Outrage over the attack has put a spotlight on widespread intimidation, torture, kidnappings and killings by the police, army and drug gangs, especially in rural areas.
On Nov. 7 Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo announced that officials had recovered what they believe are the remains of the 43, along with dozens of other bodies. Confirmation from DNA testing has not been released.
The disappeared youth are students at the all-male Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa. They had come to town to raise money in advance of an Oct. 2 demonstration in Mexico City to commemorate the 1968 massacre of student protesters in the capital on the orders of then-President Gustavo Diaz.
The Ayotzinapa students planned to raise money through a “boteo” — a roadblock or toll booth takeover commonly used by student groups seeking donations for education. Like previous years, they also convinced drivers to let them use some buses from companies in Iguala to go to the Mexico City protest.
On the night of Sept. 26 municipal police fired automatic weapons at three busloads of students as they headed out of town, then took dozens away in police vehicles.
“Nobody died in this first attack,” Román Hernández, a spokesperson from the Mountain Human Rights Committee in Guerrero, said from Ayotzinapa Nov. 7. “But several were severely wounded.”
Police also fired on a bus carrying soccer players, thinking it carried Ayotzinapa students, killing two.
The students called classmates in Ayotzinapa, human rights groups and the press to denounce the attack. A couple hours later during an impromptu press conference at the site, masked men opened fire again killing two students and a bystander.
As the students fled, soldiers appeared and at first wouldn’t allow them to leave, Omar García, one of the surviving students, told Telemundo. “They told us, ‘You asked for it, so shut up. You wanted to be little men. … Now just suck it up.’”
It wasn’t until 10 days after the attack that President Enrique Peña Nieto sent federal police and prosecutors to investigate and search for the students.
The attacks and abductions provoked outrage and protests across the country from Guerrero to Monterrey and Veracruz. The largest demonstrations took place in Mexico City: thousands on Oct. 8, 50,000 on Oct. 29 and more than 100,000 Nov. 5.
On Nov. 4 federal authorities arrested Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda for ordering the assault and kidnappings. Abarca faces charges of murder, attempted murder and forced abduction.
Mexican Attorney General Murillo said the mayor and Pineda feared the students were going to protest at an event being held for Pineda, who was campaigning to take Abarca’s place as mayor in the upcoming election.
The Iguala and Cocula police turned the students over to Guerreros Unidos, Murillo said, who then killed them and burned their bodies. According to Murillo, Abarca and Pineda were allied with Guerreros Unidos, a narco-traffic gang.
Federal authorities have arrested at least 53 others, including 36 cops and 17 alleged members of Guerreros Unidos. The locations of the bodies were provided by arrested gangsters, Murillo said.
The teachers college in Ayotzinapa has a long history of political activism, supporting peasants’ and workers’ struggles. The students are mostly from peasant families in Guerrero. Students from rural teacher colleges are eligible for jobs at $500 a month, often in remote areas.
According to Mexican government figures, more than 22,000 people have been “disappeared” across the country in the last eight years.
The narcotics trade is a key source of revenue for a section of Mexico’s capitalist class, a section that also has a substantial stake in legal business, as well as ties to politicians, police officials and private armies. At the same time, the drug cartels’ competition and murderous violence are disruptive to other sections of the country’s propertied families and their desire for stable governance.
The outrage over the killing and disappearances is sweeping up politicians in both the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which controls much of Guerrero, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party of President Peña Nieto. Abarca and Pineda were both prominent in the PRD. Guerrero state Gov. Angel Aguirre, a close ally of Abarca, has resigned. Before switching to the PRD prior to the last elections, Aguirre was a PRI leader and a close ally of Peña Nieto.
On Oct. 30, more than a month after the attack on the Ayotzinapa students, Peña Nieto met in Mexico City with families of the missing students and promised more government action to find them.
“We are still demanding justice,” Martha Isela Echeverría, whose brother Gabriel was one of two Ayotzinapa students killed by federal and state police in 2011, told a press conference after the meeting with the president where family members said they had no confidence in the government. “Every year students are killed in Guerrero. We don’t want any more deaths of students who are studying to be teachers and the next day they are killed for asking for sustenance for their schools.”
“The government has tolerated organized crime,” said Hernández of the Mountain Human Rights Committee, which has been working with the families of the disappeared. “You can’t tell where one begins and the other ends.”
Seth Galinsky contributed to this article.
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