MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities arrested a general for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, the authorities said on Thursday, the latest in a recent string of developments in a high-profile case that has become a deep wound in the national psyche.
Gen. José Rodríguez Pérez, who was a colonel in the city of Iguala on the night the students were abducted in 2014, was arrested along with two other members of the military, the deputy security minister, Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said in a news conference.
“Four arrest warrants have been issued against members of the Mexican Army,” Mr. Mejía said. “There are three people arrested, among them the commander of the 27th infantry battalion when the events took place in Iguala in September 2014.”
Mr. Mejia did not provide additional information on Mr. Rodríguez’s arrest, and did not specifically name him or the other two military personnel arrested. But recent comments from the country’s top human rights official make clear that he was referring to the former colonel who is the highest ranking military officer to be arrested in the case so far.
“Allegedly, six of the 43 disappeared students were held for several days and alive in what they call ‘the old warehouse’ and from there were turned over to the colonel,” Alejandro Encinas, the Mexican under secretary for human rights, said at a news conference last month. “Allegedly, six of the students were kept alive for up to four days after the events and were killed and disappeared on orders of the colonel, allegedly the then Colonel José Rodríguez Pérez.”
Mr. Rodríguez’s arrest comes less than a month after the former attorney general on the case, who is accused of leading an elaborate cover-up of the likely massacre, was taken into custody outside his home in Mexico City, in the highest profile arrest on the case to date. At the time, the Mexican attorney general’s office said that the authorities had issued more than 80 arrest warrants related to the disappearances, including for military officers.
The night the students disappeared in September 2014, they were in the process of commandeering buses to carry their peers to a demonstration in Mexico City, a tradition at their college and one that was mostly tolerated by the authorities and bus companies.
But their stunt quickly devolved into a chaotic night of terror and violence that involved law-enforcement and other gunmen, who forced them off the vehicles, shot some of them and took the rest away. After that, little is known about what happened.
By daybreak, six people were dead in the city of Iguala, dozens were wounded and the 43 students had vanished. The remains of only three students have ever been identified.
What to Know About the Case of Mexico’s 43 Missing Students
A sudden disappearance. In September 2014, a group of young men from a teachers’ college in the rural town of Ayotzinapa was reported missing after they had commandeered several buses in the town of Iguala, south of Mexico City, to transport their peers to a demonstration in the capital commemorating a student massacre from decades earlier.
The recent string of high-profile arrests is a significant breakthrough in a case that has come to symbolize both the corruption and seemingly unending violence that has wracked Mexico for years, and will likely be viewed as an important win for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who made solving the students’ disappearances a key campaign promise.
The arrest of a top army general also comes as Mr. López Obrador increasingly throws his support behind the armed forces to tackle the nation’s security crisis.
The president’s governing Morena party recently approved a bill transferring control of the 100,000-strong National Guard force to the defense ministry, a move widely criticized by human rights advocates and security analysts.
“I think they’re doing this to send a message that there won’t be impunity,” for the armed forces, Catalina Pérez Correa, a law professor at Mexico’s CIDE university, said referring to the general’s arrest. But, “it also contradicts this idea that the military is unimpeachable, that there is no corruption, that it’s better to have military institutions over civilian, and it’s very, very dangerous.”
The families of the disappeared students, as well as civil society groups and local media outlets, have long accused the army of playing a central role in the disappearance and likely killing of the 43 students from a rural teachers college in the town of Ayotzinapa nearly eight years ago.
But the authorities at the time, under President Enrique Peña Nieto, tried to shift blame away from federal security forces, instead blaming the students’ disappearance on municipal police officers working with a local drug gang, who officials said had killed and incinerated the students in a trash dump.
That version, called the “historical truth” by the attorney general who was recently arrested, has since been widely discredited by independent experts and human rights groups, as well as the current government.
Last month, Mr. López Obrador’s administration issued a report with initial findings from a truth commission tasked with investigating the case, concluding that the disappearance was a “crime of the state” involving every layer of government.
“They say the disappearance of the students was a local matter. That is totally absurd,” Mr. Encinas, the under secretary for human rights, said at a news conference last month. “Various institutions participated in this, it was not a random event. There was intervention of state authorities in the disappearance.”
In a statement, the Prodh Center, an advocacy group representing the families of the 43 students welcomed news of the general’s arrest: “Given the abundant evidence of collusion between elements of the 27th Infantry Battalion and organized crime, if this process advances with solid evidence it could be very relevant to hold those who by action or omission have responsibilities to account.”
Still, whether any military personnel will face trial, much less be convicted, remains to be seen. The Mexican justice system often moves at a snail’s pace, with defendants sometimes held for years before facing trial.
The Mexican Army has long been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses, going as far back as the 1970s, when members of the military and other state agents arrested, tortured and disappeared hundreds of student activists and guerrilla fighters during Mexico’s “dirty war.” Despite mountains of evidence, few have ever faced justice.
“Frankly, there is not a lot of hope that he will face justice,” Ms. Pérez said referring to Mr. Rodríguez. “Even if he does face justice, it won’t dismantle the network of corruption that exists and that’s shown. It’s a giant web of organized crime, in which the whole state apparatus participates.”