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International Commission Finds New Clues In Death Of 43 Mexican Students

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We might never know what happened to 43 Mexican students who disappeared nearly two years ago. The Mexican government says they were kidnapped by local police then turned over to a drug gang then burned and thrown into a trash dump.

But an international group of experts has a different version of what happened. They say those suspected of kidnapping and killing the students were tortured, and they say federal police and the military were involved.

FRANCISCO COX: So this was a major operation and very coordinated.

MCEVERS: That's Chilean human rights lawyer Francisco Cox. He's one of the legal experts. The group released its final report yesterday. And he says the government tried to stop the experts from doing their work. We reached him in Mexico City on Skype, and I asked him to describe what exactly the Mexican government did.

COX: We would ask for things to be done, and they would get delayed or denied using legal arguments, but not really quoting exactly why it was not possible. For example, they would detain people that were related to the case...

MCEVERS: I see.

COX: ...So that we weren't able to interview. And also they didn't give us access to interviewing the military that were present...

MCEVERS: Right.

COX: ...That took photographs, videos of the whole process of detention of the kids. And when we asked even for the videos and the photographs, they didn't provide any of that - or the documents where they reported or the intelligence report. They never gave us access to that, so there's information that we couldn't get our hands to.

MCEVERS: Why do you think the government threw up so many obstacles?

COX: We don't have an answer for that. But it seems that they wanted to get the case over with. I mean, they wanted to stick to that version that all 43 were burned there. So it's not an open case, and they could close it and say, you know, get over it.

MCEVERS: After your group presented its findings, the government did come out with, you know, point-by-point answers to a lot of the things in the report. One of the things that authorities said is that many of your requests came in late, you know, in the final two months in the investigation. What's your response to that?

COX: Actually, that's not true. I mean, we've been active all along our mandate, and what really happened was that we had until the 15 of March. Fifty-one requests they had complied with. And only last week or even later they accomplished 81. So if they would've wanted to satisfy the requests that they were doing, they could've done it a long time...

MCEVERS: So you're saying that they completed 30 requests in a short period of time.

COX: Exactly.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

COX: I mean, 30 percent. I mean, there's like 161 requests that are still pending. There was a lot of delay on the processing of our requests, so that's why basically even though we believe that we haven't satisfied or we haven't accomplished all of the objectives that were our mandate and we wanted to keep on working, we saw that the conditions weren't here. So that's why we said to the commission you have to change the conditions - I mean, the government has to change the conditions, so we can work. And the government said that they didn't want us here anymore.

MCEVERS: It must be frustrating to look at the families of these students and tell them that there has not been resolution in this case.

COX: I mean, to us it was heartbreaking, honestly. I mean, it's been one of the most hardest experiences telling them that we're leaving. Sunday when we issued the report, they started shouting don't leave us, don't go. And it was a difficult moment for us, I think, all of us.

MCEVERS: And are you worried for their safety after you go?

COX: Absolutely. I mean, we are very concerned what will happen to the families and the victims. In a certain way, we felt we were a shield, that our presence here gave them protection, gave them access to the legal system.

And we've raised this concern both to the government and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in the sense that they must protect and keep an eye on them because there's a lot of campaign in the media trying to make them look like criminals, and that's something that is scary.

MCEVERS: Francisco Cox is a Chilean human rights lawyer and one of the members of the independent commission that investigated the death of the 43 students in Mexico. He joined us from Mexico City. Thank you very much for your time.

COX: Thank you for caring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.