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Mexico's missing students expose nexus of crime and politics

Patience is wearing thin among activists seeking the return of 43 Mexican students that went missing last month. Some accuse the government of trying to buy time, and fear a return of guerrilla violence in Guerrero.

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People take part in a demonstration to demand information about 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college, along Tixtla road in Chilpancingo, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, October 2014. Authorities fear that the students could have been massacred by police in league with gang members.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

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In what some critics believe is a political miscalculation, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has mustered only tepid action to resolve the case of 43 missing student teachers who disappeared nearly a month ago, hoping the scandal will blow over.

Instead, the Peña Nieto government now confronts a bruising series of public demonstrations and the specter of a rise in violent radicalism in the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero.

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Tens of thousands of people clogged the streets of central Mexico City Wednesday night in a candlelight vigil for the missing students, and marches unfolded in at least 30 cities. Four once-moribund armed groups in Guerrero have all issued statements condemning what they call “state terrorism,” with one group calling for “all forms of struggle, violent and peaceful.”

As the days pass, patience is wearing thin among activists seeking the return of the missing students, who were attacked by municipal police in this city on Sept. 26. The clashes left six dead. Police rounded up 43 others and turned them over to a regional crime group that received orders from the mayor’s wife, authorities say.

“The government is trying to buy time to erase all the evidence,” says Crisoforo Garcia Rodriguez, a leader of the Union of People and Organizations in the State of Guerrero, a group that has mobilized hundreds of activists to this city of 130,000 residents in the search for the disappeared.

While Peña Nieto has spoken of the case rarely, and his Cabinet has offered little information until this week, Mr. Garcia’s group has scoured the hills around Iguala, finding numerous mass graves with the help of concerned citizens and shining a light on the nexus between politicians and criminals.

“A total of 17 clandestine mass graves have been found,” Garcia says. “There are more. There are hundreds of clandestine grave sites out there.”

In the initial weeks after the disappearance of the students, all of whom attended a rural teachers college in the state, the Peña Nieto government sought to cast responsibility for the incident on Guerrero State Gov. Angel Aguirre Rivero, a former legislator of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, who switched parties in 2010 and won election as governor on the ticket of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.

“They miscalculated,” says Juan Angulo Osorio, editor of El Sur, a newspaper that circulates in Acapulco, Guerrero’s best known city, and Chilpancingo, its capital, referring to leaders of the PRI. “They wanted all the responsibility to fall on Aguirre. But they didn’t count on the international reaction that puts the blame on Peña Nieto.”

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Gov. Aguirre fell on his axe later Thursday. He told a press conference around 6 p.m. that he’d asked to take an indefinite leave from his post.

He said he made the decision to “improve the political climate” in his state and that it would be up to the state Congress to pick his replacement.

local and international 'jolt'

It was unclear how his departure would affect the crisis. Federal officials were urgently seeking to quarantine the political contagion as cynicism over seemingly lackluster government attempts to hunt for the missing students deepened.

“The chain of complicities and coverups, both political and police-military, goes from the municipal level to the federal level,” a onetime guerrilla group, the Insurgent Revolutionary People’s Army, said in a statement Oct. 17.

Other onetime insurgencies that have condemned the disappearances include the Popular Revolutionary Army (active in the latter part of the 1990s), the Revolutionary Armed Forces-Liberation of the People, and a fourth group, the People’s Militia of Guerrero.

None of the armed groups is believed to have significant membership, weaponry or logistical capability, but that may not always be the case as frustration levels grow. The Rev. Francisco Javier Tejeda, parish priest of Iguala’s cathedral, says anger over rampant corruption in the state is already high. The case of the missing students “will bring a lot of consequences,” he said.

“It is possible that another armed movement may be brewing,” Mr. Tejeda says.

Several respected security analysts shared a concern about intensifying upheaval in Guerrero, adding that the Peña Nieto government had been caught off-guard by how anger over the disappearances has spread.

“It seems that what happened in Iguala crossed an invisible line and turned into a national commotion and an international jolt,” says Ernesto Lopez Portillo Vargas, head of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a think tank in Mexico City.

“This structure of impunity is sparking all this discontent,” he added.

Who is to blame?

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam sought Wednesday to focus all blame for the student disappearances on former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca; his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who hoped to succeed him in the mayor’s job; and city security chief Felipe Flores. All have arrest warrants pending and are fugitives, he added.

Mr. Murillo Karam said the head of the Warriors United regional crime gang, Sidronio Casarrubias, who was arrested Oct. 16, told prosecutors that the mayor’s wife is the sister of two gangsters and was the city government link for Warriors United.

He said that on the night of Sept. 26, Casarrubias received a call from an underling known as “El Gil,” who misidentified the students as members of a rival gang, Los Rojos. Once municipal police from Iguala and another nearby town, Cocula, rounded up the students, El Gil used a cattle truck to take them west of Iguala to an area where nine mass graves were found, Murillo Karam said.

Curiously, while Mexico has the capability to do expert DNA testing itself, Murillo Karam said the government is awaiting the results of DNA tests conducted by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, a 30-year-old nonprofit group with offices in Buenos Aires and New York City, to determine if bodies found in the mass graves belong to any of the missing students.

As Murillo Karam limited responsibilities to corruption in Iguala, others said the drug taint has infected municipalities across Guerrero and has reached into the governor’s office.

“This money laundering is an activity that takes place in very many city halls,” says Mr. Angulo, the newspaper editor, noting that several major political parties benefited from it and that Gov. Aguirre was aware of it.

Angulo says some in Mexico’s political class bet that the crisis over the students will diminish even if their whereabouts are never determined.

“They are betting that people will forget,” he says.