Unlike the families of the 43 students who disappeared a year ago, Julio Cesar Mondragon's loved ones were left with a body to bury. But there is little comfort in that, because Mondragon's corpse bore witness to the horror of his final moments.
His autopsy showed several skull fractures, internal bleeding and other injuries consistent with torture. His face had been flayed, a tactic often used by the drug cartels to incite terror. Photos of his bloody skull were uploaded to the Internet.
International attention has been focused on the 43 students who vanished a year ago Saturday, but six others died at the hands of police in those hours, including Mondragon, a 22-year-old father of a 2-year-old. According to an independent group of experts, the disappearances and the killings were the result of a long, coordinated attack against students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa who had come to the southern city of Iguala to commandeer buses for a protest.
But the events of last Sept. 26 were far from isolated. Some 25,000 people have been reported missing in Mexico since 2007, and hundreds from the Iguala area in the last year alone. The disappearance of the students has drawn attention to others who have been lost, as well as brutal drug cartels, official corruption, government indifference and languishing legal cases.
According to Mexico's attorney general, the 43 disappeared in an attack by police and the Guerreros Unidos drug gang because they were mistaken for rival gang members. The attorney general said last November they were killed and burned to ash in a giant pyre in the nearby Cocula garbage dump.
The independent experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights took apart that version earlier this month, saying authorities knew who the students were from the minute they headed for Iguala, and at the very least did nothing to stop the attacks.
They say the funeral pyre simply didn't happen, and suggest the attack occurred because students unknowingly hijacked a bus carrying illegal drugs or money. Iguala is known as a transit hub for heroin going to the United States.
Families say the judicial neglect extends to Mondragon and five others killed that night. His fellow students Daniel Solis and Julio Cesar Ramirez, were shot dead at close range. Driver Victor Manuel Lugo Ortiz and David Jose Garcia Evangelista, 15, died when police fired at a soccer team bus. Blanca Montiel, 40, was killed by stray gunfire while riding in a taxi.
Mondragon had been on one of the buses when it was attacked, then later showed up at a press conference the students called at 12:30 a.m. amid the mayhem. He fled when police opened fire. Witnesses said shortly after they last saw him, they heard screams from someone they assumed had been detained by police. About 6 a.m., soldiers found his body less than a mile (kilometer) from where he disappeared.
Though Mondragon's autopsy points to torture, that doesn't appear in the court records. A report by a military unit at the scene said his face had been peeled off with a knife. But the autopsy says it could have been done by an animal after the body was dumped. His family calls that conclusion "a mockery."
Mondragon's case could provide clues to who was behind the attack, according to the commission. But it languishes in three separate court files. The commission and Mondragon's family want the body exhumed for a new autopsy.
The former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife are among 28 people charged with his killing. Authorities say they were the ones who ordered the attacks. But Sayuri Herrera, lawyer for the Mondragon family, said it would be easy for any defense attorney to get the charges thrown out because the shabby investigative work and foggy charges filed by prosecutors could weaken the case. Charges have already been dropped against one police officer, who remains jailed for the missing 43.
"There's not even clarity in the accusations," said Herrera.
Mondragon's family gathers most Saturdays at the large table in his uncle Cuitlahuac's modest concrete home, sometimes to meet with Herrera, sometimes for psychological counseling, always to plot a path to justice.
"Here we all pretend to be strong," said Lenin Mondragon, 22, who has his brother's eyes, now filled with sadness.
They want the case taken up by federal prosecutors. The Inter-American Commission's experts also say the six murders should be part of the federal case of the 43 because they complete the picture of what happened that night. The attorney general's office has refused. The office did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The case remains with state prosecutors in Guerrero, where a lack of resources and expertise make it even less likely that justice will be served.
Mondragon was a little older than his other first-year classmates because he had passed through several normal schools before enrolling in Ayotzinapa. He liked to challenge the teachers, Cuitlahuac Mondragon said. He also taught reading and writing to poor families in San Miguel Tecomatlan, a rural town in the hills of Mexico state.
Julio's mother, Afrodita Mondragon, likes to look at his Facebook profile, though in wading through the Internet she is careful not to land on the photos of a skull when she searches his name.
She is torn between agitating for justice and focusing on her youngest, who is only 3 years old.
"The only thing we ask for is the truth," his uncle said. "The government is betting that this will all be forgotten, and we're betting on justice."