Mexican authorities have arrested a retired general and two other members of the army for alleged links to the disappearance of 43 students in the south of the country in 2014.
The assistant public safety secretary, Ricardo Mejia, said that among those arrested was the former officer who commanded the army base in the Guerrero state city of Iguala in September 2014, when the students from a radical teachers’ college were abducted.
Mejía said a fourth arrest was expected soon. A government official with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that another member of the army had been arrested.
Mejía did not give names of those under arrest, but the commander of the Iguala base at that time was José Rodríguez Pérez, then a colonel. Barely a year after the students’ disappearances – and after the families had already raised suspicions about military involvement and demanded access to the base – Rodríguez was promoted to brigadier-general.
The government official confirmed that Rodríguez Pérez had been arrested and said he was being held at a military base. The source said two of the others arrested were officers and the third was an enlisted soldier.
Last month, a government truth commission re-investigating the case issued a report that named Rodríguez Pérez as being allegedly responsible for the disappearance of six of the students.
The interior undersecretary Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, who led the commission, said last month that six of the missing students were allegedly kept alive in a warehouse for days before being turned over to Rodríguez Pérez, who ordered them killed.
The report had called the disappearances a “state crime”, emphasising that authorities had been closely monitoring the students from the teachers’ college at Ayotzinapa from the time they left their campus through their abduction by Iguala police that night. A soldier who had infiltrated the school was among the abducted students, and Encinas said the army did not follow its own protocols to try to rescue him.
“There is also information corroborated with emergency … telephone calls where allegedly six of the 43 disappeared students were held during several days and alive in what they call the old warehouse and from there were turned over to the colonel,” Encinas said. “Allegedly, the six students were alive for as many as four days after the events and were killed and disappeared on orders of the colonel, allegedly the then Col José Rodríguez Pérez.”
Numerous government and independent investigations have failed to reach a single conclusive narrative about what happened to the 43 students, but it appears that local police pulled them off buses in Iguala and turned them over to a drug gang. The motive behind the abduction remains unclear. Their bodies have never been found, though fragments of burned bone have been matched to three of the students.
The role of the army in the students’ disappearance has long been a source of tension between the families and the government. From the beginning, there were questions about the military’s knowledge of what happened and its possible involvement. The students’ parents demanded for years that they be allowed to search the army base in Iguala. It was not until 2019 that they were given access along with Encinas and the truth commission.
Shortly after the commission’s report, the attorney general’s office announced 83 arrest orders, of which 20 were for members of the military. Federal agents then arrested Jesús Murillo Karam, who was attorney general at the time.
Doubts grew in the following weeks because no arrests were announced.
The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has formed a close public bond with the military. López Obrador pushed to shift the newly created national guard under full military authority and his allies in congress are trying to extend the time for the military to continue a policing role in the streets to 2028.
On Thursday, Mejía also dismissed any suggestion that José Luis Abarca, who was mayor of Iguala at the time, would be released from prison after a judge absolved him of responsibility for the student’s abduction based on lack of evidence. Even without the aggravated kidnapping charge, Abarca still faces other charges for organised crime and money laundering, and Mejía said the judge’s latest decision would be challenged. The judge similarly absolved 19 others, including the man who was Iguala’s police chief at the time.