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Report Questions Mexico's Account Of 2014 Student Killings


Alive, they took them; alive, we want them back. That was the chant last night from families of the missing college students who disappeared a year ago in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The families are angry because a new report shows there's no evidence to support the Mexican government's conclusion about what happened. The official account is that the 43 students were killed by a drug gang, their bodies burned in a garbage dump. A panel set up by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights is behind the report that calls this and much more into question. And joining me to discuss this is Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center. We reached him in Mexico City. Welcome to the program.

ANDREW SELEE: Thank you - a pleasure to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, this report is more than 500 pages long, but we want to understand what the major discrepancies were between the official Mexican government version of events and what folks behind the report found.

SELEE: There really were three major discrepancies. I mean, there are a number of things that they found, but the big ones come down to three. And the first and the most disturbing is that the bodies that they thought they had found, the ashes that they thought belonged to the bodies of the students in this trash dump, are probably not theirs. For the families, that's very disturbing because that means that the search is still on to find the remains of their loved ones.

The second one is that there was a possibly different motive that was not in the original investigation. The students were taken while they were on a bus. And the original investigation said there were four buses. The report by the commission says there were five buses, and the fifth bus may actually be the key to the motive. It may have had either heroine or drug money on it, and that was the reason why the killers went after them.

And finally, there is a number of indications in the commission report that state and federal police and possibly the military had encounters with the students as they were being taken to their death. Now, we don't know what they knew, but it is much clearer now that more people knew about the students' whereabouts on their way to their demise. And that wasn't reported in the original report.

CORNISH: What about this history around these buses - right? - that they had been borrowed in the past by students and others? What's going on there?

SELEE: Yeah. This may sound strange to an American audience because it's not something you see up and in the U.S., but in Mexico, it's very common that students will borrow buses on their way to protest marches. It's not necessarily a good custom, but it is something that happens. And so the students were borrowing the buses - basically taking them for their own use on their way to a protest march in Mexico City. And the thinking of the commission is, based on the evidence they saw, is that one of these buses might actually have had either heroin or money in it. And the cartel - some of the people in the cartel - were incredibly concerned, more than concerned - I mean, were completely out of their minds because they thought they had lost some very valuable merchandise that was headed for the United States, most likely.

CORNISH: Help us understand what the participation of the Mexican government has been in terms of helping with the report or being an impediment to it.

SELEE: You know, along the way, they have been fairly cooperative. Although, there've been some moments where the commission said they did not feel they got adequate cooperation. You know, this was a major investigation - all hands on deck by the National Attorney General's Office. And the commission is calling into question what has been probably the highest profile investigation by the Mexican government in the past couple years. And obviously that is something that makes people and the Mexican government nervous. It is unclear why there are discrepancies in the official report and what the commission found. But clearly, it is something that is very uncomfortable.

Now that said, President Pena Nieto of Mexico did say yesterday he would cooperate, and he's asking the attorney general's office to go back and look at these discrepancies. And we'll see if they follow through and they really do look at some of the new leads that were turned up by the commission report. That would be very positive if that happened.

CORNISH: Andrew Selee spoke to us from Mexico City. He's with the Woodrow Wilson Center there. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SELEE: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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