The arrest stunned Mexicans, coming after eight years of slow-moving investigations and what investigators have called a coverup under the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto. On Thursday, the government’s point person on the case, Alejandro Encinas, labeled the disappearances a “crime of state” that involved police, the armed forces and civilian officials, in addition to a drug-dealing gang based in Guerrero state.
Scores of people have been arrested in the case, including police and alleged gang members, with many subsequently released because of a lack of evidence or signs that they were tortured. But Jesús Murillo Karam, the former attorney general detained Friday, was the highest-ranking former official to be charged. Senior Mexican politicians historically have enjoyed impunity even as allegations of corruption have swirled around the government.
Murillo Karam did not immediately issue a plea, and it was not possible to locate his attorney.
The arrest “is a clear sign of the National Prosecutor’s Office interest in fully investigating the obstruction of justice and human rights violations that occurred” in the case “and holding officials at all levels accountable for their illegal actions,” said Maureen Meyer, the vice president of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Still, some analysts questioned whether Mexico’s weak, ineffectual justice system could successfully win convictions in the complex crime. Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, tweeted that the case could turn into “a long back-and-forth, in which both sides wind up litigating the investigation and there is never anything that resembles justice.”
The 43 students from the rural Ayotzinapa teachers’ college were last seen in the hands of local police in the southern city of Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014. The students had commandeered several buses to go to a protest rally, following a local custom. But that night, police and other gunmen attacked the vehicles. Murillo Karam, who was in charge of the initial investigation, said in 2015 that the police handed the students over to a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, which burned their bodies at a dump in the nearby city of Cocula.
International legal and forensic experts have disputed that narrative, as have the attorney general’s office and a truth and justice commission established by the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Encinas said Thursday that the students probably unwittingly stole a bus loaded with drugs or money that was part of the gang’s courier system for sending narcotics to the United States. The military and federal and state police took no action to stop the mass kidnapping, he said — even though they were aware of it thanks to surveillance systems and an army spy who had infiltrated the student group.
“Federal and state authorities at the highest levels were indifferent and negligent,” said Encinas, the undersecretary for human rights, at his Thursday news conference. His remarks suggested that authorities might be willing to take on powerful people and institutions involved in the attack or coverup, such as the military. He said, however, that there was no evidence pointing to Peña Nieto’s involvement.
The Ayotzinapa case generated worldwide condemnation and triggered mass protests in Mexico. It focused attention on the burgeoning crisis of the disappeared, whose numbers have now soared to more than 100,000. Most have vanished since President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drug cartels in 2006. The military, crime gangs and corrupt security officials working for traffickers have all played a role, authorities say.
Murillo Karam, a member of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, was detained Friday outside his home without resistance, authorities said.
López Obrador took office pledging to solve the case, but there have been no convictions. The remains of three of the students have been found and identified, and Encinas said the others are believed to be dead.
Gabriela Martinez and Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City contributed to this report.