read Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives of the 43 disappeared students leave a meeting with Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam in Chilpancingo on Nov. 11, 2014.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, a meeting was held in an airport hangar in Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo. Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, came by helicopter; the parents of the 43 came by bus. The cavernous space was filled with sunlight.

“I have three people detained,” Murillo Karam told the grief-stricken families. “The information they are giving me is not good news.”

The attorney general would offer a gruesome narrative: The young men, after being detained by municipal police on September 26 in Iguala, had been handed off to a murderous gang, slaughtered, set on fire, reduced to ash, and dumped in a river.

According to the government’s account, which took shape in a series of press conferences, Iguala’s mayor gave the order to “contain” the students. His wife was delivering an address in a public plaza, and the mayor was concerned that the students — known for disruptive protests — would sabotage the night’s event.

The government claimed the students initiated the violence by throwing rocks at municipal police officers, who responded with deadly force. Police from Iguala, along with police from the neighboring town of Cocula, seized and transferred around 40 students to an area known as Loma de Coyote. Federal investigators said the students were then handed off to members of a criminal gang known as Guerreros Unidos.

Most of the students were allegedly laid on top of one another in the back of a truck with a metal cage bolted to its bed, while a handful of others were packed into the back of a smaller pickup. The trucks set out in the dark for a seldom-used trash pit at the end of a bumpy road 4 miles outside of Cocula. The young men on the top of the pile were reportedly still alive by the time they arrived, but more than a dozen others had suffocated under the weight of their classmates.

In a January address, the attorney general played video clips of statements made by detained members of Guerreros Unidos. He also showed a video — complete with animation and a mournful electronic score — in which one of the suspects reenacted the students’ final moments. The man demonstrated how dead students were dragged from the vehicles and tossed like sacks of grain into the dirt. The survivors were lined up, interrogated, and accused of collaborating with a rival gang, Los Rojos. Then, kneeling in the dirt, the young men from Ayotzinapa were shot to death, one by one, according to the detained suspects.

As the government’s story goes, some Guerreros Unidos gangsters were dispatched to collect fuel, while others hurled bodies into the pit below. A pyre was constructed out of car tires, lumber, and plastic, doused in gasoline, then set ablaze. Through the night and into the following afternoon, the men took shifts tending the flames. It wasn’t until early evening that the charred remains were cool enough to handle. What was left of the students was smashed to dust, loaded into eight garbage bags, and tossed into a nearby river. This, Murillo Karam told the nation in a proclamation widely perceived as an attempt to close the case, was “the historical truth.”

Forty-three male students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were disappeared on September 26, 2014 at the hands of local police working in conjunction with drug traffickers. The municipal garbage dump of the town of Cocula, Guerrero, site of the alleged burning of the bodies of the 43 students.

The garbage dump near Cocula where the bodies of the 43 students were allegedly burned.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller for The Intercept

THE GOVERNMENT’S UNEQUIVOCAL explanation generated widespread skepticism, not just from the loved ones of the disappeared and protestors on the street — but also from scientists and forensics experts who disputed the viability of the burn scenario, as well as journalists looking into details the attorney general’s office seemed eager to keep under wraps.

In December, scientists from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana published a report questioning the fire described by the detained gangsters, challenging the PGR’s key claim that the Cocula dump had been converted into an impromptu crematorium. According to the report, incinerating 43 bodies using wood would have required 33 tons of logs 4 inches in diameter — taking up a space 10 times the size of the trash pit. Modern crematoriums, the scientists added, use roughly 115 pounds of gasoline per body. Had car tires been the primary fuel source, nearly 1,000 tires would have been needed, depositing 2.5 tons of steel wire and producing a pillar of smoke visible from surrounding towns. If the government’s timeline is to be believed, these materials would have been assembled and transported to the scene in a matter of hours.

According to a flight record included in the state of Guerrero’s investigation, at 11 a.m. on the morning of September 27, a helicopter took off toward Iguala in search of the students, dispatched from the state capital to the south. The Cocula dump is located about 10 miles southwest of Iguala, and around midday, the helicopter circled the city and surrounding areas. According to the suspects’ accounts, the fire burned until about 3 p.m. — but the state’s report made no mention of a blaze or smoke recorded by the helicopter’s crew.

In the river near the dump, the government claimed to have recovered a trash bag that contained human remains, including bone fragments. Seventeen forensic samples from the bag and the dumpsite were sent to experts at a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria. In December, Murillo Karam announced that the Austrian experts had positively identified a fragment from the river as belonging to one of the disappeared students — 21-year-old Alexander Mora Venancio. The experts deemed it highly unlikely that the remaining samples, severely degraded by high temperatures, would yield positive matches. Nevertheless, in January, the Mexican government expressed its “legal certainty” that Mora Venancio’s 42 missing classmates shared his supposed fate — slaughtered and incinerated at the Cocula dump, then tossed in a river.

Not trusting the government’s experts, the parents of the missing students had enlisted the help of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, or EAAF, which has investigated atrocities in more than 30 countries over three decades. In December, the Argentine team confirmed the identification of Mora Venancio’s remains, but emphasized that because its members did not witness the retrieval of the trash bag from the river, they could not confirm the government’s claim that his remains had been found in the river and burned at the dump.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - DECEMBER 7: A photograph of the investigation related with the disappearance of 43 students is seen on the projection screen as Jesus Murillo Karam, General Attorney of Mexico, gives a press conference to announce that the remains of Alexander Mora, were positively identified at the University of Innsbruk, Austria, through DNA testing, in Mexico City, Mexico on December 7, 2014. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A photograph of forensic evidence projected onto a screen during a government press conference.

Photo: Anadolu Agency

In February, the Argentine team issued a blistering report in response to Murillo Karam’s categorical assertions of finding the “historical truth.” The EAAF reported that federal investigators, violating an agreement with the team, had unilaterally visited the Cocula trash pit in mid-November, collecting ballistics evidence and soil samples without informing them. The EAAF described this visit as a “serious irregularity.”

The EAAF had good reason to be concerned about the government’s forensic capabilities. To test the remains collected from the dump and the river, federal investigators and the Argentine team each assembled more than 130 genetic profiles of family members related to the disappeared students. But, as the PGR would later admit, federal experts had misidentified 20 of the profiles they had submitted.

The government’s account rested in part on the assumption that there had been just a single fire at the dump — the one that burned the students’ remains. But according to the EAAF, satellite images revealed evidence of multiple fires at the trash pit dating back at least four years. The EAAF team pointed out the discovery of a jawbone with dentures — according to interviews with parents, none of the disappeared students wore dentures.

The government appeared to move with haste to put the case to rest. For instance, the area of investigation at the dump was divided into a grid of 137 sections. In February, after Murillo Karam declared “legal certainty” about the students’ fate, the government’s investigators had fully analyzed only 30 sections, according to the EAAF. The Argentine team suggested that the government had looked only for evidence that fit its scenario.

“Physical evidence should be interpreted in all its possibilities, without giving preference to those interpretations that only include a possible match with the testimony of the accused,” the EAAF’s report stated.

Alternative theories emerged to explain how and where the bodies were disposed of. Among the most provocative, widely cited in the media: the bodies were destroyed in a trash incinerator or crematorium at an army base. No physical evidence has been found that supports this theory; it has been kept alive by the government’s failure to fully address it. Government agencies have failed to provide clear answers to public records requests from the media about the location of crematoriums and incinerators on army bases in the region.

IGUALA, MEXICO - JANUARY 12: Protestors demanding justice and clarification of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa stage clash with police in front of the 27th infantry battalion headquarters in Iguala, Mexico on January 12, 2015. Trucks are damaged and set on fire during protest. (Photo by Eric Chavelas Hernandez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Protestors confront police in front of the 27th Infantry Battalion base in Iguala on Jan. 12, 2015.

Photo: Getty Images

FORTY YEARS AGO, Guerrero was the front line of Mexico’s Dirty War, waged by the military against left-wing guerrilla fighters, many of them graduates of schools like Ayotzinapa. Torture and extra-judicial killings — including dropping prisoners from airplanes — were committed with impunity.

With memories of state-sponsored violence embedded in Guerrero’s memory, it was little surprise that attention turned to the 27th Infantry Battalion, and that, on January 12, protesters converged on the base. Nonetheless, the government stood firm.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that the army intervened,” Murillo Karam told reporters. “Not a single shred of evidence of the participation of the army.”

The military, though not a direct participant in the attacks, was aware of some of what was happening and did not intervene to stop them.

His statement was true to only a limited extent. A selection of military records, released to a handful of Mexican journalists in February and March under a federal transparency law, indicated that troops stationed in Iguala were aware of the students’ movements prior to their arrival in Iguala — well before the first shots were fired. The records also showed that the military communicated directly with the municipal police force that attacked and detained the students. Examined in detail by investigative journalist Marcela Turati of Proceso and reviewed by The Intercept, the records indicated that the military, though not a direct participant in the attacks, was aware of some of what was happening and did not intervene.

Among the records was a report titled “Arrival of the Normalistas,” dated September 26, which detailed a series of incidents throughout the evening. The report contradicted a claim attributed in the media to Col. José Rodríguez Pérez, commander of the 27th Battalion, who reportedly said his soldiers “found out last” about what was happening. In fact, the two-page “Arrival of the Normalistas” report was signed by Col. Rodríguez Pérez.

The document noted the students’ presence on a highway outside Iguala at 7:40 p.m., their attempts to commandeer buses at a toll booth between 8 p.m. and 8:50 p.m., and their arrival at the Iguala bus station at 9:20 p.m. The students were followed by municipal police as their buses inched through Iguala’s congested streets, and when the buses were stopped at an intersection, the students got off and “assaulted police officers with stones, so that the latter responded to the aggression, detonating firearms,” the document stated.

Around 10:15 p.m., the military established communication with Felipe Flores Velázquez, who at the time was Iguala’s director of public security. Flores Velázquez presented “a reserved attitude, trying to minimize the facts,” according to the report. Flores Velázquez said his men “did not have any car stopped, and that no gunfire had been provoked.”

One of the few soldiers named in the military documents reviewed by The Intercept was 2nd Capt. José Martinez Crespo, who spent the night on patrol and was present at a private medical clinic where wounded students were seeking treatment. The soldiers took photographs inside the clinic, and one of the photos shows a student bleeding from the face as a classmate comforted him. According to the military records, the students “thanked 2nd Capt. José Martinez Crespo for the support provided” and said they would be on their way, seeking medical care elsewhere.

Omar Garcia, one of the students at the clinic that night, remembered the encounter differently.

“They subdued us,” he told The Intercept. “They said a lot of ugly things: that we had been looking for this, that this happened to us for doing what we did, for being rebellious.”

The young men did not receive medical care once the soldiers arrived.

The military records suggest that high-level officials in Mexico City may have recognized the severity of the situation far earlier than they publicly acknowledged. On September 28, President Enrique Peña Nieto distanced himself from the disappearances, canceling a trip to Guerrero on account of “bad weather.” But a document described by Turati showed that at 9:45 a.m. on September 27 — the morning after the students were attacked and detained — a visitor to the Iguala base was identified as living in “Los Pinos DF,” the official presidential residence in Mexico City. The record said the visitor, an unidentified captain, came to Iguala for “vacation.”

A video of the capture of José Luis Abarca and María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa.

ON NOVEMBER 4, a video surfaced that showed an elite unit of federal police descending on a seemingly abandoned house in a run-down, densely populated neighborhood in Mexico City shortly before sunrise. The government would trumpet the arrest of the couple inside as a victory in the case.

Iguala’s mayor at the time of the disappearances, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de Los Ángeles Pineda Villa, were the perfect villains. Abarca had been investigated for illegal enrichment and locally suspected of murder. His wife, meanwhile, hailed from a family of drug traffickers, and had once publicly threatened a reporter who crossed her, warning she would have his ears cut off. Nevertheless, it’s far from clear the couple played the central role in the disappearances that the government has contended.

In November, the government claimed that Abarca gave the order to “contain” the students after they entered Iguala, supposedly issuing the order over a police radio using a code name, A5. The order was reportedly heard by David Hernández Cruz, whom the government identified as a police radio operator. Hernández Cruz’s alleged role figured prominently in press conferences highlighting advances in the case.

The portrayal of Abarca as a criminal mastermind was largely based on what comes across in the federal files as a game of telephone: Hernández Cruz said he overheard a senior Iguala police officer saying on the radio that an order to detain the students was issued by someone with a code name, A5, that was associated with the mayor. The government’s theory also relied on Hernández Cruz occupying a position that he may not have had: According to Proceso reporters Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, there is no record of a dispatcher named David Hernández Cruz at the Iguala police department. In February, the magazine reported that Hernández Cruz had been abused in custody, then released after providing his crucial account.

In presenting Abarca and his wife as “intellectual authors” behind the students’ disappearance, Murillo Karam leaned on information submitted by another questionable witness: Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado. Described by Mexican authorities as the leader of Guerreros Unidos, Casarrubias, arrested in October, claimed that about $200,000 changed hands between the gang and Abarca’s office on a regular basis, managed by Pineda Villa, the mayor’s wife.

While the government seized on this as evidence of the pair’s criminal ties, other allegations that didn’t fit the narrative were left out. In his statements, Casarrubias painted a picture of a complex local landscape in which Guerreros Unidos and their partners in government — not just the mayor and his wife, but also the municipal police — fought together to retain control of Iguala against the gang’s rivals, Los Rojos. Casarrubias claimed that two state officials had accepted hefty bribes to allow Los Rojos to enter Iguala mixed in with the students on September 26. The alleged infiltration sparked the violence that night, he said. According to Casarrubias, members of Guerreros Unidos had killed 17 suspected members of Los Rojos over the course of the evening.

The words of an alleged gang leader should be treated with skepticism, of course. Still, it’s unclear how the PGR determined that certain claims — those implicating the ex-mayor and his wife — warranted publicity, while others that suggested a broader level of corruption and complicity were kept quiet.

Casarrubias was not the only alleged Guerreros Unidos detainee to describe scenarios that did not fit into the government’s narrative. Several gang members, for example, said a central role was played by a mysterious Guerreros Unidos figure known only as Chucky (or Chuky or Choky). Depending on the statement, Chucky ordered the attack on the students because they had been infiltrated by Los Rojos; personally snatched three students and threw them in his Mustang; joined police in fatal attacks against non-students on the highway; facilitated a handoff of captured students; failed to facilitate a handoff of captured students; ordered students killed at a location other than Cocula; personally killed students at a location other than Cocula; buried students at a location other than Cocula; and possibly kept students alive well after the government’s timeline would have them dead.

According to the detained gang members, Chucky stands between 4 foot 7 inches and 4 foot 10 inches, and is in his mid-20s or mid-30s. He figured prominently in the declarations of two Guerreros Unidos members who described in detail how they killed and disposed of students from Ayotzinapa on his orders. Their claims led state investigators to Pueblo Viejo, a community where 28 bodies were pulled from a series of graves. It seemed like a major break in the case, until state officials were forced to announce that none of the bodies belonged to the students.

Chucky largely disappeared in the PGR’s public statements, and only received passing mention  in the “historical truth” offered up in January. Chucky, the alleged Los Rojos infiltration, and the 28 bodies are some of the case’s enduring enigmas. Another is this: Why would gang members confess to killing the students at a spot, Pueblo Viejo, where there was no evidence the students were killed — and on the orders of a man, “Chucky,” whose real name nobody seemed to know?

The arrest of the “Imperial Couple” is similarly puzzling. In a February report, Proceso uncovered two federal police documents related to the detention of Abarca and his wife. One document said they were arrested in Mexico City, seized from a taxi. The second, dated the day after the video of their arrest was circulated, indicated the pair had been taken into custody near a division of the attorney general’s office. Neither of these documents suggested the couple was arrested at the house where the video purported they were arrested.

Pineda Villa, the woman described in the press as “The First Lady of Murder,” was held in preventive detention for 60 days as federal prosecutors attempted to bring formal charges linking her to the students’ disappearance. After allegations of organized crime were twice denied by the court due to lack of evidence, according to Proceso, the government managed to make an unrelated money laundering charge stick. But on April 24, her arrest order was lifted; the court determined that the evidence for the charge was insufficient, and Pineda Villa had been prevented from presenting a defense. On April 30, charges against Pineda Villa for organized crime were reinstated, and she remains in custody. Abarca, accused in the kidnapping of the students, is being held in a maximum security prison.

Forty-three male students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were disappeared on September 26, 2014 at the hands of local police working in conjunction with drug traffickers. That night, after commandeering three buses in Iguala, Guerrero, first-year normal school students were confronted by local police here, at this intersection of the ring road (Periferico) around Iguala and Juan Alvarez Street. Three students were killed (crosses, mark spot) and 43 were made to lay down on the ground with their hands behind their heads before being loaded and transported to the twon of Cocula.

Students were confronted by police at the intersection of Periférico and Juan N. Álvarez Street.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller for The Intercept

IGUALA, THE BIRTHPLACE of the Mexican flag and constitution, has been called Mexico’s “cradle of independence.” Following the students’ disappearance, an alternative title was spray-painted at the bus station where the violence began. “Cuna del narcogobierno,” it read — cradle of narco-government.

As municipal police were rounded up last fall, evidence of the narco-government became plain to see. At 6 a.m. on the morning of September 27, 142 members of Iguala’s police force were called in for questioning by state investigators and forced to turn over their weapons. Firearms belonging to 22 department employees returned positive results for tests indicating recent detonation, according to the state’s report, and 48 Iguala officers would eventually be among the 104 people arrested in connection with the case.

In nearby Cocula, 16 police officers would be swept up in the arrests. The statements of Cocula officers were among the federal files reviewed by The Intercept. The low-level cops said they worked shifts of 48 to 72 hours for monthly salaries of less than $400, just half of what some of their Guerreros Unidos counterparts claimed to make in a single kidnapping. Their statements — which portray a night of confusion, threats, and cover-ups — provide a vivid portrait of the collaboration between organized crime and local security forces that had taken hold well before the students disappeared.

Attorney's General office's special agents custody some of the 27 municipal policemen involved in an attack against students in Iguala last month and now presented to the press in Mexico City on October 17, 2014.  More than 1,200 security forces are looking for the college students around Iguala, where the aspiring teachers were last seen on September 26, when local police allegedly attacked them and turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos gang.    AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ        (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Sixty-four municipal police officers have been taken into custody for their alleged involvement in the attack against the students.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

On September 26, three patrol vehicles of Cocula police in tactical gear raced to Iguala to support municipal officers there as they loaded up students and took them away. According to several Cocula officers, Subdirector César Nava González gave the orders throughout the night and into the next morning. The officers claimed to have seen students transferred to the police headquarters in Iguala, then transferred in both Iguala and Cocula patrol vehicles to Loma de Coyote, where they were handed off to members of the Guerreros Unidos gang.

In the early hours of September 27, the officers returned to their headquarters in Cocula.

“The atmosphere was thick,” one police officer said in a statement. “We were shocked.” Nobody was speaking. According to officer statements, Nava then called on half a dozen men to change into civilian clothes, arm themselves with handguns, and head out again in unmarked vehicles. Some officers recognized their destination once they arrived: the ranch of Gildardo López Astudillo, the local Guerreros Unidos chief known as El Cabo Gil, who is still at large. They remained there until the sun came up.

“About last night, you know nothing, you saw nothing.”
Several people connected to the department described a coordinated cover-up and efforts to destroy evidence: They were ordered to burn documents, confiscate surveillance video, and change the numbers on their vehicles. They were not told why. “As troops, we are not told anything about the changes,” one officer said. “It’s just between the leaders.”

Nava also warned his men to not mention what had happened. According to one of the officers, Nava sent a text message on the morning of September 27 that said, “About last night, you know nothing, you saw nothing.” Another officer said, “He threatened us that if we didn’t do our work, he would kill our families or kill us.”

While the PGR publicly acknowledged the attempted cover-up in Cocula, the intertwined history between the municipal police and the army in the region has gone unmentioned in the government’s official story.

Maj. Salvador Bravo Bárcenas, the director of Cocula’s public security and a former soldier with the 27th Battalion, described in his statement to investigators how he had lost control of the department to Nava. It began in June 2013, he said, when a stranger with a “happy face” walked into his office looking for work. Nava, a former military officer, according to La Jornada, was offered a job, along with four of his companions.

Nava assumed the role of subdirector, and it wasn’t long, Bravo said, before “certain irregularities” emerged. Nava took his men on unauthorized shooting expeditions, including to the Cocula garbage dump. After Bravo confronted Nava about protocol, his subdirector sent a text message that read, “Look Bárcenas, from this moment on I am going to make the police decisions.”

Bravo claimed that when he objected, Nava sent another text that warned, “I have located your family.” It was followed by photos of Bravo’s home and children.

Bravo said he complained about Nava to the commander of the 27th Infantry Battalion during the summer of 2013. The commander, whose name Bravo told investigators he could not recall, assured him the problem would be handled. Eight days later, Bravo said, soldiers arrived in Cocula and left with Nava and his men. However, they returned that same same day, still in the company of the soldiers, “without telling me a word” of what transpired, Bravo said.

Nava remained on the job, and was arrested in the Ayotzinapa case along with members of his crew, according to Proceso’s Gloria Leticia Díaz. Nava’s testimony was not among the materials reviewed by The Intercept. Currently imprisoned, his story remains sealed in the federal government’s investigation.

Forty-three male students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were disappeared on September 26, 2014 at the hands of local police working in conjunction with drug traffickers. Students from Ayotzinapa, their supporters from other schools and members of a dissident teachers union in the state of Guerrero, march through the streets of the state capital, Chilpancingo, in support of the parents of the missing students. Armed with wooden axe handles and lead pipes, a contingent of the radical teachers leads the march.

Members of a local teachers union march through Chilpancingo in support of the students, Nov. 14, 2014.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller for The Intercept

BY THE MID-1970s, at the peak of Mexico’s Dirty War, security forces had made hundreds of people disappear — suspected rebels and ordinary civilians alike. Three decades later, a new conflict emerged, tearing at the fabric of Mexican society, with citizens disappearing on an unprecedented scale.

On December 11, 2006, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón ordered thousands of soldiers into the streets of Michoacán, Guerrero’s neighbor to the northwest, in a declaration of open war against the nation’s entrenched drug-trafficking organizations. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the years since. Fueled by more than $2 billion in U.S. equipment and training, Mexican security forces at every level have been accused of widespread human rights violations. Far from reducing violence, the campaign has splintered established cartels into smaller groups like Guerreros Unidos, and they have competed to control fractured territory.

The tally of known dead is only a partial count of the casualties. There are tens of thousands of others who have disappeared since the conflict began. More than 22,000 Mexican citizens are currently listed as missing, according to the government’s own tally, though the actual numbers are believed to be far higher. An estimated 70,000 Central American migrants have vanished while crossing the country since 2006.

Like the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, many of Mexico’s disappeared were last seen being loaded into police or military vehicles. In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch warned that Mexico was in the throes of “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearance in Latin America in decades.” The crime of enforced disappearance is prohibited under international law and according to the Rome Statute, which Mexico is party to, can constitute a crime against humanity when conducted in a widespread or systematic manner. In its report, published more than a year before the students were taken, Human Rights Watch exhaustively detailed how enforced disappearance has manifested itself in Mexico. The patterns laid out mirror realities in the Ayotzinapa case at virtually every turn.

The report noted, for example, that when individuals are seized by police or military personnel, family members who seek information about their whereabouts are often told the detentions never took place — in Iguala, this was the message conveyed by local officials to search parties the morning after the students were taken. In these cases, culpability for any disappearance typically falls on municipal police more than than other security forces. In the Ayotzinapa case, the only security forces placed under arrest have been members of the Iguala and Cocula municipal police departments. And as Human Rights Watch explained of cases involving state agents and organized crime, “most commonly, security forces arbitrarily detain victims and then hand them over to criminal groups.” In the Ayotzinapa case, Guerreros Unidos seemed to fill this role.

Families, rather than the state, are forced to shoulder the burden of finding out what happened.
In Mexico, investigations of enforced disappearances are characterized by systemic shortcomings, such as tampering with evidence and failing to promptly secure the crime scene, Human Rights Watch noted. That’s what happened in Iguala, where municipal officers pocketed spent shells from the scene of the first attack, according to John Gibler of California Sunday Magazine, and the crime scene was left unsecured for hours. The handling of the garbage pit outside Cocula where the students’ bodies were allegedly incinerated raised similar concerns. When The Intercept visited the pit on November 11, just four days after the government declared it the probable site of a gruesome massacre, it was unguarded and easily accessible.

Among the most painful symptoms of enforced disappearance, as described by Human Rights Watch, is government officials attempting to convince family members that their loved ones are dead without any substantive proof; this scenario unfolded in nationally televised press conferences on the Ayotzinapa case. Families, rather than the state, are forced to shoulder the burden of finding out what happened. “Many relatives give up everything — leaving behind established careers, uprooting entire families, and abandoning long-standing relationships — to focus entirely on their search for the disappeared,” the report said.

While the crime of kidnapping can carry a lengthier prison sentence in Mexico than enforced disappearance, the consequences for the state are minimal, because the crime is attributed to just the accused. By rarely bringing enforced disappearance charges, the Mexican government escapes accountability. If cases of enforced disappearance were routinely pursued, they could provide evidence of systemic abuses, which could trigger charges of crimes against humanity and possibly jeopardize the multibillion-dollar security aid package the Mexican government receives from the U.S government, among other consequences. Under the Leahy Law, named after Sen. Patrick Leahy, aid to foreign security forces implicated in gross human rights violations is illegal.

Ariel Dulitzky, chair-rapporteur of the United Nation’s working group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, told The Intercept that even if the Mexican government’s account of the Ayotzinapa case is accurate — that it was strictly municipal police who took the students — federal police and the army failed to prevent the disappearances. “At the minimum, that should be investigated,” he said. “That will constitute, also, a crime of enforced disappearance — the lack of a proper prevention by state authorities.”

To date, just six people have been convicted on federal charges of enforced disappearance in Mexico. Whether the students taken in Iguala were victims of enforced disappearance — and whether the federal government has made legitimate efforts to bring such charges — has become a central question. Under Mexico’s federal transparency law, documents otherwise subject to protection must be released if they relate to an investigation of grave human rights abuses, such as enforced disappearance. Under a state transparency law, Guerrero released a public report detailing its investigation last fall, citing evidence of human rights violations in the case.

In February, the Federal Institute for Access to Information, or IFAI, a transparency commission, ordered the PGR to do the same. The PGR initially fought the order, asserting the right to keep its files sealed for up to 12 years, arguing that the case was an ongoing organized crime investigation. By classifying what happened to the students as an isolated incident of kidnapping and organized crime, the federal government seemed to construct a scenario in which its obligations to the parents were terminated, its international reputation and security assistance were preserved, and its investigative files were kept secret.

Recently, however, the PGR has appeared to shift its position on releasing a public account of its investigation. After enduring months of criticism, Murillo Karam announced in February that he was stepping down as attorney general. The Intercept has confirmed through multiple sources — including a written response to freedom of information requests submitted by Mexican journalists — that the PGR is now in the process of complying with the federal transparency commission’s order to release a public file of its investigations, though a timeline for the release has not been set.

Last week, anonymous PGR officials told the newspaper La Jornada that federal prosecutors had in fact introduced enforced disappearance charges against Abarca and others, but they were denied by the court. According to La Jornada’s sources, the PGR has appealed the judge’s ruling, but no suspects have been formally charged with the crime of enforced disappearance of the students.

Neither the judge’s decision nor the PGR’s appeal, however, are public, and attorneys for the families of the disappeared say they have not been able to review them. Despite repeated requests, the PGR would not provide The Intercept with documents or on-the-record comment explaining the status of enforced disappearance charges in the case. Mexican human rights lawyers told The Intercept the PGR has a long history, dating back to the Calderón administration, of failing to substantiate enforced disappearance charges once they are introduced in court, resulting in judges frequently adopting kidnapping charges instead.

For the parents of Ayotzinapa’s disappeared, hope for justice rests, in part, with a team of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is conducting an independent evaluation of the case. Last month, the group released an update on its efforts, reporting that it had reviewed about a third of the nearly 80,000 files on the case provided by the PGR, interviewed suspects currently in government custody, and met with student survivors of the attacks, who guided the experts through various locations in Iguala where the violence took place. The group announced that it would interview soldiers from the 27th Infantry Battalion. As part of their investigation, the independent experts have made several recommendations to the federal government, including suggesting new lines of investigation.

“I hope that they have the opportunity to study the investigation, make recommendations, and I hope that the government will follow those recommendations,” said Dulitzky. “If that happens I’m very optimistic.”

“If not,” he added, “Who knows?”

Forty-three male students from the Raul Burgos Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were disappeared on September 26, 2014 at the hands of local police working in conjunction with drug traffickers. In an unprecedented event, not directly related to the 43 missing students, at St. Gerard's parish hall in Iguala, Guerrero family members have come to speak of and register cases of disappearances of their loved ones at the behest of a coalition of a local defense militia, non-governmental organizations and the Catholic Church.

Family members in Guerrero meet and register the cases of disappeared loved ones.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller for The Intercept

THE BASEMENT OF the church is filled. The curtains are drawn. A small crowd of reporters lines the perimeter.

It’s early November in Iguala. Local organizations have put out a call: The loved ones of people disappeared in the area are invited to meet and share their stories. The plan is to build a registry for DNA testing with the hopes of identifying some of the bodies unearthed in the search for the missing students.

It’s a risky proposition. In a place where criminals have governed for years, to put your name on a piece of paper saying this cop, or this solider, or this gangster took my son — it could be a death warrant.

Nevertheless, more than 80 people show up, most from Iguala and Cocula. They fill rows of plastic chairs and stand one by one to offer up their stories.

A woman in jeans and a gray T-shirt takes the microphone. A little girl in a pink dress fidgets next to her. The woman describes watching helplessly as authorities took her brother and his three friends away, more than a year ago now. She breaks down.

“I caught a glimpse when they took my brother,” she says. “My brother screamed, ‘Mama, they’re taking me!’”

“Are these the authorities we have?” the woman asks.

“I would like to know that this tragedy in Ayotzinapa had to happen,” she adds, “so that the reality that Iguala is living would be revealed.”

A man takes the microphone next. “Gentlemen and ladies, we, all of Iguala, had to wait for a moment like this to rise up and be encouraged,” he begins. “We all have so much fear.”

One after another the testimonies continue, many through tears, describing husbands gone, sons vanished, sisters disappeared. One mother recounts the ransom calls she received when her son was taken, and the horror she experienced the day his captors put someone else on the phone.

“Mommy, help me!” the voice on the other line pleaded. “I started to tremble,” the woman says, “hoping it was a lie, that it was a call for extortion.”

The father of two young men disappeared in 2008 speaks up. He describes doing everything in his power to find his boys, but says that when he approached the authorities, he was mocked.

“Not to know whether your family member is alive or dead kills us little by little,” he says. “It is not 43. It is thousands of us who have been affected. The 43 families have opened a way for us, but it has to be opened up even more.”

“We have to unite,” he goes on. “We must find the support to be able to know whether our family members remain alive or have died — so we can put a flower or candle in a cemetery.”

Taken in 2006. Taken in 2008. Taken in 2010. Taken in 2013. Taken last year. The stories go on and on. The facilitators ask the reporters to step outside and only those who plan to fill out a missing-persons form to stay put. The reporters exit. Nearly everyone who stays behind picks up pens.

Photo Essay: A Town Mourns Its Lost Sons
Spanish: Caso Se Enreda en la Desaparición de los 43 Estudiantes

Research: Freelance journalist Andalusia Knoll and policy analyst Jesse Franzblau

Top photo: Flames from a vehicle during a protest at the military zone in Chilpancingo. Edgar de Jesus Espinoza/Xinhua/Landov