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The Hague may be the legal capital of the world, but Latin America is undoubtedly the epicenter. The Netherlands boasts an unparalleled number of institutions ranging from the International Criminal Court to a variety of hybrid tribunals, but Latin America has been at the center of a renewal of accountability efforts. In a region synonymous with impunity, countries such as Guatemala are leading the “justice cascade,” a growing trend that utilizes trials in domestic courts to prosecute grave human rights abuses.[1] Instead of extraditing perpetrators to await a lengthy and costly trial in the Netherlands, former dictators and high-ranking military officials like Rios Montt are facing the rule of law in their home country.

With the July 1st electoral victory of the Morena party, Mexico is now squarely in the center of these accountability efforts. As the former mayor of Mexico City and 3rd time presidential contender, Mexicans knew their candidate well. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “AMLO,” built his success on a campaign that promised a change from the status quo: a break with years of fighting a War on Drugs that has produced only staggering violence with a homicide rate that rivals a war zone.[2]

No case is more emblematic of the failed War on Drugs than that of Ayotzinapa.[3] The disappearance of forty-three students from Iguala, Guerrero reflects the larger crisis of a systematic practice of enforced disappearance. In a country that obfuscates names and numbers by refusing to release accurate statistics, numbers matter. While the forty-three Ayotzinapa students are just a fraction of the 33,125 recorded disappearances in Mexico, the case has garnered the world’s attention as it ricochets throughout domestic courts, the regional Inter-American Human Rights system, and even at the universal level with the involvement of various agencies within the United Nations.[4]

Though the crime occurred almost four years ago, Ayotzinapa is deeply entrenched in the body politic. AMLO’s victory, coupled with an unexpected ruling from a Mexican court, has offered renewed hope for the rule of law in Mexico. The night of the presidential election, Ayotzinapa chants could be heard on the streets as people waited for poll numbers and precinct reports. The rallying cry of “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (they were taken alive, we want them back alive), has finally been translated into legal action. For the first time in years, the rule of law could yield some substantial change.

Just twenty-seven days before the election, the First Collegiate Tribunal of the Nineteenth Circuit issued a sentence that explicitly condemned the use of torture and criticized the lack of impartiality of the Attorney General’s office.[5] The Ayotzinapa case would be complex for any judicial system. However, the context of the litigation has ensured a plethora of human rights abuses. Foundational to this litigation has been the right to truth. The court reaffirmed the fundamental right to truth as an internationally recognized right of the victim. Citing Article 1.1, 8, and 25 of the American Convention on Human Rights, the court highlights the essential role of the right to truth in disappearance cases and reminds the state of its obligations to ensure that victims have access to a factual account of what occurred on the night of September 26th. [6] Most stunningly, the Ayotzinapa sentence concludes by ordering the establishment of a Special Commission for Truth and Justice to rectify a legal process that has not been “independent nor impartial.”[7]

The establishment of an Ayotzinapa truth commission is historic because it represents the evolution of a case many feared would be stagnant for years to come. As reiterated by Centro Prodh, the civil society organization representing the victims, a domestic court called on its own government to recognize the right to truth after the government contradicted reports by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[8]

In just one example of the last four years, the outgoing PRI administration allowed the leading transitional justice practitioners to conduct an investigation in Mexico, but after the  Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts released a report that disagreed with Mexican officials, the experts were impugned in the press and spied on by the government.[9] In contrast, the president elect addressed Ayotzinapa head on, featuring the case on his campaign website and promising the establishment of the Sub-Secretary of Transitional Justice, Human Rights and Attention to Victims.[10]

Until now, the right to truth has been reduced to the mothers of the disappeared quite literally exhuming mass graves to find their disappeared children.[11] Amidst a 98% impunity rate, too often it is the family members who are on the frontlines of these investigations.[12] In a country with fragile institutions and a dearth of political will, transitional justice remains elusive. And yet, the imminent AMLO administration offers victims a sign of hope. Conceivably, this historic summer will come to represent a sea change for accountability: one in which the strategy of filing cases before the International Criminal Court or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will become secondary, and domestic judicial institutions will instead lead the way for rule of law reform in Mexico.


[1] Micheline Ishay, Kathryn Sikkink’s The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics, Wash. Post, (Oct. 21, 2011), https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/kathryn-sikkinks-the-justice-cascade-how-human-rights-prosecutions-are-changing-world-politics/2011/08/22/gIQAxk7M4L_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ad5411abbb7b.

[2] Azam Ahmed, Mexico’s Deadliest Town. Mexico’s Deadliest Year., N.Y. Times, (Aug. 4, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/world/americas/mexicos-drug-killings.html.

[3] See Francisco Goldman, The Tragedy That Changed Mexico Forever, N.Y. Times, (June 22, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/ayotzinapa-mexico-students-disappeared.html.

[4] Datacívica: Más datos para más personas, https://personasdesaparecidas.org.mx/db/db (last visited July 27, 2018).

[5] Francisco Goldman, The Tragedy That Changed Mexico Forever, N.Y. Times, (June 22, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/ayotzinapa-mexico-students-disappeared.html.

[6] Amparo en revision, Primer Tribunal Colegiado del Decimonoveno Circuito (TCC), 203/2017 – 206/2017, Página 62 (Mex.) http://sise.cjf.gob.mx/SVP/word1.aspx?arch=508/05080000211078340011012.doc_1&sec=Jes%C3%BAs_Desiderio_Cavazos_Elizondo&svp=1.

[7]  See id. at 561, 627; Francisco Goldman, The Tragedy That Changed Mexico Forever, N.Y. Times, (June 22, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/ayotzinapa-mexico-students-disappeared.html.

[8] Press Release, Historic Ruling in the Ayotzinapa Case, Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, A.C. (Centro Prodh), (June 4, 2018), http://centroprodh.org.mx/en/?p=869; Daniella Burgi-Palomino, LAWGEF Supports Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team Report Refuting Cocula Trash Dump Theory in Ayotzinapa Case, Latin Am. Working Grp., (Feb. 9, 2016), http://www.lawg.org/action-center/lawg-blog/69-general/1577-lawgef-supports-argentine-forensic-anthropology-team-report-refuting-cocula-trash-dump-theory-in-ayotzinapa-case; Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (IGIE), Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R., Ayotzinapa Report: Research and initial conclusions of the disappearances and homicides of the normalistas from Ayotzinapa, Summary, p. 26, (Sept. 6, 2015), http://media.wix.com/ugd/3a9f6f_e1df5a84680a4a8a969bd45453da1e31.pdf.

[9] Azam Ahmed, Spyware in Mexico Targeted Investigators Seeking Students, N.Y. Times, (July 10, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/world/americas/mexico-missing-students-pegasus-spyware.html?ref=nyt-es&mcid=nyt-es&subid=article; Francisco Goldman, The Tragedy That Changed Mexico Forever, N.Y. Times, (June 22, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/ayotzinapa-mexico-students-disappeared.html.

[10] Campaign Website of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Ayotzinapa, https://lopezobrador.org.mx/temas/ayotzinapa/ (last visited July 27, 2018); Martha Pskowski, The Radical Amnesty Plan of Mexico’s Next President, New Republic, (July 2, 2018), https://newrepublic.com/article/149508/radical-amnesty-plan-mexicos-next-president.

[11] Ioan Grillo, The Paradox of Mexico’s Mass Graves, N.Y. Times, (July 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/opinion/mexico-mass-grave-drug-cartel.html.

[12] The Center for Responsible Enterprise and Trade, Mexico’s New Fiscalía: A Way Out of Corruption and Impunity, (Nov. 20, 2017), https://create.org/news/mexicos-new-fiscalia-way-corruption-impunity/.