Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

Classmates of missing Mexico students vow ‘radical action’

Dozens of students disappeared after police opened fire on protest; mass grave discovered over weekend

Classmates of dozens of missing students in Iguala, a town in Mexico’s Guerrero state, have promised to take radical action if the students — who classmates said were “disappeared” for participating in a political protest last month — are not returned alive.

Federal police on Tuesday took over security in Iguala and began searching for 43 students still missing after clashes with local police that took place on Sept. 26 and left at least six people dead. The federal officers arrived after the discovery of a mass grave near the rural town, amid suspicion that local police conspired with an area drug gang to massacre dozens of students.

In response to the violence, the students — from a teachers college in nearby Ayotzinapa — have taken control of federal highways and tollbooths in Guerrero in recent days.

"We ask that all human rights organizations, from the local to the international level, help us in demanding justice," José Solano Ramírez, a student at the Ayotzinapa teachers college, told the Mexican human rights group Serapaz. "They (the students) were taken alive. We want them back alive."

Guerrero State Attorney General Iñaky Blanco said Sunday that 28 bodies were found in a mass grave near Iguala. It is probable, he said, that some of the missing students are among the remains found at the site. Blanco said local police officials had handed over 17 students to the drug gang Guerreros Unidos, a remnant of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), a once powerful criminal group in the region recently decimated by high profile arrests of its leaders. DNA testing to confirm the identities of the remains is expected to take weeks.

The parents of the 43 Mexican youths, who have been missing since Sept. 26, pray as they await information about the students at a school in Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero on Tuesday.
Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

Nearly two dozen local police were arrested over the weekend in connection with the disappearances, and confessions have since confirmed the collaboration between local police and Guerreros Unidos.

The violence began Sept. 26 when students from the teachers college, which caters to the poor and indigenous, went to solicit donations and protest proposed government education reforms. Critics say the reforms would increase university fees and take away power from teachers’ unions. At least 50,000 students, teachers, and activists protested the same reforms in a march in Mexico City last week.

During the Iguala protest, local police fired on several buses — which had been commandeered by the students — killing four students and two bystanders. Soon afterward, 17 students were detained by police and handed over to Guerreros Unidos. Blanco said a local narcotics trafficker and a Guerreros Unidos member, both arrested after the Sept. 26 clashes, had confessed to killing the 17 students.

Iguala’s Mayor José Luis Abarca has been on the run since the Sept. 26 violence and is being investigated for possible involvement in the student disappearances. On Tuesday, CISEN, a federal security agency, reported that Abarca through the years has forged ties with the BLO.

The emerging evidence of police involvement in the student disappearances has snowballed into a major national crisis for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who since taking office has fought to shift attention away from rampant violence and toward a series of economic reforms circling through congress. On Monday, he vowed to find those behind the Guerrero violence.

“We need to find the truth and make sure the law is applied to those responsible for these outrageous, painful and unacceptable acts,” Peña Nieto said in a televised statement that was widely panned in Mexico for its brevity and because the president did not take any questions from journalists.

Peña Nieto has recently come under fire over another mass killing. Federal prosecutors last week announced charges against three soldiers accused of executing 22 gang suspects south of Mexico City in June. According to Attorney General Jesús Murrillo, the three soldiers entered a warehouse where the suspects were holed up and opened fire with “no justification whatsoever.”

Homicides have dropped slightly since Peña Nieto took office two years ago, but other crimes such as extortion and kidnapping are on the rise. There were nearly 23,000 homicides in Mexico in 2013, according to federal government statistics, with Guerrero among the most violent areas.

The state is home to Mexico’s vigilante or self-defense movement, which has seen armed citizen patrols protect communities from drug cartel violence and Mexico’s so-called Dirty War from the 1960s to the 1980s, when thousands who opposed government policies were killed or disappeared. 

Guerrero’s neighbor state to the north, Michoacán, has also experienced a rise in civilian self-defense groups in response to state and drug cartel violence. Late last year, such groups began fighting cartels they said were operating and exporting illegal goods from one of Mexico’s busiest ports, Lázaro Cárdenas.

In January the federal government sent reinforcements into Michoacán to cooperate with vigilantes in combatting the cartels. The self-defense groups allege that government forces stopped them from fighting, even arresting some of the vigilantes.

Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) had been accused of a long history of involvement with extrajudicial killings and drug cartels when it was previously in power from 1929 to 1999.

In the Tlatelolco massacre of Oct. 2, 1968, up to 300 students and civilians were killed by government security forces in Mexico City. No officials were ever prosecuted for the killings, and students often organize protests on the same date calling for justice — as tens of thousands did last week in Mexico City. Another march was set to be held in Mexico City next Wednesday at the behest of the missing Ayotzinapa students’ families, who have asked for a day of national action calling for justice.

"What is happening in our state of Guerrero hurts — that there is no respect for the law or human rights and the individual rights of every person," said Guillermo Hernández Castro, a student at the Ayotzinapa teachers college. "We want justice. We demand that responsibility be placed on the material and intellectual authors of the crime. We want all those responsible to pay.”

With wire services 

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