The 42 remaining students missing since September are dead, Mexican officials declared Tuesday, concluding a four-month investigation into a case that has shocked the violence-weary country, exhibited the close ties between criminal organizations and local authorities, and forced the government to shift its discourse from the progressive reforms it has enacted to issues of security.
Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam cited 39 confessions and forensic testing as evidence of the students' death, even though only the remains of one student have been identified by a forensic lab in Austria. Several of the confessions Murillo Karam cited Tuesday had been made public during a conference in November.
"This is the historic truth of the events, based on evidence provided for by science," said Murillo Karam. "The trainee students were deprived of their liberty, deprived of their lives, incinerated, and thrown into the San Juan River. In that order."
The case has slashed President Enrique Peña Nieto's approval ratings, setting a new low for any Mexican leader in two decades. While many in Mexico are unlikely to accept the findings, Peña Nieto on Tuesday called on the country to not "remain stopped, paralyzed, stagnant," and later tweeted: "It's painful to accept it. We have been through moments of profound sadness. Ayotzinapa is painful for all of us."
A carefully edited 26-minute video uploaded to YouTube by the attorney general's office Tuesday weaves together suspect confessions, maps of the route taken by police holding the students, photographs of the trucks used to transport the men, and re-enactments of the moment when the victims are pulled from vehicles and into a garbage dump.
According to the video, the students from a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa travelled to Iguala, in Guerrero State, on Sept. 26 to steal passenger buses that would take them to Mexico City. There, they planned to attend a march commemorating the 1968 student massacre. As the students made their way to Tixtla, a gang lookout alerted the member of the Guerreros Unidos criminal organization as to the buses' whereabouts.
On instructions from Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca, whose wife was giving a speech nearby, police intercepted the students shortly after, the attorney general stated. Students threw rocks at the officers, who responded with gunfire, killing two students and injuring one. Several students managed to flee and others were able to hide. According to the latter group, police officers detained about 25 of their classmates and stopped to pick up shells.
Police attacked another bus nearby, which turned out to be transporting members of a local soccer team. They killed two athletes and a civilian.
At 11 p.m., Patricio Reyes Landa of the Guerreros Unidos received a call instructing him to gather his gang. They traveled to meet a group of police officers keeping watch over a white truck carrying about 40 people, piled on top of one another. The gang drove the vehicles to a garbage dump in Cocula.
In the video, suspects held by the police re-enacted the scene, pulling imaginary bodies from the trucks, dumping them on a pile facedown — some had asphyxiated en route — and then lighting a pyre to incinerate them. Using tires and plastic bottles, the gang members say they kept the fire going for about 12 hours.
Then the suspects say they gathered the bone fragments and ashes into eight plastic bags and threw them into a river.
Murillo Karam said the suspects believed some of the students were members of a rival gang.
Last week, forensic experts at the Innsbruck Medical University in Austria said they had been unable to obtain any more usable DNA from the samples provided by the Mexican government. They said results from the last possible forensic test, which could destroy the samples, would take up to three months.
Monday marked four months since the students disappeared and protestors gathered in Mexico City to demand they be returned alive.
Murillo Karam has been criticised for his handling of the case, including his unsympathetic treatment of the students' families. He ended a press conference related to the case in November by saying, "Enough, I am tired," which became the rallying cry for thousands of protesters.
The case has also forced Peña Nieto to shift attention from his package of overhauls and address security problems.
Ninety-nine people have been taken into custody in connection to the mass murder, including Abarca and his wife, who went into hiding shortly after the students' disappearance, and the governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, stepped down. According to Murillo Karam, the government has gathered 386 testimonies.