It started as a typical university student protest — like so many others — in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. This one in the city of Iguala, however, turned deadly with the disappearance of 43 students who, as of this writing, have yet to be found.
It is a story that reveals disturbing evidence, showing how the police department, elected officials and organized crime — have been working together in Mexico, committing unspeakable crimes. Many of the victims have been tortured, burned, decapitated and buried in mass graves.
This is what we know so far:
Four weeks ago, students from a college that trains teachers, Escuela Normal Rural Ayotzinapa, went to Iguala to protest against what they said were unfair hiring practices. That is not unusual for the students; they have protested many times in Iguala. But September 26th was an inconvenient day for a protest in the eyes of Iguala’s then-Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, because his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, was scheduled to give a speech to show off a social service program for families which she spearheaded. Her speech coincided with the student protest. Abarca ordered the protest stopped at all cost.
Police confronted the students and within a few minutes the situation turned violent, according to the Mexican attorney general. The unarmed students were apparently targeted because they were distracting attention from the mayor’s wife’s show.
At the end of the day, six people died, and 43 students vanished; in Latin America those who mysteriously “disappear” are known as “desaparecidos.” Sometimes the “desparecidos” are never found but they are never forgotten. Thanks to national and international attention, those who committed these crimes may be held accountable.
Suspicions that Mayor Abarca and his wife are friendly with the “Guerreros Unidos” drug cartel are not new. One investigative journalist from Mexico, Anabel Hernández, says Maria de los Angeles Pineda is an active member of this violent group. Some law enforcement and government officials have been known to collude with organized crime in Mexico but this case highlights the level to which corruption is eating the country alive.
“In the 1970’s, the Mexican government thought it could use and manipulate drug cartels and control it, but organized crime became too powerful. Today, these cartels select and finance political candidates, including presidential campaigns,” said Hernández in a telephone interview. She lives under the threat of death for her reports. Mexico is a country where journalists who make life uncomfortable for government and drug traffickers are often murdered. Eighty journalists have been shot, bludgeoned, decapitated and stabbed in Mexico since 2006.
Hernández also claims that President Enrique Peña Nieto has been slow to respond to this crisis because his administration is implicated.
“The clamor and protests in the streets of Mexico and abroad are because Peña Nieto has been slow to react. He gave the mayor of Iguala and his wife time to escape,” says Hernández of the couple, who are now fugitives. She believes Peña Nieto is trying to cover up the footprints that may lead to his administration’s involvement with narco-traffickers.
Hernández would know. She is an expert on Mexican cartels: She authored the bestseller, Los Senores del Narco, released in English as Narcoland.
What makes the Iguala case even more alarming is that a newspaper, Reforma, is now linking the students with organized crime, saying that they were working with a rival cartel and were armed. There is no evidence to support this. Testimony by students, their bus drivers and even members of the local police department who shot the students have not made those claims. The local police say they received their orders to shoot from state and federal officers.
In the search for the students, 11 mass graves have been found with the remains of dozens of victims whose identities are not yet known. None are the missing students. Incredibly, few are surprised that these mass graves exist. Sadly, they are common; more than 70,000 deaths have been attributed to cartel violence since 2006.
This tragedy has enormous implications not only for the stability of Peña Nieto’s government but for the United States, which has invested heavily and worked closely with Mexican security forces to fight these cartels. Mexicans are rightly demanding full accountability from Peña Nieto. The United States cannot ask for less.
As for the families of the missing students, they just want their children back and for justice to be served.