MEXICO CITY — The disappearance of 43 Mexican students in 2014 was a “crime of the state” involving every layer of government, an official inquiry reported on Thursday, in the most profound admission to date of government responsibility for one of the most notorious atrocities in Mexico’s modern history.
“At all times the federal, state and municipal authorities had knowledge of the students’ movements,” a government truth commission said in its preliminary findings. “Their actions, omissions and participation allowed for the disappearance and execution of the students, as well as the murder of six other people.”
The violent abduction and disappearance of the students, young men from a teachers’ college in the rural town of Ayotzinapa, and a subsequent cover-up that the commission confirmed extended to some of the highest national offices, have long been sources of national outrage, underscoring the cartel-fueled carnage and insidious state corruption that continue to wrack the country.
The students are among more than 100,000 people who have gone missing or are considered disappeared across the country, testament to the brutality of organized crime groups that are known to dissolve bodies in tubs of acid or burn corpses to ash.
“It’s really important that the government put so much emphasis on this case as it’s complicated; it was a mass disappearance with security forces from across all levels of government colluding with a criminal organization,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs at the Washington Office of Latin America, a research organization.
“But it is important that the government also focuses on solving the tens of thousands of other disappearances that have happened across the country and ending the impunity that continues to help drive these crimes.”
Getting to the bottom of the students’ disappearance was a central campaign promise of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who created the truth commission to investigate the likely massacre and cover-up as one of his first actions in office.
Only the remains of three students have ever been identified. There is no indication that any of the other students are still alive, the inquiry concluded. “All the testimonies and evidence prove that they were cunningly killed and disappeared,” Alejandro Encinas, under secretary for human rights, said at a news conference presenting the findings.
The commission’s preliminary conclusions offer a faint hope that the country may be inching closer to solving a gruesome crime that shocked the nation, even as doubts remain over the lack of meaningful progress: To date, there have been no convictions related to the students’ disappearance.
Mr. Encinas revealed that the government had issued arrest warrants for 33 former officials linked to the case, but he declined to give their names, saying the investigation was ongoing.
On the night they vanished, the students had commandeered a number of buses — a tradition that was largely tolerated by local bus companies — to transport their peers to a demonstration in Mexico City commemorating another student tragedy: the 1968 Taltelolco massacre, when dozens of protesters were gunned down by government forces.
But soon after taking the buses in the town of Iguala in Guerrero State, south of Mexico City, the students were intercepted by municipal police officers and other gunmen, who forced them off the vehicles, shot some of them and took the rest away into the night. After that, little is known about what happened.
Around 10:45 p.m. that night, “after the acts of violence and persecution, the order was given for the students to be disappeared,” the commission’s report states, without indicating who had issued the command.
Although law enforcement was known to have been involved in the student’s disappearance, a local drug cartel called the Guerreros Unidos was also a key player in the disappearance, according to the authorities, with “a large number of sicarios,” or hitmen, working “with the support of different municipal police and agents of the state.”
The government also confirmed that a military informant had been embedded among the students when they disappeared, meaning that the authorities were tracking their movements long before the attack took place, something that was previously reported by the local news media. That raises the possibility that the military knew at the time that something horrific had happened.
The military command, however, “took no action” to find the informant, who remains among the 43 missing students, Mr. Encinas said.
The military’s implication in the student’s disappearance, something human rights groups had long alleged, comes at a delicate moment for Mr. López Obrador, who has put more authority in the military’s hands.
The president has deployed regular troops across the country to perform law enforcement functions, and he has created a 100,000-strong National Guard, which, although technically a civilian force, is set to be incorporated into the defense ministry.
The army has also been deployed for an increasing number of government tasks, including building Mexico City’s new airport, constructing a tourist train in the country’s south and doling out vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic.
The truth commission’s findings underscore the role of the previous administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto in attempting to conceal the truth about the students’ disappearance and the government’s involvement.
“This is a tough case to solve because of the obstruction of justice and tampering with witnesses and evidence that happened under the previous administration,” Ms. Meyer said. “This government is telling the public, through this commission, that the case may never be solved.”
In 2015, after a few months of investigation, Mexico’s attorney general reported that the students had been taken by the municipal authorities at the behest of a local gang, which then killed them and incinerated their bodies in a trash dump.
But that conclusion has been almost unanimously disputed by international experts, who have found numerous inconsistencies in the official conclusions.
On Thursday, Mr. Encinas doubled down on that criticism: That investigation “was a concerted action from the organized apparatus of power from the highest level of government, which obscured the truth.”
Maria Abi-Habib contributed reporting.