43 MISSING, the latest Detective Emilia Cruz novel, is fiction but is based on a true, unsolved crime.
A big, terrible, words-fail-me unsolved crime.
In September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School disappeared while in Iguala, Guerrero attempting to commandeer buses to take them to a rally in Mexico City. Three years and dozens of arrests later, the details around the crime are still sketchy and the families of the missing still do not have closure.
Neither truth nor bodies have been found.
I was just beginning the Detective Emilia Cruz series in 2014 when the 43 students disappeared. As time went on and the aftermath became spotted with half-truths and confusion, I wondered if I should write about it. Fiction has been my way of bringing awareness to the scores of Mexicans missing amid the country’s drug violence, but this crime and the possible secrets behind it, were almost unthinkable.
If Detective Emilia Cruz took on this investigation, I had to bring honesty and compassion to the project while creating both a believable motive and a firm resolution.
As I researched the book that would become 43 MISSING, Francisco Goldman’s reporting in The New Yorker provided crucial details. I met him in October 2017 and thanked him for the superb reporting. He in turn praised the work of John Gibler, whom Goldman quoted in one of his articles:
“Scores of uniformed municipal police and a handful of masked men dressed in black shot and killed six people, wounded more than twenty, and rounded up and detained forty-three students in a series of attacks carried out at multiple points and lasting more than three hours,” Gibler wrote to me in an e-mail. “At no point did state police, federal police, or the army intercede. The forty-three students taken into police custody are now ‘disappeared.’ ”
The motive for the assault on the students in the city of Iguala, not far from Acapulco, remains a mystery. One hypothesis reported by OpenDemocracy.net and other outlets which sparked my interest is that “the police were not after the students, but their bus . . . carrying shipment of drugs and/or money, which corrupt officers were trying to recover.”
The novel 43 MISSING tackles many of the real anomalies related to the case, including a discredited motive, how the 43 bodies were disposed of, and multiple identical confessions.
The case quickly became a political hot potato and still is. In 2016, the Organization of American States was called in as a neutral party but its investigation withered. James Cavallaro, Stanford law professor and human rights expert who led the effort, had this to say in an interview with Americas Quarterly magazine:
Americas Quarterly: Mexico’s attorney general has called this “the most comprehensive criminal investigation in the history of law enforcement in Mexico.” What does that say about law enforcement in Mexico?
James Cavallaro: Unfortunately, given the results of the investigation, it’s quite a damning statement. It’s a damning statement because we don’t know what happened to the 43 students, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know who was responsible, we don’t know how they died. None of the most important questions have been answered. And if that’s what the most comprehensive investigation in the recent history of Mexico can produce, any rational observer should be extremely concerned about the state of criminal justice in Mexico.
As I write this at the end of 2017, most pundits say the families will never know what happened. While the mystery of the 43 missing is solved in fiction, I pray that it will some day be solved for real.