Mexico's Attorney General's Office allegedly used sexual torture and offered millions of dollars in bribes to manipulate the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in 2014 from a rural teachers' college in the state of Guerrero, according to legal documents and letters by some of those accused of involvement in the atrocity that remains shrouded in mystery.
The accusers identified the highest ranking abusers as former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam; the head of the organized crime section of the prosecutor's office (SEIDO, Gustavo Salas Chávez, and Tomás Zeron de Lucio, director of the office's Criminal Investigation Agency.
They were directly involved in alleged irregularities designed to prop up the official results of the investigation, known as the “historic truth,” in order to close the notorious case of the missing Ayotzinapa students, according to the documents obtained by Univision.
The allegations have surfaced at a crucial juncture in the case, days before a group of independent experts are due to release on Sunday the findings of a year-long investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States (OAS). The investigation by the group of experts, which was agreed to by the Mexican government in November 2014, highlighted irregularities in the official investigation in a preliminary report last September.
The case of the students, and the efforts of their grieving families to discover the truth, has rocked Mexico's government. The handling of the case by officials, and suspicions of a possible cover up to protect the military, have deeply undermined its credibility in the human rights community.
"The handling of this investigation by Mexican authorities from day one has been inexcusably bad. It's been a well-documented case of gross negligence" said Daniel Wilkinson, Managing Director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch. "But if these new allegations of torture are confirmed then it's even worse than we thought," he added. "If true, it would take it from gross negligence to criminal behavior."
The federal prosecutor's office told Univision that the allegations against the three officials are being investigated.
Officials at the SEIDO and the Criminal Investigation Agency did not reply to requests for interviews for this story. Murillo could not be located for comment.
The latest evidence of abuse involves at least 14 men and two women arrested in the case who say they, and their relatives, were threatened with – and in some cases suffered – sexual violence, gropings, electric shocks to the genitals and penetration to force them to confess to their participation in the disappearances, implicate others and sign fabricated statements.
Federal police officers and Mexican Marines were identified as among those who carried out the abuses, with the alleged complicity of Zerón and Salas in at least two of the cases.
The victims were nine alleged members of a criminal organization known as Guerreros Unidos, including Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, accused of being the group's leader in the region, Gildardo Lopez Astudillo, identified as his No. 2; and Felipe Rodríguez Salgado, and three men accused of killing the student teachers and burning their bodies, according to the documents.
Seven officers in the nearby Iguala and Cocula municipal police forces were also victimized.
While the credibility of the accused men may be questionable due to their alleged criminal ties, Casarrubias was subjected to a psychological evaluation by human rights investigators, the documents show.
Casarrubias filed a complaint with Judge Carlos Alberto Sosa López in the State of Mexico's Second District Court, detailing the torture he allegedly suffered to force a confession. Once in prison, Murillo offered him almost $4 million (66 million pesos) to ratify the confession, he alleged.
The grave violations of human rights were investigated by United Nations officials starting in 2014, according to public records viewed by Univision. Two letters sent in February and July of 2015 to the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto by five U.N. investigators show they began special inquiries into “serious” allegations of “arbitrary detentions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments” of 13 suspects detained in the Ayotzinapa case.
“Without indicating any conclusion in the facts of the case, or on the arbitrary character or not of the arrests, we wish to express our serious concerns over the detention, torture – including sexual – and restrictions on the right to a defense suffered by Mr. Casarrubias,” read a letter signed by four senior U.N. human rights investigators, dated says the Feb. 25 2015.
They were: Seong-Phil Hong, president of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Ariel Dulitzky, head of the Working Group on Forced or Involuntary Disappearances; Gabriela Knaul, special investigator on judicial independence; and Juan E. Méndez, special investigator on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
“We also express serious concern over allegations that the torture and abusive treatments were designed to extract forced and fabricated confessions,” the letter added. “We fear that the use of these methods may not be an isolated case, and that the investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala may also be based on information obtained through acts of torture.”
The Mexican government's version of the Ayotzinapa case is that the 43 students were simultaneously kidnapped, murdered and their bodies burned in a Cocula garbage dump. It accuses local authorities in Iguala and Cocula and members of Guerreros Unidos. But three independent scientific studies assert that never happened.
"A room in hell"
Casarrubia's legal complaint said he and three others, among them a woman identified as Teresa Rivera Diaz, were arrested in a Brazilian restaurant on the highway between Mexico City and Toluca by a group of armed men on Oct. 15 2014. He was taken to Mexico City, to a building that apparently was part of the Attorney General's offices, where he saw Zerón, the complaint added.
“We went into a room. I'd rather call it a room in hell. They sat me down for a bit, and then someone arrives who seems different from the others. He speaks very softly and dresses differently, nice clothes,” the complaint said. “He approached me slowly, whispers in my ear and tells me that he's from the Attorney General, that he and I can fix things before it's too late.”
“These people will make you say whatever you are ordered to say, because the attorney general authorized it,” Zerón told him, according to the complaint. The tortures then began, including electric shocks and asphyxiations with plastic bags, he said.
Casarrubias told Judge Sosa that one of his abusers was an agent named Gabriel Valle Campos. Journalists confirmed with official documents that an agent with that name works at the Attorney General's office.
He was later transferred to a new office and again met Zerón and the woman he was arrested with, the complaint went on.
“I was trembling, really afraid ... I asked the girl, whose (real) name was Dulce, if they tortured her and she told me yes, crying. And then they took her away.”
Casarrubias also complained to Judge Sosa that in Zerón's presence, agents warned him to keep silent about what they had done to him. “If not, you know what we can do to you and your family. Remember your children, wife and parents,” he quoted them as saying.
He added that his captors dictated what he had to say before a video camera. “No errors. Read it again and again until you are ready,” the complainant said he was told. They also told him the video was for the archives and would never be made public.
Casarrubias added that on the morning of Oct. 17, after he was transferred to the SEIDO offices, a prosecution official typed up a declaration and told him, “Just sign and put your fingerprint.”
He considered telling the official that he had been tortured, the complaint said, but the man cautioned him to say nothing because “they'll soon get your family.” The public defender assigned to his case arrived late, fell asleep and gave him no legal advice, it added.
Confession under torture
On the same day the Attorney General's office allegedly fabricated the confession, Murillo and Zerón held a news conference to announce the capture of Casarrubias on charges of being the top leader of Guerreros Unidos.
Murillo declared the capture “will help solve the deaths of six people in Iguala and the later disappearance of 43 students at the Rural Teachers' College in Ayotzinapa.”
It was not until Oct. 21, when Casarrubias went before a judge that he was able to denounce the torture and abuses he claimed to have suffered. He declared that everything in his signed declaration, in which he confessed and incriminated others, was totally false.
"Advances in the case"
During another news conference on Oct. 22 to announce “advances in the case,” Murillo claimed that the “Guerreros Unidos group had woven a network of criminal links in several municipalities, especially among security personnel. In the case of Iguala, this collaboration ranged from municipal authorities to local police.”
“According to the statements of the people detained and the group's own leader, (Casarrubias) regularly received from the president of the municipality from $115,000 to $172,000 (2 to 3 million pesos) … from which at least $34,000 (600,000 pesos) … were to control the local police” Murillo declared.
He added that Casarubbias had identified the wife of a former mayor of Iguala, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa as the principal manager of illegal activities in the municipal government, with the complicity of the Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, and Security Secretary Felipe Florez Velázquez.
The Attorney General claimed Casarrubias believed the Ayotzinapa students were members of a rival criminal group, Los Rojos, and was seeking to "defend his turf in Iguala.”
However, the Attorney General's office has not accused Casarrubias with the disappearance and deaths of the students. Instead, he is accused of taking part in organized crime activities and illegal possession of weapons reserved for the Mexican military.
At another news conference on Nov. 7, Murillo declared the case solved with the arrests of three more men, whose allegations of torture and sexual abuse were also investigated by the United Nations.
He declared that the three had confessed to killing the students in the Cocula garbage dump and burning their bodies. Despite the supposed confessions, authorities have been unable to locate the bodies.
In a Feb. 25 complaint to Judge Sosa, Casarrubias alleged that during his first 30 days in the maximum security Altiplano prison in central Mexico, he was visited three times by officials from the Attorney General's office to pressure him.
The first visitor was an official he knew only as “Abraham.” The second was Zerón, he claimed, and the third was Murillo.
Casarrubias said his last visitor smoked nervously as he introduced himself.
“I know you were tortured … and I want you to tell me if you can recognize the voices of the people who tortured you, because those who did that to you are also a bunch of criminals,” Casarrubias quoted Murillo as telling him.
“At that point he offers me $3.8 million (66 million pesos) if I tell him where the students are. I tell him I don't know, like I already told Zerón and Abraham,” the complaint noted.
Murillo then threatened him, Casarrubias alleged. “He tells that he's going to bury me for 80 years in an isolation cell. He threatens me and tells me I will never get out of jail (and) that he knows for sure that I am not guilty of the charges against me.”
After Casarrubias filed the complaint, the Attorney General was suddenly dismissed on Feb. 27 2015.
Four other detained in the case - Felipe Rodríguez Salgado, Gildargo López Astudillo, Patricio Reyes Landa and Magali Ortega Jiménez - also filed legal complaints alleging they were offered money by the Attorney General's office to confirm confessions obtained under torture.
López Astudillo also accused the SEIDO chief, Gustavo Salas Chávez, of being in the room while he was tortured, in the presence of his family, and threatening to kill his children and abuse his wife if he did not confess.
In another letter to the Mexican government dated July 10 2015, U.N. human rights investigators complained about the arbitrary detentions of 12 other detainees.
“We also express serious concern over allegations that torture – which includes sexual violence and threats of sexual violence against relatives – and other mistreatment were designed to obtain forced and fabricated confessions, and that the use of these methods does not appear to be isolated,” the letter stated.
Replying to the two U.N. letters, the Mexican diplomatic mission to the United Nations in Geneva reported that the Attorney's General's office had begun an investigation into the Casarrubias allegations of torture. Another five investigations focused on the allegations of torture and abuse of authority made by 10 of the 13 suspects. It also confirmed that the alleged torture victims had been arrested by police.
This investigation was carried out with the support of the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley and the Fund for Investigative Journalism