Sunday, October 12, 2014


Fear and fury in Mexico as mass graves hint at fate of missing students.

They were young people for whom teaching was the only way out of poverty. But when they demonstrated over hiring practices, the drug cartels and police showed no mercy.

Ernesto knows he is lucky to be here to tell his story. First, he saw a friend left barely alive after he was shot in the face by police firing at their group of student teachers in the southern Mexican city of Iguala.

Then he spent 15 minutes cowering between two of the three buses in which the students had been travelling, as the single shots turned into bursts of semi-automatic gunfire lighting up the night with their flashes.

After that, he found himself running for his life into the backstreets, where he was given shelter by a local resident, while gunmen launched a second assault that would leave two students dead. Next day the 23-year-old visited the mortuary, where he identified a third murdered student whose body was found a few blocks away, his face skinned and his eyes gouged out.

But the part of this tale that most visibly affects Ernesto is the memory of looking on helplessly as many of his classmates were bundled into police vehicles at gunpoint and driven away.

Two weeks later 43 students are still missing. It appears increasingly likely that they ended up in a series of graves found near the city in recent days, but Ernesto is not ready to give up hope that they are being held somewhere and will soon be released. “I refuse to believe that my friends were in those graves,” he said, wincing at the thought of the charred remains retrieved so far, which have yet to be identified. “To think that the police arrested them and then they were massacred, that would just be too much.”

The Iguala events count among the worst atrocities of the bloodbath in Mexico triggered by an ill-conceived crackdown on organised crime launched eight years ago. Such atrocities seriously challenge claims by the current administration that it is bringing under control the security crisis it inherited. Just days before the attacks President Enrique Peña Nieto told the Economic Club in New York that a drop in the number of murders since he took office nearly two years ago was a “a clear sign that we are going in the right direction.”

On Tuesday, after more than a week seeming to avoid the issue, he delivered an address to the nation calling the events in Iguala “outrageous, painful and unacceptable.” He went on to give his word that those responsible would be brought to justice.

It was not enough for many.

Tens of thousands marched in demonstrations across Mexico last week to express outrage at the attacks and register their indignation that the targets were students from poor rural families for whom becoming teachers is possibly the only route to advancement.

Their fury also stems from the brazen involvement of municipal police in the attacks, which has exposed both how deeply politics and organised criminal violence have become entwined, and how low this priority has rated within the government’s security strategy.

In Iguala, the attack highlighted longstanding allegations that the mayor, José Luis Abarca, all but shared municipal authority with a local cartel, Guerreros Unidos. Iguala is in the state of Guerrero. The word guerrero also means warrior. Guerreros Unidos is one of many groups that formed from fragments of the Beltrán Leyva cartel that controlled a large part of cocaine trafficking to the US before it began to fall apart in 2010. It is said to specialise in supplying marijuana and heroin to Chicago.

Abarca’s alleged links stem in part from his wife’s family. María de los Angeles Pineda has several brothers named in intelligence reports as members of either the Beltrán Leyva cartel or Guerreros Unidos. Some are dead, and one of them was arrested last week. Abarca and Pineda, who was preparing to stand for election next year to replace her husband as mayor, are both now on the run.

The attorney general, Jesús Murillo, said the investigation had revealed that the municipal police had been ensnared by organised crime. “I would not call these police police,” he said of the officers who attacked the students. “I would call them [cartel] hitmen.”

Today many in Iguala express relief at the influx of federal forces that have replaced the now disbanded municipal police, with 22 officers currently under arrest. The federal police and the army are seen as more trustworthy than the municipal or state police.

Yet it is hard to find residents who share the government’s apparent surprise at the level of collusion in their city.

“I was chatting recently with a customer who said it was a good thing that the mayor made a deal with the narcos because it was helping to keep order,” said a vendor in the main square, who gave her name as María. She had agreed, she said, thinking of other cities in Guerrero, like Acapulco, which is infamous for gun battles in the streets. “What happened to the students has changed my mind. Now we are all terrified.”

Versions vary over exactly what did happen, but most follow the story told by Ernesto. The students all live and study in a famously radical teacher training college called the Normal de Ayotzinapa, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Iguala in Tixtla. Ernesto said the students had gone to Iguala to commandeer buses to transport them to a future protest, a practice usually tolerated by the bus companies.

All had been going well, he said, until around 9pm, when the students headed out of town on the buses and found their path blocked by police. The first assault happened soon after, he said, with the students driven off in police vehicles after the shooting stopped. “They didn’t resist. How could they?” he said. “They had guns pointing at them.”

A period of calm followed, Ernesto said, during which more students arrived in solidarity, as well as local journalists. He noted that no soldiers, federal or state police showed up to even find out what had been going on. Then, at around midnight, a new contingent of gunmen approached the buses with guns blazing. “We couldn’t see who they were, but they were emptying their rifles in our direction,” he said. “Everybody ran.”

By the following morning the students were denouncing the fact that, as well as the three students and three others killed, dozens of students were missing. Then, last weekend, the authorities discovered and excavated five graves containing 28 burned bodies in the hills that border the western edge of the city. The graves lie beyond the reach of any vehicle up a difficult track across rugged terrain, suggesting that whoever was in the graves was alive when they made the climb.

This weekend the authorities are digging at four more graves found in another site close to the first, but approached by a different route.

On Friday morning, federal police blocked the track to the new graves, as parents of the disappeared students headed for Iguala hoping to find reasons to believe the bodies are not those of their children. Behind the officers with assault rifles across their chests the shrub-covered hills loomed, a place where residents nearby said they have long suspected unspeakable things happened. “We would sometimes hear men and women crying in pain, or calling for mercy,” said a young builder called Jamir. He was referring to the last couple of years rather than the last couple of weeks.

Another local, Jonatán, told of a steady traffic of vehicles, including Hummers and Jeeps. He said he had also seen municipal police cars on the same route. “We never said anything because we were too frightened,” he said. “There was nobody to tell.”

If the bodies in the graves turn out to be those of the students, many questions remain, starting with why they would be the targets of attack.

Meanwhile, in Iguala local people speculate that the attack might have been linked to an event organised by the mayor’s wife on the day the students came to town. One student said that in the previous week social media had been buzzing with rumours that something frightening would happen around that event.

A taxi driver dismissed the violence, saying: “They went a bit far, sure, but it is logical enough.” He insisted that the attack must have been prompted by the belief that the students were infiltrated by a rival gang. “It is a struggle for territory between two gangs, that’s all.”

Meanwhile, Ernesto is wondering what will come next. If his friends were massacred, he said, the students will feel obliged to step up action to demand justice. “There will be consequences,” he said. “This cannot be left like this.”
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The idea behind the text.
Respect for the truth is almost the basis of all morality.
Nothing can come from nothing.

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