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International investigators give up search for 43 missing college students in Mexico


Here in Mexico, where I am hosting from today, we've been focused on the end of an infamous investigation. For about eight years, a group of independent investigators was trying to find out what happened to 43 college students who went missing in Ayotzinapa in southern Mexico back in 2014. Last week, the group issued a final report and left the country without really cracking the case. I spoke to one of the investigators, Carlos Martin Beristain, just before he left Mexico. He told me he still remembers what the parents of the missing college students told him nearly 8 years ago - always tell us the truth.


PERALTA: Carlos Martin Beristain remembers what the parents of the missing college students told him nearly 8 years ago - always tell us the truth.

CARLOS MARTIN BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) They also told us, please don't sell out.

PERALTA: Beristain, a psychologist, has spent his life working with victims of human rights abuses. He's been on truth commissions across Latin America, and no one had ever asked him not to sell out.

BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) That points to a lived experience in Mexico - that is, what's happened to people who have been caught in a strategy of deception.

PERALTA: Indeed, the case of the 43 students who went missing from a teacher's college in Ayotzinapa in 2014 has become symbolic of an epidemic in Mexico. The government has lied over and over about what happened to the students. And like the more than 100,000 people reported missing in the country, they have been left in a purgatory - neither dead nor alive.

BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) The impunity of this country ends up having a huge psychological toll that we psychologists call learned helplessness. In the end, you learn that you can't change everything - that everything ends up the same.

PERALTA: The group of international investigators did make a difference, though. When they came in, the government was saying that one of the drug cartels killed the students, incinerated their bodies and threw their remains in a dump. The investigators quickly found the government planted evidence that they tortured witnesses to put out a convenient story. He says, when they met with the families, they thanked investigators. They still didn't know where their children were...

BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) But they said, we're happy because a weight has been lifted - the weight of the lie.

PERALTA: The group of experts put out their final report last week. They found the military was present at the site of the kidnappings. They found that Mexican security forces had real-time knowledge. They had GPS locations of the perpetrators. Investigators found snippets of transcriptions of their conversations. They found references to full transcripts, to more documents that the military refused to turn over.

BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) But this is as far as we can go. Our last report puts all the cards on the table.

PERALTA: The last report makes it clear that the government was responsible for this crime - that the government worked hand in hand with the cartels to disappear the students and that the government has in its hands the evidence it needs to tell the parents what happened to their children. In a lot of ways, it was a truth the families knew from the beginning. When they march every year in Mexico City, they leave graffiti on monuments, on pavements, on the walls of businesses. It reads, it was the state.

BERISTAIN: (Through interpreter) It's a truth that validates their suffering, but it also validates their helplessness.

PERALTA: Everyone knows it was the state. Yet no one's been convicted, and Mexicans keep disappearing. Nothing ever changes. And suddenly, he says, a truth that should liberate instead paralyzes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.