Nearly two months after the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero, southwest Mexico, the government is racing to show that justice is being done, that the bodies have been found and the killers arrested. But the story neither begins nor ends with the students -- and the circle of guilt extends far beyond their killers.
The students from a teacher training college in Ayotzinapa disappeared on September 26, after traveling to the nearby city of Iguala for a protest. As the evidence mounted that the Iguala mayor and members of the police had handed the students to a criminal group for slaughter, public outrage pushed the authorities to act.
A week later, the federal government took over the case. The mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife have now been arrested, along with more than 40 municipal police and various members of the Guerreros Unidos -- the criminal gang accused of carrying out the killings -- and Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre has been forced to resign. On November 7, the federal government announced that it had found what may be the students’ remains.
But there is far more to this story. The seeds of the student massacre can be found in May 2013, when, the evidence suggests, then-Mayor Abarca ordered the abduction and murder of a group of left-wing activists.
The day before they went missing, the activists signed a statement -- seen by InSight Crime -- saying they were afraid that the mayor would have them killed. Afterwards, a survivor told the authorities that Abarca had visited the site where the group was being held, and had shot dead one of their members, local politician Arturo Hernandez, saying “I’m going to give myself the pleasure of killing you.”
Though these facts were widely reported in the Mexican press, Abarca remained free and in office, until the case of the students caught the nation’s attention.
“It was a crime foretold,” Sofia Lorena Mendoza, Hernandez’s partner, told InSight Crime. “This could have been avoided, but nobody listened to us. Nobody did anything after what happened to the activists, and this meant that worse and worse things could keep happening. They found the bodies on June 3, 2013, and there is still impunity.”
Abarca and his wife may now be under arrest -- the former mayor was finally charged with the kidnapping of the activists in October this year -- but the system that brought Abarca to power, and kept him there despite the grisly evidence against him, has not been touched.
Jose*, a classmate of the missing students, told InSight Crime that he and others at Ayotzinapa school were far from satisfied.
“We don’t just want Abarca to be arrested and that’s it," Jose said. "We want the others to be punished -- who ordered that he become mayor? Who proposed him for leader in Iguala when he has a history of relatives linked to organized crime? He kept governing after the murder of Arturo Hernandez -- he stayed on! Therefore both the federal and state governments are complicit.”
"Iguala was like a ghost town."
The 2013 case not only set a precedent for the brutal repression of social movements, but helped build the mayor’s animosity towards Ayotzinapa students. After the activists went missing, students from the school took over the town hall in protest against the mayor, explained Magda Lopez, of the Organizacion de Derechos Humanos Red Solidaria Decada Contra la Impunidad, an NGO working on the 2013 case.
For Lopez, the responsibility goes beyond the Guerrero state authorities.
“There was negligence at the federal level," she told InSight Crime. "If there had been a prompt investigation into the killing of the activists, the terrible events of September 26 would have been avoided."
Fear and Complicity
A crime of this scale -- the abduction and killing of 43 people – could not be carried out in secret. It required a culture of fear and complicity to prevent other authorities in Iguala from intervening, and keep the residents silent.
After the students did not return home on the night of September 26, a group of their families and classmates went to Iguala the next day to look for them.
“We went to the Federal Prosecutor General’s Office, but my son didn’t appear," Raul*, father of one of the missing students, told InSight Crime. "We went to the hospitals, we even asked for help from the army. They told me that they didn’t know anything, that they didn’t hear anything, only a few meters from where the incident took place. It doesn’t make sense that the [state] police and army didn’t realize what was happening.”
Colonel Aranda Torres, commander of the 27th Battalion in Iguala, had a close relationship with ex-Mayor Abarca, and on the night of the killings was a guest at a party thrown by Abarca and his wife, reported La Jornada. During the arrests and killings, soldiers from the battalion attacked students as they tried to escape, according to the newspaper.
Student teacher Jose told InSight Crime that local residents had been intimidated into silence.
“We asked the families where the incident took place, and some of them closed the door. Others didn’t want to talk to us. It was like a ghost town,” he explained.
The deep corruption and fear that this case illustrates helps explain the rise of civilian self-defense and vigilante movements in the region -- both the long-established Community Police forces of Guerrero, and more recently established self-defense groups in that state and neighboring Michoacan. As Raul, father of one of the missing students, explained to InSight Crime, the families continue to carry out their own search, aided by the Community Police.
“We do trust the Community Police,” explained the father. “They have points of reference for the search.”
The Unnoticed Disappeared
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Iguala case is that it is far from being an isolated incident. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people have been disappeared in recent years -- by state agents, by criminal groups, or, as the evidence suggests in this case, the two working together. Many others have been summarily executed by the security forces. If the 43 victims had been spread over several states, and several months, there likely would have been little response from the authorities -- and no attention from the international media.
“If the bodies aren’t those of our companions, then whose are they?
In the days and weeks after the students went missing, the Mexican authorities found at least 30 bodies in mass graves near Iguala -- but they were not the bodies of the students. A report by Excelsior gives the telling example of a man whose credit card was found at one of the burial sites in October. He had disappeared in September 2013, but his family had never reported him missing for fear of reprisals. In his recent statement, the prosecutor general said that only four of the bodies had been identified so far, and that the authorities believed Iguala police had been involved in their deaths.
One Iguala resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime that locals say there are many more mass graves close by, which are regularly used by criminals to dump human remains. These victims have gone unnoticed.
“If the bodies aren’t those of our companions, then whose are they?" asked student teacher Jose. "It's clear to us that many people have been disappeared in Guerrero, as shown by the 38 bodies that they have found so far.”
The case of the students has drawn national and international attention for several reasons: the large number who disappeared at once; the activism of the families; the clear evidence implicating the security forces; and the fact that the victims were young trainee teachers, and therefore “innocent.” They could not be written off as just more criminals killed in Mexico’s drug conflict, as so many others have been.
Case not Closed
Under the glare of the media spotlight, authorities are keen to wrap up the Iguala case. Prosecutor General Jesus Murillo Karam announced on November 7 that captured members of a criminal group had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, before dumping the remains in a river.
But for the victims’ families, the case will not be closed until they have definitive proof of what happened to their loved ones.
Raul, father of one of the students, said that he did not accept the government’s statement.
“Murillo is saying that these are your dead, that it all ends here," he said. "It’s not right, because the government doesn’t have DNA proof that says they are dead, that says, ‘Here are your dead, take them.’ It doesn’t end here.”
He explained that, like others among the families, he will keep searching for his son until there is proof of what happened to him.
“We are very angry -- I don’t know if my son is eating, whether he has clothes. I have faith, like the other parents, that the boys are alive,” he said. “It fills me with anger and rage that the government hasn’t done its job. The police took them, and the police must give them back to us.”
Certainly, the Mexican authorities’ habit of using torture to extract the desired information from detainees casts doubt on the government's version of events, which relies heavily on confessions. The human remains found in a river following these confessions are so badly damaged that only two bone fragments are in a good enough state to attempt DNA testing, according to the prosecutor general, suggesting that the families may never get the proof they need.
Life at the Ayotzinapa school has been put on hold while the community waits for answers. According to student teacher Jose, classes have been canceled and many of the students are living in the school.
“They sleep there, they eat there," he said. "It’s very sad. It makes you angry, furious, because the students are from modest backgrounds. They are indigenous people, peasant farmers. We don't deserve this treatment.”
For Raul, the fact that his son and many other missing students are from poor backgrounds is what makes them disposable.
“It’s been nearly two months now and we don’t know anything. I’m a humble person, poor, I’m not ashamed of my roots,” he told InSight Crime. “But what would happen if the members of Congress lost one of their children, or if President Enrique Peña Nieto lost one of his? They would be found.”
*Names have been changed to protect those who wish to remain anonymous due to security concerns.