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Eight months after Reveal’s three-part series about the disappearance of 43 Mexican college students in 2014, the government’s investigation is in high gear. But parents of the missing still don’t have the answers they want. There have been arrests and indictments of high-profile members of the military, and even the country’s former attorney general. But no one has been convicted, and the remains of only a handful of students have been identified. 

In the first segment, we relive the night of the attack on the students, and chronicle the previous government’s flawed investigation into the crime. We meet independent investigators who succeeded in getting close to the truth, then fled the country for their safety. 

Then we explore how the election of a new Mexican government led to a new investigation led by Omar Gómez Trejo, a young lawyer who pledged to expose the truth about the crime. 

We end with a conversation with Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Kate Doyle from the National Security Archive. They bring us up to date on what’s happened with the investigation since we aired our three-part series, After Ayotzinapa.

Dig Deeper

Listen to the original three-part series, After Ayotzinapa.

Watch cellphone footage from the attack by police on Mexican students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. It was taken by one of the survivors on the buses after the initial shots were fired Sept. 26, 2014.

Listen to a six-part Spanish-language version of the series from our partners at Adonde Media. Listen here.

Explore the documents:
• On Nov. 25, 2014, 14 U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing concern for the 43 missing students in Mexico. Read the PDF.
• A report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team on their examination of the Cocula garbage dump from Oct. 27 to Nov. 6, 2014. Their search for the remains of the 43 students was requested after parents of the disappeared began to doubt the official government narrative of events. Read the PDF.
• A declassified top-secret Defense Intelligence Digest, dated Nov. 25, 2014. It was produced at the request of Defense Intelligence Agency Acting Director David Shedd for information about Mexico’s response to protests and the political and security implications. Read the PDF.
• A declassified report on Mexico from U.S. Northern Command – the joint military command that oversees U.S. military relations with Mexico – produced by the Office of Defense Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in December 2015. Read the PDF.

Credits

Lead producer: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes | Reporters: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Kate Doyle | Editor: Taki Telonidis | Production assistance: David Rodriguez and Bruce Gil | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checker: Ariana Rosas | Episode illustrations: Dante Aguilera | Audience strategist: Kassandra Navarro | Membership manager: Missa Perron | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Claire Mullen, Kathryn Styer Martínez, Steven Rascón and Ike Sriskandarajah | Interim Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: Megan DeTura, Claire Dorfman and Tom Blanton from the National Security Archive; Santiago Aguirre and Maria Luisa Aguilar from Centro Prodh; Maureen Meyer from the Washington Office on Latin America; John Gibler, Laura Starecheski and Lisa Pollak

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:Hey, hey, hey, just a quick favor. We are conducting an audience survey. We’d be really grateful if you can just take a few minutes to fill it out. Please visit Survey.PRX.org/Reveal to take the survey today. That’s Survey.PRX.org/Reveal, and feel free to tell them that Al Letson is your all time favorite host. And thanks.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Earlier this year, we brought you the series After Ayotzinapa, about a group of Mexican college students who came under attack by police on a stormy night in 2014. Six people were killed and 43 young men disappeared without a trace. The case scarred Mexico, and it became a symbol of the country’s national tragedy of missing persons and a legal system incapable of bringing criminals to justice.
Al Letson:This Monday marks eight years since the attack. Our series was produced in collaboration with The National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization that exposes human rights abuses in Latin America. And in the months since it first aired, there have been major revelations about the case. New evidence has emerged that powerful government officials were involved in a coverup, including members of the Mexican military.
Speaker 2:[Spanish].
Al Letson:Then in August, the arrest of the former attorney general, who oversaw Mexico’s discredited first investigation of the crime.
Speaker 3:Murillo Karam was arrested on Friday, a day after-
Al Letson:If you want to hear the original series, and you really should, you can find it under Reveal Presents on your podcast app. Today, we want to catch you up on what’s happened since. Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes takes us back to the night it all began.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:This horrific night in September, 2014, really does start out stormy and rainy. A group of about 80 college students are caravaning in a string of buses to Iguala, a city in Southern Mexico.
Nico Barrera:On the road, I don’t know. I felt a kind of heavy vibe. Everything was calm. But I sensed something strange, but we kept going.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:A student named Nico Barrera is on one of the buses. And a note. Nico’s not his real name. We changed it because he’s been threatened for telling his story. He and the other young men are studying to become teachers at a college commonly known as [Spanish] Ayotzinapa. Tonight, they’re on a field trip.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:But they’re not riding school buses. These are commercial passenger buses the students have basically hijacked. I know that sounds intense, but in Mexico, poor rural schools can’t afford their own buses. The bus companies and drivers usually go along and drive them where they need to go. The police may give them a hard time, even make an arrest. That’s usually it, but something about tonight is different.
Nico Barrera:Then two or three police cars arrived, local police. They barricaded us. First from the front and then the back.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Nico and his classmates think, “No biggie.” They’re almost expecting cops. Some students even have rocks ready to throw, but instead of arrests…
Nico Barrera:They didn’t warn us at all. They just got down and started shooting. Shooting to kill.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“We are students. We are not armed.”
Nico Barrera:And that’s when the first one of us was shot. I saw my [Spanish] on the ground, lying in a pool of blood, convulsing, and that the police just never stopped shooting.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:On a different bus, another student we’re calling Lalo Lopez, stands up to the cops and they shoot him in the arm. Blood everywhere. So, the students decide to surrender.
Lalo Lopez:When we got off the bus, the police stood on the side of the door and started to pull us out and put our hands behind our heads. My arm was hurting me, and then they started to throw us down on the ground.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The next thing Lalo feels is a gun barrel on the side of his head and a cop say…
Lalo Lopez:“What if I kill him?” And I thought, “Well, this is it.” And then just seconds later, he moves the rifle away from my forehead. And that same guy calls an ambulance.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The ambulance arrives a few minutes later, and Lalo is taken to the hospital. As they’re driving away, he’s able to glance back.
Lalo Lopez:That was when they started to put my [Spanish] in different police vehicles. I could see them, my [Spanish] were just crying. None of them said a word.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:From inside the first bus, Nico Barrera sees this too. Police push the students towards some pickup trucks and make them climb in the back. One leg over the tailgate, and then the other. They force them to lie down. The trucks move out. The cops ride in the back and on the sides, their feet on the student’s backs.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:When the night is over, six people are dead and 43 students, including the ones Nico and Lalo saw being taken away in trucks, are gone. To this day, we still don’t know what happened to them. One of the students who’s been missing these past eight years is the son of Cristina Bautista Salvador. Benjamin.
Cristina Bautis…:This is his room. A long time had passed, I would see his room and I felt like I couldn’t go in. It made me sad and everything. And one day, I made the decision to sleep in his room, to feel closer to him.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:So, every night she slips into his bed, imposing her loneliness onto his space. And every morning, she leaves it. Clothes, shoes, hair gel, exactly how he left it when he went to college in 2014. When Doña Cristi and the other parents first learned about the missing students, they assumed the cops in Iguala had them in custody, but they didn’t. Days passed and there was no news. In a frenzy, all the parents made their way to the state capital with photos and birth certificates. They filed missing persons claims and demanded answers.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“What did they tell you?” I asked her. “Nothing.” Authorities didn’t seem all that concerned. All they did was swab the parents for DNA and take blood samples. That wasn’t enough for the mothers and fathers.
Cristina Bautis…:We went to Mexico City to march.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Within days, the families take to the streets. Hundreds of people join them. The families fear they’re being lied to, that the government isn’t doing enough to find their children. As a response, the federal government promises to get to the bottom of what happened, but parents like Cristi are so skeptical that with the help of their lawyers, they get a renowned Argentinian forensic team to work on the case on their behalf.
Mercedes Dorett…:It was October 27th, 2014 when we arrived to the site.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Mercedes Doretti leads the team. Everyone calls her Mimi, and she’s there to work alongside government authorities. Weeks after the attack, they get a lead the missing students may be dead, that their remains are at a garbage dump. When Mimi gets there, the scene is surreal.
Mercedes Dorett…:We’re in this gigantic hole full of garbage, which is very weird, right? It was an entire wall of 40 meters, full of garbage.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Her team gets to work. They set up a perimeter at the dump, but after just a day or two, a government official comes over and says they have to go to another site immediately.
Mercedes Dorett…:And that’s when we went, they took us to the Rio San Juan, where there was another completely different scene.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:It’s a small river and near the riverbank. There’s already a Mexican forensics team well into their work. They’re cleaning and laying out burnt remains on the ground. The remains came from a plastic garbage bag that had been pulled from the water.
Mercedes Dorett…:I remember very distinctly. I saw this fragment of bone that was very different from the rest because it was way bigger and it was almost not burned. Immediately caught my attention because I thought it was very different from the rest. And because I thought, “If in this bag, there is more like this, we’re going to be able to get DNA. And so we’re going to know if this remains belong or not to the students.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:And so Mimi sets that bone aside, feeling reassure. It’s her best chance at testing to find out who these bones belong to. Then federal agents show up holding two young guys by the scruff of their neck. One has eyes that are black and swollen.
Mercedes Dorett…:The face of the guy, I always remember that, he seemed absolutely terrorized.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:And there, in front of dozens of people, this young man starts shaking. And in a whisper, he begins to confess.
Mercedes Dorett…:“We brought the students up there to the garbage dump. We killed them. We burned them the whole night.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Mimi finds the whole scene unnerving.
Mercedes Dorett…:And that’s when I thought, “Is this torture here?” For me, it was a red flag there.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:But as far as the Mexican authorities are concerned, they’re on their way to solving the case. In January, 2015, four months after the students disappeared, the government declares they’ve cracked it.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:That’s attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam. He begins to explain the findings of his team, and it is terrifying. The students were taken by corrupt, local police and passed off to a group of criminals named Guerreros Unidos. They forced the students into pick up trucks, took them to the garbage dump and shot them one by one. The gang members threw the bodies down a steep hill of garbage, then covered them with tires, wood, plastic, and finally gasoline, and burned the bodies for 16 hours. They put the remains into plastic garbage bags and took them to a nearby river.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“There,” he says, “they dumped out all the remains except for one bag, which they threw into the shallow water.” That’s the bag that had the bone laid out when Mimi arrived at the river. And the attorney general says that a DNA lab had matched the bone to one of the missing students. Alexander Mora Venancio. “This match,” Murillo Karam explains, “proves that the rest of the charred remains belong to the other students.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:They’re closing the case, and Murillo Karam ends the press conference by declaring this theory, [Spanish]. The historical truth. The message to the families is clear, “This is finished. You need to turn the page.” But to Doña Cristi, it’s not. She remembers watching the press conference on TV.
Cristina Bautis…:We were having dinner and we just stared at each other. We didn’t believe it. We couldn’t accept it. All we could think was, “This is a historic lie.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Instead of putting the case to rest, the government’s response leads to more outrage across Mexico.
Jim Cavallaro:The Mexican government, it’s hoping this case will go away, and this doesn’t go away.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:That’s Jim Cavallaro. He was with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the time. It’s part of the United Nations in Latin America. In a very smart move, the parents and their lawyers reach out to Jim, demanding a new independent investigation to prove that the government’s theory is a lie.
Jim Cavallaro:There is a sense that this is going to be extremely politically detrimental, if not devastating, for the Mexican government, but possibly to the level of seeing the Mexican government fall.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The outcry for an independent investigation is so intense the government has no choice but to give in.
Jim Cavallaro:So, I think the Mexican government engages in a bit of a gamble, but a gamble they think they’re going to win, and that they need some kind of cover, which is we invite in the commission, see families, see media, see opposition. We have a commitment to human rights and we will do this the right way.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:So, immediately Jim gets to work, pulling together who’s who of Latin American experts, people who investigated massacres, forced disappearances and indicted paramilitary groups.
Jim Cavallaro:We had folks who were not gun-shy.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The five experts call themselves [Spanish], or GIEI for short, which is how we’ll refer to them. On March 2nd, 2015, the GIEI arrive in Mexico. They head straight to the Ayotzinapa Teachers College and get to work. Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer and human rights expert, is one of the team.
Francisco Cox:We went out and we had this huge, how do you say [Spanish] in…
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Bodyguards?
Francisco Cox:Yeah, but I mean, they were police officers with huge machine guns, and they all had their face covered. And this is something that Mexico does a lot, which is the state shows you its power.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:For the experts that didn’t compute, why would the government need masks and machine guns when it’s visiting poor rural parents whose sons are missing?
Francisco Cox:The contrast of Mexico to me was right there.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Even though the experts are from Latin America, they’re outsiders in Mexico, trying to crack a super sensitive case. Each of them told us over and over again, [Spanish], “We didn’t understand Mexico. Not really.” They need an insider to help them. This is where a young Mexican lawyer, Omar Gómez Trejo, comes into the picture. Up until now, he’s been working as an observer on the case for The United Nations, but he wants to be more involved. Ayotzinapa has become an obsession for him. So when he reads about the experts coming in, he realizes he knows one of them.
Omar Gómez Trej…:And then we went to go grab a beer and then we started to talk. And then he tells me, “Omar, we’re thinking about finding someone to be our anchor in Mexico.” And I tell him, “Don’t look anymore. I’m here.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Omar walks away from his comfy UN job for a temporary contract with the GIEI. They give him the title of executive secretary, which basically means booking flights and keeping the calendar, taking minutes at meetings. But his role quickly grows, especially after his bosses suspect they’re under surveillance at the fancy offices the Mexican government set up for them.
Francisco Cox:We ended up making Omar’s apartment our office. So, that’s how committed he was.
Omar Gómez Trej…:We would work around the clock, leaving only for lunch or dinner, and then we would work some more and then eventually everybody would leave. And I would go into my room and play video games.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:And the next day, they’d start again. The deeper they dug into the case, the weirder it got. The Mexican government’s account of the crime, the so-called [Spanish] wasn’t lining up with the facts. The government insisted the students were riding in four buses, but security footage from the night showed five. There was a lead that pointed to a possible connection with a drug cartel smuggling heroin to the U.S., but authorities never followed up. Then there was the fire at the dump.
José Torero:Basically, the historical truth existed on the premise that 43 bodies were incinerated to a level that there was no organic matter left in that dump.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:That’s world renowned fire scientist, José Torero, who the GIEI brought in to investigate the case. The government stated that the boys were so badly burnt, the DNA could only be matched to one student.
José Torero:To be able to incinerate 43 bodies, you needed a fire that was basically enormous. And it would have completely incinerated all the garbage in the slope. There was no way you could have had that fire in that place. Impossible.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Over the course of the next year, the GIEI write up two reports explaining their findings. Both implicate the government in lying, planting evidence and forcing confessions. Before making the final report public, Francisco Cox and the other experts decide to first tell the parents.
Francisco Cox:When we went to present the report, we did it in the school at Ayotzinapa.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Doña Cristi, whose son Benjamin disappeared, was there.
Cristina Bautis…:They were just so sad. We cried. They cried with us. It was soul crushing.
Francisco Cox:And that day it was… Oh man. I asked for their forgiveness because we hadn’t accomplished the main objective, which was determine what had happened to each one of them, of their sons. Every time I remember that… Sorry. It’s one of the most emotional times of the whole process.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The very next day, the GIEI scheduled a press conference to present their findings publicly. They know the government’s reaction will be intense and their diplomatic immunity is about to end. They worry about being indicted or worse. So, the experts decide they’ll leave the country after the press conference.
Francisco Cox:I remember we were all very nervous. I mean, we were very, very nervous. And we walk into this room…
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The room is filled with press. The parents are there. Hundreds of others, too. The government was invited, but no one shows up. Just a few empty chairs in front of the podium. And before Omar can even get started, the parents start shouting.
Omar Gómez Trej…:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” The entire room is a chorus of these words.
Omar Gómez Trej…:To listen to them shouting, I really wanted to cry. “Finish this story you’re making. Tell us who did it. Because if you leave, the people responsible remain free and can do whatever they want.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:When things quieted down, Omar begins the press conference, which goes on for two hours.
Omar Gómez Trej…:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:When it’s over, Francisco Cox and the other four experts are ready to go. They’d packed their things and booked their flights home. But they’re worried about what could happen to Omar.
Francisco Cox:Omar was the weakest link. He was a Mexican. We weren’t comfortable with that situation.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:So, they huddled together, then tell Omar.
Omar Gómez Trej…:It was Francisco, and he tells me in his Chilean way, “You have to leave your country.”
Francisco Cox:And then he said, “Do you think I should leave for a couple of months?” And I said, “No. I think you need to leave, leave. For a long time.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The message sinks in. Omar rushes home to his apartment and packs what he can into two suitcases. He pays what’s left on his lease. And the next thing Omar knows, he’s on a plane headed out of the country.
Al Letson:With Omar and the independent investigators out of the country, the parents have little hope that they will ever find out what really happened to their sons. But a surprise development will bring new hope. You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Omar Gómez Trejo no longer felt safe in Mexico after he and a group of independent experts exposed a cover up by the government. So, he fled to the U.S. in 2016 and moved into a tiny apartment in Washington, DC, with the few things he managed to pack.
Omar Gómez Trej…:After I left Mexico, I dragged around two suitcases, a couple of books, my camera, my Mexican wrestler mask, things that were symbolic for me.
Al Letson:Omar have been invited to join a small team working on the case at the Organization of American States in DC.
Omar Gómez Trej…:And then I get to Washington and they hadn’t done anything about the case. Nothing.
Al Letson:And so Omar decides to take lead on the case. He starts combing through the Mexican government’s case files, hundreds of reports and interviews, looking for key facts, witnesses, contradictions. It takes over Omar’s life and his apartment.
Omar Gómez Trej…:My apartment was covered in papers. I would scribble things on them. I would say to my friends, “Okay, go in. Don’t look at the walls.”
Al Letson:His friends think he’s kind of losing it. His head in clouds of smoke from chain smoking. When he takes what he’s learned back to his coworkers at the Organization of American States, they don’t take him seriously. They tell him…
Omar Gómez Trej…:“Come on, Omar. You are not a CSI. This is not your job.”
Al Letson:But Omar can’t stop. He’s looking for any and all threads to pull. Then one day in 2017, he’s invited to a dinner by one of his old bosses from the case. And there, Omar meets Kate Doyle, our partner and co-producer for this story. Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes explains Omar and Kate had a lot more in common than they could have imagined.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Kate remembers showing up at that dinner at a Mexican restaurant like it happened yesterday. Minutes into their meal, Kate and Omar start talking about Ayotzinapa. Omar, about how he’s been reading the Mexican government’s enormous investigative file, and Kate about what she’s been digging into.
Kate Doyle:Oh my God. What did we not talk about on this case?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Kate investigates human rights crimes at the National Security Archive. It’s a nonprofit research institute in Washington. She’d gotten involved with the case when the lawyers for the families of the missing students contacted her. After that dinner with Omar, they decide to combine forces and work on the case together. They share information and brainstorm next steps. It turns out that Kate had been looking into this really intriguing lead that the Mexican government had just ignored, and it came from a drug investigation in Chicago. Kate’s work eventually led her to this man.
Mark Giuffre:My name’s Mark Giuffre. It’s G-I-U-F-F-R-E, for the record. I’m a retired special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. To me, with the students, what drives it home, where were they sitting when this all started? They were sitting in buses.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Mark first learned about the missing students from a piece in Time Magazine that he read a few weeks after they disappeared in 2014. At the time, Mark was deep into an investigation of a heroin smuggling operation between Mexico and a suburb of Chicago called Aurora. And it involved buses.
Mark Giuffre:Mexican passenger bus companies, they would go to this location warehouse in Aurora, and they would be serviced at the warehouse.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:According to the DEA, the men were working for a Mexican drug cartel called Guerreros Unidos. That’s the same group that Mexican officials were blaming for the disappearance of the students. Mark’s team had been tapping into their techs for more than a year.
Mark Giuffre:We were intercepting conversations. “It being unloaded?” “Yeah, we’re unloading it right now.” So, we knew from the codes they were using that heroin loads were coming up in buses and that bulk cash, millions and millions of dollars, was going back down via the same method. We looked at our data, our intelligence, the intercepts. More than 2000 kilograms of heroin came to Chicago in a one-year period of time, which is an unprecedented, mindboggling amount.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:In the days before and after the attack on the students, these kinds of text messages were going back and forth between gang members in Iguala, where the students disappeared, and the suburbs of Chicago, where heroin was being delivered in passenger buses.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Kate knew the DEA file on the case included transcripts of those texts, and that they could help identify the attackers. So, she filed Freedom of Information requests and worked with Omar to lobby for their release.
Kate Doyle:We meet with the Justice Department. We meet with members of Congress. We meet with the State Department. We call U.S. Attorney personally. All kinds of creative ways that we could try to push on that door to get information from the U.S. government about what they knew.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:But the U.S. government wasn’t budging, and neither was the government in Mexico. With the international experts gone, it doubles down on its version of the attack on the students. The so-called [Spanish], or historical truth. And it launches an all-out campaign to discredit the work of Omar and the experts.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The report that exposed a giant coverup by Mexican politicians, police and members of the military. The parents of the missing boys are outraged and do everything they can to keep the case in the public eye. They march, speak to the press, and try to meet with government officials, but they’re turned down every time.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:In April, 2017, the parents try to force a meeting with Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior, by showing up at his office. Doña Cristi, who lost her son Benjamin, was one of them, and remembers arriving at the building and seeing it closed off by a metal fence.
Cristina Bautis…:They began to launch tear gas at us. When I looked around, a young protestor that was with us was badly hurt, drooling, crying on the ground in pain until he fainted. Then I saw some girls that had Coca-Cola and I knew that Coke could help with the pain. So, I asked them, “Please, please, can I have your Coke?” And I ran to him and poured Coke on his face and mouth, and he woke up. It was terrible. All we wanted was to demand a meeting with officials, but they greeted us with tear gas.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Omar follows the news in Mexico from DC. It’s painful to watch the case collapse without being able to do anything about it. But by 2017, things are starting to shift. Presidential elections are coming up in 2018, and a leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known in Mexico as AMLO, is leading in the polls. Doña Cristi remembers going to one of AMLO’s rallies in the area where the students were attacked.
Cristina Bautis…:Andrés Manuel López Obrador was on the stage, totally blocked off, and security would not let us through. Then he saw us, and he told security, “Let them through.” And I remember I spoke, “If you become president, what are you going to do for our case?” I think the question touched his heart. He teared up and said, “Because if I become president, we will find out what happened that night.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:In July, 2018, AMLO wins in a landslide.
Speaker 15:On the streets of Mexico City, a celebrated victory-
Anayansi Diaz-C…:With AMLO in power, Omar feels it’s safe to move back to Mexico. And in early 2019, he does. A couple months later, the new president announces he’s going to reopen the Ayotzinapa investigation. Kate remembers catching up with Omar about it at the time.
Kate Doyle:And I said, “So tell me what’s going on with the case and what do you think?” And he said, “Well, they’re looking for a special prosecutor and they’ve asked a couple of people and they have said no, basically. They don’t want to do it.” And he said, “I think I’m going to put my name in for it.” And I said, “Wait, wait, wait, what? You’re going to put your name in for special prosecutor? But don’t you have to be a lawyer to do that?” He was like, “I am a lawyer.” I said, “Well, you’re a lawyer? I didn’t know you were a lawyer.”
Speaker 16:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:And he gets the job. In June, 2019, Omar is sworn in as special prosecutor. It’s a head spinning turn. After fleeing Mexico and spending almost three years in exile for pushing back on the government’s original investigation, Omar will soon be in charge of a new investigation.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:It’s a big change for us too. All of a sudden, our main source for the story, who’d been pushing to hold Mexico’s government accountable, now represents the government. He can’t be as open with us as before, but he doesn’t cut us off either. He tells us the early days are brutal because the prosecutor’s office, known as the Fiscalía, is filled with many of the same people who had hidden the truth about the case. One day, he’s given a file with some very sensitive information about people who worked for the previous administration.
Omar Gómez Trej…:I put the file on my desk, and at one point I get up and go talk to someone in the office about something. And when I come back, the file isn’t there.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:He goes to building security and they get the surveillance video. It shows someone from his staff entering his office, picking up the folder, and walking out with it.
Omar Gómez Trej…:And so I go to him, I confront him, he denies it. And my folder is sitting right there in his desk. I grab my file, go talk to his superiors, they don’t want to do anything about it. That’s when I realized I have to take much more drastic measures, and I begin firing people.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:After purging his own office, Omar focuses on what he’s supposed to be doing, figuring out who was involved in the attack on the buses and in the cover up of the crime. And his most important job, looking for the missing students. In his first year as special prosecutor, he goes on a couple dozen searches. Each of them, an emotional roller coaster.
Omar Gómez Trej…:Probably today is the day, and it’s not today. And you’re going back to your house, to your office to say, “Wait, just keep looking.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Then he tells us about this day in November, 2019. It starts off like most mornings with Omar waking up before 5:00, greeting his bodyguards, then sliding into his bulletproof SUV. But instead of going to the office, they head toward Iguala, and pick up one of the sources he’s been talking to. This man was allegedly involved in the attack.
Omar Gómez Trej…:And the source from there takes us to…
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Do you know what [Spanish] is in English? It’s the butcher’s ravine.
Omar Gómez Trej…:It gives you chills, right?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Omar’s source leads the way through the butcher’s ravine and points to what looks like remains. A forensics expert confirms it’s a human bone. Months later in June of 2020, a DNA lab matches the bone to a student, Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre. Within a week, Omar’s meeting with Christian’s family. Here’s Luz Maria. Christian’s mother.
Luz Maria:And they started to tell us that they found a bone fragment. Well, two little pieces of bone.
Omar Gómez Trej…:You’re notifying the family about this little bone, saying it was found in such and such place with so and so characteristics. And all this work was done.
Luz Maria:It was part of his right foot. I was out of it, in a bad, bad, bad place. Then I snapped out of it and said, “It’s a very small fragment. A human being can live without a foot.” And he tells me that’s true. It’s like they were telling me that he was dead.
Omar Gómez Trej…:What do you say to that? Nothing.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The searches for the missing students are only part of our talks with Omar. He also tells us about his investigation into the coverup of the crime, about finding videos that show force confessions and torture that lead to the wrongful imprisonment of people.
Speaker 16:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Omar finds evidence that high ranking officials were involved in falsifying evidence and forcing confessions. Tomás Zerón, the head of the original investigation, was one of them. Zerón worked directly with the attorney general. Omar gets a warrant for Zerón’s arrest, but before he can serve it, Zerón flees to Canada, then Israel. Kate and I share information too, about what we learned from the DEA’s investigation into the buses, and the heroin and cash flowing between Mexico and Illinois.
Kate Doyle:So, you have said the buses… Forget about the buses.
Omar Gómez Trej…:No, [Spanish].
Kate Doyle:All right. Let me just start-
Anayansi Diaz-C…:We reminded him about the texts we’ve been trying to get through records requests. And he decides to petition the DEA from his end to get them released. That’s where things stood when we released our three episodes about the Ayotzinapa case in January, but a lot’s happened since then.
Al Letson:When we come back, Omar’s investigation goes into high gear, and ruffles the feathers of some very powerful people in Mexico. You’re listening to Reveal.
Missa Perron:Hi, this is Missa Perron, membership manager here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization. We depend on the support of our listeners. Donate today. Please head to RevealNews.org/Donate. Thank you.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s now been eight months since we aired our series after Ayotzinapa, and a lot has happened with Omar Gómez Trejo’s investigation. Here to talk about it is our partner, Kate Doyle, with the National Security Archive. Hey, Kate.
Kate Doyle:Hey, Al.
Al Letson:And Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Anayansi.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Hi, what’s up, Al?
Al Letson:So, let’s start with the buses, which you just mentioned. What did Omar do after you reminded him that the DA had intercepted texts between drug smugglers?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Al, after that conversation with Omar Gómez Trejo back in 2021, he went to the Justice Department and asked for access to the investigative file from the Chicago operation, but they didn’t give him any information.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:That all changed in January. According to Omar, after our podcast aired, he told us that people in the DEA listened to it. He even made the joke that finally they understand the story, because it’s in English, it’s in their language. And when he showed up for a meeting in Chicago, they treated him like a rock star and he told us it completely changed his relationship with the DEA. They ended up giving him access to the complete file to Guerreros Unidos’ cell in Chicago, which was a huge shift.
Al Letson:And has access to that case file from the DEA led to anything concrete?
Kate Doyle:Oh, yes. One of the founding brothers of Guerreros Unidos, a guy named Adán Casarrubias Salgado, or Silver, as he was known, was extradited to the United States in May on charges of conspiracy and drug trafficking and money laundering.
Kate Doyle:Silver was part of the gang in Mexico, orchestrating the shipments of heroin to Chicago when the Ayotzinapa students were disappeared. His name is all over those text messages the DEA intercepted. Since Casarrubias’ extradition, he’s pleaded not guilty, which means he’ll probably be tried in U.S. federal court. And if that happens, we could actually learn new information about what happened to the students.
Al Letson:Okay. So, there’s been some progress on the U.S. side of the investigation, but how about Mexico? Weren’t the international experts brought back in under Omar?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Yeah, that’s right, Al. Four of the five international experts were rehired under this new investigation by Omar. And one of the things that they have all focused on in this new round is the military’s involvement not only in the cover up, but in the crime.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:For a long time, people suspected that the military played a role, but the military in Mexico, it’s untouchable. Under this new investigation, the GIEI, while they’ve been able to question soldiers, they were given access to military archives and even went on some installations. And in March, they found something huge. Evidence in those archives that implicates the military, video footage from a military drone. The experts made that public at this huge press conference. Of course, Kate was there.
Kate Doyle:I was, and it was amazing. It was held in one of those old government buildings in downtown Mexico City, and it was full to the brim with press, TV cameras, government officials. And of course, the mothers and fathers of the disappeared students. The experts set up a screen at the front of the room and the entire room was silent as we watched this play-by-play of the drone footage.
Kate Doyle:The military had sent the drone over the Cocula garbage dump, that same dump where the previous government claimed the boys had all been taken and killed and burned in a giant fire. Well, now we’re watching this dump hours before the official forensic teams arrived later that day, but it was full of government officials, federal police, members of the Marines, the prosecutor’s office, even the attorney general himself, Murillo Karam, were there. And they seemed to be manipulating the site. They were kicking things, dumping bags of stuff, burning fires.
Kate Doyle:At some point, this huge helicopter comes right into the frame and lowers over the dump without landing. And as you can imagine, everything started blowing up into the air, debris and garbage, and then it just flies away. So, you couldn’t help but think as you’re watching, that this is some kind of deliberate doctoring of this supposed crime scene.
Al Letson:Wait, the military was there planting evidence, taking part in the coverup?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:They were, and that’s not all they did. Thanks to the investigation, we know that the military was receiving intelligence, like a play-by-play, on the student’s movements in real time. Not only as they left the school that afternoon of September 26th, but that night during the attacks, during the gunshots, as they were being kidnapped and for days afterwards.
Kate Doyle:Yeah, and a lot of that information is contained in a new report that the government just released, outlining some of the incredible evidence that Omar’s office has uncovered. The report shows that at least six of the 43 students were alive for four days after they were taken. And that an army officer named Jose Rodriguez, who was the commander of the base in Iguala at that time, ordered the gang members to kill them. Rodriguez is a retired general, and he’s just been arrested for his alleged role in the student’s disappearance.
Al Letson:It’s hard to comprehend. In the three-part series, you guys go deeper into it, and found a government official named Tomás Zerón, and he was the lead investigator for Mexico’s previous government, but then fled the country after Omar’s team connected him to torture and planting evidence. Is Zerón still hiding? And if so, is Mexico any closer to getting him back?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Yeah, Al. Zerón is still in Israel. We’ve learned that he’s living quite luxurious life. He’s in an apartment that’s owned by an Israeli businessman who’s connected to a major spyware company. Zerón used spyware in Mexico, including Pegasus, to spy on the international experts, on Omar, on the parents who we was supposed to be working for, including Doña Cristi, the mother of Benjamin, that we follow in this series. This all happened as he was investigating the case as the government’s lead investigator back in 2014 through 2016.
Kate Doyle:Omar is still working on getting Zerón sent back to Mexico to stand trial. And last August, he flew to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli prosecutors. He had sent them all this evidence he gathered against Zerón, and he wanted to confirm that they had everything they needed. While Omar was out of the country, there was another huge development in the case. The Mexican government arrested Tomás Zerón’s boss, the former attorney general, Murillo Karam, but something puzzles us about that detention. And that is, why did the government wait for Omar to be in Israel to carry it out? Why wasn’t the special prosecutor in the Ayotzinapa case, the one to announce such a major arrest? We’re still not sure why it went down that way.
Al Letson:So, there’s still so many unanswered questions here.
Kate Doyle:There really are. And there’s another worrisome aspect to this whole thing. Omar Gómez, his team, the experts, they have really pulled the curtain back on the military’s role in this crime and in the coverup that followed. But their progress in closing in on the military is taking place in the context of a government that has done almost everything it can to enhance the powers of the military.
Kate Doyle:President López Obrador has granted the military huge new powers that Mexicans have never seen before. The armed forces in Mexico now controls all airports, all customs, all telecommunications. It’s kind of difficult to square that the investigations move against the army with a president who seems to have no limits as to how far he’s willing to go to promote and protect the military.
Al Letson:How do the parents of the missing students feel about how this is going?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Al, this week, it’s been eight years to date of the night of the crime. So, of course there’s just this general sense of exhaustion and frustration. On the one hand, under Omar’s lead and with this new investigation, there’s these spectacular arrest happening. It’s really giving the impression of real progress toward justice.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:On the other hand, not a single person has been tried and convicted for the crimes of this case. Sure, people are detained and put in jail, but no one has been successfully brought to justice. And also from the very beginning, these parents have been chanting, [Spanish], “It was the state.” And so now this new government is saying, “Yes, it was the state. [Spanish]. Here’s the report.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Which to a parent, to Doña Cristi, is, “Well, thank you for telling me what I’ve known for eight years.” And I tend to look at it from Cristi’s perspective, who we followed throughout our series. What she’s told me is, “I need to know what happened from the minute he was taken away, who gave the order, where he was taken, if he died, how he died. And if he did, I need to have remains, so I know where to cry. Until I know what happened to my son, I will continue to march and protest and try to find the truth.”
Al Letson:Thank you both so much for this work. Kate Doyle with the National Security Archive, and Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, who’s also the lead producer for this week’s show. Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to John Gibler, Tom Blanton, Megan DeTora, and Claire Dorfman from the National Security Archive. And to Laura Starcheski, Lisa Pollak, Ariana Rosas, David Rodriguez, Bruce Heel, and Ike Sriskandarajah.
Al Letson:Special thanks to Santiago Aguire and Maria Luisa Aguilar from Centro Prodh, and Marine Meyer from the Washington Office on Latin America. To check out our original three-part series about this case, go to Reveal Presents on your podcast app and look for After Ayotzinapa. You can hear the Spanish version of our investigation from our partners at Adonde Media. Subscribe to Después de Ayotzinapa wherever you get your podcast.
Al Letson:Nikki Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, The Great, Mostafa. Original scoring sound designed by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Claire, C note, Mullen. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our interim CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.
Al Letson:Our theme music is by Colorado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 19:[Spanish].
Speaker 20:From PRX.

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes is a reporter and producer for Reveal. Her work has been featured everywhere from All Things Considered to  Radio Ambulante and  This American Life. She is a recipient of the Overseas Press Club Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation award. She was the creator and lead producer for KCRW’s Sonic Trace, a storytelling project that was part of AIR’s Localore initiative. Previously, she produced for Radio Diaries and has done extensive reporting in both the U.S. and Mexico. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kate Doyle

Kate Doyle is a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive. She directs several major research projects, including the Mexico Project, which collects U.S. and Mexican government documents on the countries’ shared histories. Since 1992, Doyle has worked with Latin American human rights groups, truth commissions, prosecutors and judges to obtain government files from secret archives that shed light on state violence.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

David Rodriguez was a community engagement producer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, Rodriguez's work as an engagement assistant producer at Southern California Public Radio helped develop a report on how newsrooms can improve their reporting on the 2020 Census, which won the 2019 Gather Award in Engaged Journalism. 

Rodriguez has reported stories on immigration at the Investigative Reporting Workshop in American University. He is an alum of NPR's Next Generation Radio and San Francisco State University. He previously completed internships with KPCC's podcast team, where he helped produce The Big One: Your Survival Guide, and with Reveal, where he created a database tracking how much money and time the United States government has spent buying land along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Kassandra Navarro

Kassandra Navarro (she/her) is the director of audience development for Reveal. She leads social, newsletter, website and impact outreach strategies and efforts for Reveal’s reporting on all platforms. She also oversees Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal’s investigations in their communities. She previously was the founding social editor at The 19th and has worked in digital and social strategy in nonprofit and public-sector spaces for more than 11 years. Navarro is based in Austin, Texas.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Ike Sriskandarajah

Ike Sriskandarajah is a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.