MEXICO CITY — After the September 2014 disappearance of 43 college students, Mexican authorities rounded up scores of suspects a few weeks later and announced they had solved the case, showing video of drug gang members confessing to taking the students from local police, slaughtering them and incinerating the bodies at a junkyard and dumping the evidence in a river.
Two independent, international teams of experts had later cast doubt on the official investigation. Now, the government case has suffered another blow: Accusations of torture.
In previously unseen court documents obtained by The Associated Press, 10 of the suspects described a chillingly similar script: They were first questioned, followed by punches, electric shocks and partial asphyxiations with plastic bags; finally, the threats to kill their loved ones unless they confessed to stories that backed up the government's line
Some suspects said they were given planted evidence or prefabricated stories to support the government's conclusions.
Medical reports published last month by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission appear to confirm the allegations of torture. Of the 10 case files obtained by the AP, the group reviewed five, and it found credible evidence of torture in all of them.
"A person came up and took off my blindfold and showed me a photo of my family — my two daughters, my wife and my brother," he said. "He said if I didn't do everything they told me to, they were going to rape my daughters. ... I told them I was going to do everything they asked."
Reyes Landa's testimony is crucial to the government case because he was among the first to confess to killing the students and burning their bodies at a dump in the town of Cocula, before their charred remains were tossed in the nearby San Juan River. Apart from those confessions and a single bone fragment that was linked through DNA testing to one of the students, the prosecution has almost no other evidence.
Under Mexican law a confession obtained by torture is not admissible in court.
"If the confessions are tossed out and there is no other evidence, basically there is no case," said Denise Gonzalez, a specialist in human rights and international law at Mexico's Ibero-American University.
In the case of the missing students, the torture allegations involve federal police or government troops who arrested the suspects on suspicion of ties to the notoriously violent Guerreros Unidos drug cartel. Prosecutors say gang members killed the students after they were handed over by local police who had arrested them in the city of Iguala.
Medical reports among the documents seen by the AP support the torture allegations.
One, by prosecution doctors who examined Reyes Landa two months after he was detained, said he had bruises, scrapes, scabs and "lesions made by a pointed object, similar to those caused by the application of electric devices to his abdomen and thighs."
Just as chilling are claims by alleged Guerreros Unidos gang leader Sidronio Casarrubias, who said a detective with the prosecutors' office abused him for hours after his arrest in February 2015.
"This man here was one of the first to torture me," Casarrubias said, according to the documents as he pointed to the detective, Gabriel Valle Campos.
"He sat on my stomach and asphyxiated me with black plastic bags. And he raped me with a metal object," Casarrubias said. "He threatened to torture my family, my children, the same way he was doing to me."
Eber Betanzos, an assistant prosecutor who is overseeing the government's case, said he could not comment on the allegations, adding that it's up to judges to evaluate a battery of psychological and physical assessments undertaken by some 90 suspects who claim they were tortured. A total of 136 suspects were arrested, charged and are undergoing trials.