On September 26th, 2014, forty-three students of the rural Ayotzinapa teacher’s college went missing after a deadly altercation with local police in the city of Iguala, Mexico. The students had commandeered several buses in the southwestern state of Guerrero to demonstrate against government educational reforms in hiring and funding. Reportedly under orders from the then-Mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, municipal police halted the buses and opened fire on the passengers, killing three of the students and three pedestrians. Over a dozen students fled the scene, while the ‘Ayotzinapa 43’ were loaded into police vehicles before being handed over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) crime syndicate. The most widely accepted theory of what happened next is that the students were summarily executed, then their bodies burned in a remote dump in the state of Guerrero, which is corroborated by gang member confessions and an expert report by an Argentine forensics team confirming bone remains belonged to one of the missing 43. Additionally, an investigation released by the Mexican magazine Proceso with assistance from the Investigative Reporting Program of UC Berkeley has argued that Federal Police were directly complicit in the attacks. The atrocity sparked nationwide anti-government protests highlighting the rampant corruption within the Mexican political system. Furthermore, the event serves as a blatant example of just how incredibly deep drug cartels have infiltrated, and now control elements of Mexican law enforcement and political officials.
The missing 43 young men were all members of a ‘Normalista’ school, a college that prepares students for rural teaching with a curriculum intertwined with a history of activist politics and leftist social justice. While violent incidents have occurred in the past, nothing on this scale has occurred since the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which between 30 and 300 people were killed by military and police. Americas Director of Human Rights Watch Jose Miguel Vivanco stated, “These are the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in years, but they are hardly isolated incidents. Instead, these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely the consequence of the longstanding failure of Mexican authorities to address the problem.” In fact, during the search for the bodies, many other mass graves were discovered, though the fate of the remainder of the Ayotzinapa 43 may never be ascertained.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto did not respond to the event for eleven days, and even then he did not meet with the parents of the missing students for thirty-three days, opting to call families to the capital for a meeting rather than traveling to the site in the state of Guerrero. The disrespectful delay reflects the hesitancy of the Mexican government’s willingness to take on the fundamental problems of corruption and counter the reach of the drug cartels. Outside of Mexico, the fate of the students and questionable governmental response drew limited media attention that quickly dissipated, while within the country continuous large-scale demonstrations, riots, demonstrations and calls for President Nieto’s resignation persist. More recently, authorities arrested the Mayor of Iguala Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who has known familial drug cartel connections, in Mexico City after they had fled the fallout of the incident. In total, over 80 people have been arrested, the majority of whom are local police or members of the Guerreros Unidos organization.
Criminal investigations are pending against Abarca and Pineda, with uncertain implications for their political allies and the law enforcement structure of the region. Already there has been an alarming amount of maneuvering within the Mexican government to avoid blame and place it elsewhere, but it is obvious that the entire apparatus needs improvement in accountability. Unfortunately, mass killings by drug cartels in Mexico have become all too commonplace, though the barbarity and boldness of this latest tragic incident reveals just how severe parts of the country are controlled by the reach of the drug cartels. It is clear the level of collaboration between criminal organizations and the Mexican political system has reached new and unprecedented levels, and because the former is so embedded in the latter, it will take an incredible amount of effort to revert this trend via comprehensive governmental reform.