The arrest stunned Mexicans, after eight years of slow investigations and what investigators called a cover-up under former president Enrique Peña Nieto. On Thursday, government spokesman on the case, Alejandro Encinas, called the disappearances a “state crime” involving police, armed forces and civilian officials, in addition to a gang of drug traffickers based in the state of Guerrero.
Dozens of people were arrested in the case, including police officers and suspected gang members, and many were later released due to lack of evidence or signs that they were tortured. But Jesús Murillo Karam, the former attorney general arrested on Friday, was the highest-ranking former official to be charged. High-ranking Mexican politicians have historically enjoyed impunity even as allegations of corruption have swirled around the government.
Murillo Karam did not immediately enter a plea and it was not possible to locate his lawyer.
The arrest “is a clear sign of the National Prosecutor’s Office’s interest in fully investigating the obstruction of justice and human rights abuses that occurred ‘in the case’ and in holding the responsible at all levels accountable for their unlawful actions,” said Maureen Meyer, Vice President. president of programs at the Washington Office for Latin America.
Still, some analysts have questioned whether Mexico’s weak and inefficient justice system could succeed in securing convictions for this complex crime. Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, tweeted that the case could turn into “a long back and forth, in which both sides end up pleading the investigation and there’s never anything like Justice”.
The 43 students of the rural university of Ayotzinapa were last seen in the hands of local police in the southern town of Iguala on September 26, 2014. The students had commandeered several buses to go to a rally of protest, following a local custom. But that night, police and other gunmen attacked the vehicles. Murillo Karam, who was in charge of the original investigation, said in 2015 that police handed over the students to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, who burned their bodies at a landfill in the nearby town of Cocula.
International legal and forensic experts have disputed this account, as have the attorney general’s office and a truth and justice commission created by the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Encinas said Thursday that the students likely unwittingly stole a bus loaded with drugs or money that was part of the gang’s courier system for sending narcotics to the United States. The military and federal and state police took no action to stop the mass abduction, he said – even though they were aware of it through surveillance systems and a spy from the army. army that had infiltrated the group of students.
“Federal and state authorities at the highest level have been indifferent and negligent,” Encinas, the undersecretary for human rights, said at his Thursday press conference. His remarks suggest authorities may be willing to go after powerful people and institutions involved in the attack or cover-up, such as the military. He said, however, that there was no evidence pointing to Peña Nieto’s involvement.
The Ayotzinapa case has drawn worldwide condemnation and sparked mass protests in Mexico. He drew attention to the burgeoning crisis of the missing, whose number has now climbed to more than 100,000. Most have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels in 2006. The military , criminal gangs and corrupt security agents working for the traffickers all played a role, authorities say.
Murillo Karam, a member of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, was arrested outside his home on Friday without resistance, authorities said.
López Obrador took office pledging to solve the case, but there were no convictions. The remains of three of the students have been found and identified, and Encinas said the others are believed to be dead.
Gabriela Martinez and Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City contributed to this report.