Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, met with the families of 43 missing students on the fourth anniversary of their disappearance and promised to create an investigative commission to provide them with answers about their sons’ fate.
In an emotional and highly symbolic meeting Tuesday, Mr. Lopez Obrador told the families he will create the commission on his first day in office, Dec. 1.
“With this president … we have some doors of hope and new dreams: he clearly told us that he will work with us, that the lines of investigation will be defined and that we have to reach the truth and that those responsible will have to be punished and justice will have to be done,” said Margarita Zacarias, who carried a poster emblazoned with the image of her missing son, Miguel Angel Mendoza Zacarias.
The 43 students are among 38,000 Mexicans officially registered as “disappeared” over the past 12 years.
Mr. Lopez Obrador said he would make all necessary resources of the state available for the investigation into the students' disappearance and would also ask international organizations including the UN for assistance – something the families have long requested and that the current government did not accept. He said all possible actors in the disappearances – including the powerful military, which the families believe was involved but which has been exempt from investigation until now – would be put under scrutiny
But it has been four years since the students at a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa travelled by bus into the town of Iguala, were caught in a confrontation with police and then disappeared, so it is not clear what new evidence investigators may discover after all this time.
The meeting on the anniversary had a significantly different feeling than previous interactions between the Ayotzinapa families and the upper echelons of the Mexican state. At one point, Mr. Lopez Obrador put his arm around a mother, as her voice began to crack while she was speaking, and gave her a comforting squeeze. It was a gesture that was difficult to imagine from Enrique Pena Nieto, the wealthy and aloof current President.
At the end of the event, Mr. Lopez Obrador invited the parents in attendance to join him for a photo and one mother led them in the cry that has become their signature – "Vivo los llevaron, y con vida lo queremos” (They took them alive, and we want them back alive). Mr. Lopez Obrador stood looking stoic in their midst.
The moment suggested there might be a meaningful shift in how the new administration engages with disappearances. “We all need in this country that this case is solved, but we also believe that lessons learned from this investigation can be applied to the cases of the other 38,000 disappeared people,” said Carlos Zazueta, who works on Mexico’s disappearances crisis with Amnesty International.
But as with much else with Mr. Lopez Obrador’s coming administration – which will be the most significant shift in Mexican politics in decades – there is a sense here that while he says the right things, it is unclear how much of what he promises he can or will deliver.
Mr. Zazueta said the delay makes it less likely the Ayotzinapa case will be definitely solved. “But if there is political will and enough resources to do so, there is a better chance,” he said.
The families believe the fact Mr. Lopez Obrador comes from outside the ruling Mexican political establishment makes it more likely he may be genuinely interested in delivering justice. Ms. Zacarias explained that while she met twice with Mr. Pena Nieto, and with other senior members of his government, she felt they were always lying to the parents.
“Pena Nieto knows where our children are and that’s why he never wanted a [proper] investigation," she said.
The investigation carried out under Mr. Pena Nieto concluded the students were kidnapped by Iguala police on the orders of the local mayor and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which then executed them; that their bodies were burned in a landfill and any lingering human remains were thrown in a river. However, no forensic evidence has been found at the landfill; the families believe the military was intimately involved in the disappearances.
“We should not be afraid of having the truth be known,” Mr. Lopez Obrador said after meeting the parents. “It’s not true that if the truth is known, if we investigate and arrive at the truth, that that will weaken the institutions of the Mexican state. That’s false. They are made weaker when we hide the truth … we are all going to be stronger when we know what really happened and the whereabouts of the young people, and we punish those responsible."
Epifanio Alvarez, the father of Jorge Alvarez Nava, told the president-elect that he must not fail them. "We have been hungry, cold, we have stayed in the rain, wet, marching and it has left us filled us with rage because we have not had a government that has worried about this case of our 43 boys, for whom we are waiting, so eager to hug them and kiss them and tell them ‘I love you, son.'”