The disappearance of 43 college students on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero marked a turning point for President Enrique Peña Nieto.
When he won the presidency in 2012, Mr. Peña Nieto was hailed as a modern reformer promising a more democratic and transparent government. But the disappearance of the students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the small city of Iguala shocked Mexico and the world, and plunged the Peña Nieto government into an ever-deepening murk of corruption and cover-ups.
For most of the time since, Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval rating has been hovering around 20 percent. Mexicans will be going to the polls to elect a new president on July 1, and the candidate from Mr. Peña Nieto’s party, the P.R.I., is unlikely to win.
The Ayotzinapa tragedy moved Mexico like no other, partly because the missing young men, many of them only teenagers, were studying to become rural schoolteachers. Many were hoping to return to their own communities, rather than joining drug gangs or emigrating to the United States, as so many of their peers would do.
The 43 came to symbolize the tens of thousands of innocent people who have disappeared in a cynical and ineffective war against drug cartels that has spread criminal complicity and corruption through all levels of government.
A ruling by a federal court on June 4 against the attorney general’s office may mark a new era of independence for Mexico’s justice system. In a unanimous 712-page opinion, the judges concluded that the government’s investigation into the attack on the students was faulty and irregular, saying it was not “prompt, effective, impartial or independent.”
The three judges of the first Collegiate Tribunal of the 19th Circuit heard a constitutional appeal brought by the attorney general’s office over a lower-court ruling in favor of four men who said they were tortured by the authorities as part of the federal investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students. The ruling upheld the view that the four prisoners had been tortured and threw out their confessions.
But the court went much further. It condemned the federal government for having used torture as one of the components of a fabricated case, violating the victims’ rights to a fair and independent investigation. The government had steadfastly portrayed the 2014 attack as one involving only corrupt local officials, including the municipal police, and a local drug trafficking gang that, mistaking the students for rivals, incinerated them in a nearby dump.
The opinion was described by legal experts and other commentators as unprecedented, historic — and totally unexpected.
“The ruling confirms what international monitors have already shown: that the Ayotzinapa investigation was a travesty,” said Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch. “For a federal court to conclude that the country’s public prosecutor can’t be trusted to handle this case on its own is devastating.”
The judges relied heavily on the evidence assembled by the Inter-American Court’s Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, a panel of five legal and human rights experts from Latin America that Mr. Peña Nieto’s government, under international pressure, invited to help investigate the students’ fate.
In two reports — in September 2015 and April 2016 — the experts exposed what appeared to be an orchestrated cover-up by federal officials of whatever actually happened. The experts turned up video footage of the government’s lead criminal investigator appearing to plant evidence to support the government theory that the students had been incinerated in a dump by local gang members.
In Mexico’s compromised mass media, a smear campaign was directed at the panel of experts, and the government refused to renew its mandate. The independent experts had to leave the country.
Despite paying lip service to the recommendations of the panel of experts and those of other international groups, the government was determined to close the case on its own terms. Over the last year, it has essentially abandoned its investigation. The students have never been found.
The tribunal ordered a new investigation to be led by an Investigative Commission for Justice and Truth made up of legal representatives of the victims and the National Human Rights Commission. Government prosecutors would also participate in the commission, but in a subordinate role. International organizations that have been monitoring the case, such as those from the Inter-American Court and the United Nations, can also join.
The government promptly declared its disagreement with the ruling. Some analysts suggested that the court had overreached. Everyone seemed focused on the most controversial element: Could the judges really order government investigators to take orders from a commission made of victims’ representatives?
On Thursday, the government filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the ruling overstepped by giving a victims’ truth commission such power. Assuming that the Supreme Court agrees to consider the case, it could be at least six months before it returns a decision. By then, a new government will be in power.
The presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the center-left populist Morena party, is far ahead in the polls. The former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a key adviser to Mr. López Obrador, told me that he wants to follow the ruling. “We have to do it, a truth commission that coincides with the legal process.” He said that Mr. López Obrador will declare his position on the pending appeal to the Supreme Court after the election.
I’ll never forget the year of rage and grief that followed the students’ disappearances, the marches filling the streets of Mexico City with as many as half a million protesters. The Mexican people’s repudiation of this government took root then — and it’s now expressed in a desire for a government that will break sharply with the corrupt status quo.
“We’re at the end of a government,” said Mario Patrón of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, which legally represents the Ayotzinapa victims. “The mechanisms of power are loosening. New horizons are opening.”
Given the domestic and international pressures on Mexico to resolve the case of the missing students, it seems improbable that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling that favors a Peña Nieto government that is increasingly isolated and weak and has only a few months left in power.
Mexico needs justice for the 43 students. Thanks to the three valiant judges, there’s now at least a possibility of achieving that. The next president’s willingness to implement this historic ruling will be an early test of whether his government is serious about fostering a justice system that serves the people instead of criminals.
Francisco Goldman, a novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.