MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's national human rights commission said Thursday it had found a witness to the 2014 disappearance of 43 students who reported that two federal police and a third municipal police force were present when 15 to 20 youths were taken off a bus and disappeared.
The new evidence suggests two federal police officers at the least allowed local police to take the students away and may have even participated in their disappearance, said Jose Larrieta Carrasco, the commission member leading the case.
Investigators had already known that cops from two local forces — the city of Iguala and the town of Cocula — had turned the students over to a drug gang that allegedly killed and burned them. But the witness said members of a third town's police force, Huitzuco, also participated.
The report suggested the control of the drug gang known as Guerreros Unidos was even wider than previously thought, saying the gang bought off or intimidated more local police, federal officers and even private companies that the commission said were loath to share evidence with investigators.
The witness, whose identity is being concealed, said that far from stopping the abduction of the students on the side of a highway, the federal police went along with it:
"What's going on with those kids?" the witness heard a federal policeman ask an Iguala cop.
"We're going to take them to Huitzuco, the boss will be the one who decides what to do with them," the cop answers.
"Ah, OK, OK, that's fine," the witness quoted the federal officer as saying.
Larrieta said the federal officers should be investigated to see whether they also were in the pay of the drug gang.
He also said investigators had asked private companies to supply information, but they hadn't complied. He would not identify the companies, but investigations so far have focused on the bus companies whose vehicles had been hijacked by the students and phone companies who had records of their calls.
"Representatives of the companies involved have hidden information, or may have covered up for those responsible for these acts," Larrieta said. He said the firms should be investigated "to see whether they were cooperating with the criminal gang responsible for these acts, or whether they made a decision based on private interests."
In some parts of Mexico, companies have been coerced into not reporting crimes by drug gangs who threaten to attack their vehicles, offices or employees.
"The facts released today could constitute clear evidence of the coopting of municipal institutions by criminal organizations in Iguala, Cocula and, now with the information being released, probably Huitzuco," with the participation of municipal police officers from those towns in the disappearance of the students, Larrieta said. "In the same way it could be an example of the alleged involvement of federal police officers."
On Sept. 26, 2014, 43 students from the radical teachers' college known as Ayotzinapa disappeared in Iguala after hijacking buses, a common tactic they used to acquire transportation.
Municipal police from Iguala and Cocula kidnapped some of the 43 students at one location inside Iguala.
But another bus made it to a federal highway leaving Iguala when lguala police in pursuit shot out its tires, forcing it to stop under an overpass known as the Chipote bridge, Larrieta said.
Iguala police surrounded the bus and began breaking its windows with rocks and sticks. Students responded with their own rocks until police tossed tear gas into the bus, forcing them to exit. Police pushed them to the ground and handcuffed them. They were loaded into Iguala police patrol trucks. When no more would fit in the pickups, the Huitzuco police trucks, and federal police, arrived.
There had been talk of involvement of Huitzuco police before. Larrieta said the witness' account was corroborated by other statements from Iguala police already in custody.
The federal Attorney General's Office said it had placed the new witness under protection and pledged to follow up on the lead.
Although the identity of the student's captors may have been different from what was previously thought, their destiny appears to have been the same. The remains of one of the students aboard the bus has been identified by burned bone fragments found near a local dump, the same fate that apparently befell all the kidnapped students.