When Antonio Tizapa’s 20-year-old son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, disappeared with 42 other classmates from a rural teacher’s college in southwest Mexico on Sept. 26, 2014, he thought they would come home soon.
“During the first week, the first month, the first quarter, the first year, I kept making my own calculations,” he told NBC News in an interview. “There are around 150 kilometers from Iguala to Ayotzinapa. There are many people along the way. Maybe they’re scared. But they are going to come home. And now, eight years later, they haven’t arrived. They haven’t arrived.”
One month before the eight-year anniversary, a truth commission led by the Mexican government said that six out of the 43 missing students were allegedly kept alive for days and then handed over to a Mexican army commander at a base in Iguala who ordered their execution.
In 2014, the Mexican government initially reported that 43 students from Ayotzinapa Teachers College who had commandeered some buses to go to a protest in Mexico City had been arrested on Sept. 26 by police in Iguala, then turned over to drug traffickers who killed and incinerated them at a garbage dump.
The Ayotzinapa parents, including Tizapa, rejected Mexico’s official account. An independent report in 2015 from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also backed their position, concluding that there wasn’t evidence to support the incineration of the 43 missing students at the dump.
On Aug. 20, 2022, Mexico’s former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam, who had presented the 2014 account of the Ayotzinapa case, was charged with forced disappearance, torture and obstruction of justice in connection with the 43 students.
But, in spite of all these recent developments, Tizapa said there haven't been any conclusive breakthroughs in the case.
“Eight years later, we are still finding out many things. But we still don’t know where our children are,” he said. “Some things have not been brought to light. And other evidence has disappeared. But we have not stopped fighting. We continue marching. We continue organizing rallies. We have lawyers pushing for justice.”
Tizapa said that since his son disappeared, his life is in many ways still stuck on Sept. 26, 2014. But when he looks at his own family, he can see that time is moving forward.
“My youngest son graduated recently from the teacher’s college. And my daughter, who is the oldest, is attending a woman’s teacher’s college,” he said. “Jorge now has an 8-year-old daughter in Florida. She was only around 2 months old when her father disappeared.”
On Sept. 15, Mexico’s assistant public safety secretary, Ricardo Mejía, announced the arrest of retired general José Rodríguez Pérez, along with other members of the Mexican army, in connection with the disappearance of the students. Rodríguez Pérez was the commander of the Iguala base in 2014.
The Ayotzinapa parents have fought with the Mexican government to uncover the involvement of the military in the case. And Tizapa says that the government needs to push a lot further to deliver justice.
“If I am a member of the military, I serve the state. Therefore, my superiors have a big responsibility. And if I commit a crime, then they are also responsible. We know that the military was involved and the person who was in charge was Mr. Cienfuegos,” he said, referring to Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was the Mexican defense secretary in 2014. “And Mr. Cienfuegos cannot be touched.”
Putting the military on trial in Mexico
Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested in Los Angeles on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in October 2020. But he was released into Mexican custody one month later by the Trump administration.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dismissed the U.S. charges, saying that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had “fabricated” accusations against the general.
But for human rights advocates and foreign policy experts, the Cienfuegos case shows that putting members of the Mexican armed forces on trial can be difficult, especially after they have taken an expanded role in civilian life.
“Under López Obrador we are seeing the continued use of the armed forces as the main security force,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at the Washington-based advocacy and research organization WOLA. She is an expert on human rights and social justice policy in Mexico and Latin America.
Meyer says that López Obrador is also doing something that wasn’t seen under Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto, which is giving the military a lot of control over other civilian tasks that include building and directing the new airport in Mexico City, constructing development banks and taking over customs and ports.
“This is not just a militarization of public security, it’s a militarism of parts of Mexican civilian life,” she said.
Meyer explains that eight years ago, the Ayotzinapa students were a mass disappearance case that shed light on the nationwide crisis of disappeared people in Mexico since 2006 and its human rights violations.
Now she says the facts of the case have become increasingly difficult to unravel because of the government’s mishandling at the beginning. And it is further compromised by the deaths or murders of at least 23 individuals in the past eight years who may have had information about the case.
Since 2014, the students have not been found. Meyer says the remains of only three of the students have been identified and families are stuck without answers.
Like Tizapa, Meyer underlines the ultimate question: Will the Mexican justice system have enough solid evidence to lead to a conviction, or will it set up student families for yet another disappointment?
“There have been lots of people accused of crimes in this case and have been let go either for the lack of evidence or because the evidence was obtained illegally through torture,” she said.
Meyer believes that López Obrador’s government will be tested on whether it can convict retired general Rodríguez Pérez and other military members accused of human rights violations and wrongdoings in this case.
“On the one hand, what the government is trying to show with the arrests of military members is that no one can stay in impunity in Mexico, that they will hold soldiers accountable. But there are many other members of the military who have not been investigated for this case.”
Like Tizapa, Meyer also maintains that Cienfuegos is key to uncovering the truth.
“If you’re looking at the chain of command in any of these human rights cases, who knew what and when becomes important. So with Cienfuegos, being the secretary of [national] defense at the time, what he knew is important,” she said.
When asked what he would say to López Obrador, Tizapa said he would simply follow up on what became a publicized encounter between him and the presidential candidate at the time, when Tizapa confronted him about Ayotzinapa and López Obrador said to ask the military and then president Peña Nieto.
On Sept. 26, Tizapa says activists and athletes will come together in New York as they've done in the past and run one kilometer for each missing student, totaling almost 27 miles.
As part of the eight-year anniversary, they will also congregate at the park in front of the United Nations and then march to the Israeli Consulate to demand the extradition of Tomás Zerón de Lucio, the former director of Mexico’s FBI equivalent, accused of tampering with evidence in the Ayotzinapa case. Then they will head to the Mexican consulate before ending with an ancestral dance at Times Square that Tizapa says will send energy to their children.