Forty-three Mexican students are still missing a week after police and other unidentified assailants shot dead six unarmed civilians in Iguala, a small city in the southwestern state of Guerrero.
The students are activists from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college who had come to Iguala on Friday, September 26 to collect donations to fund planned demonstrations. They were protesting against what they consider discriminatory hiring practices that favor teachers from urban backgrounds over rural ones.
The students said they were hitchhiking back to their college on local buses that night when they came under attack by municipal police officers and other unidentified gunmen. The police gave chase and opened fire, later claiming that the students had hijacked the buses.
Three students were killed on the spot, along with a woman who was hit later that night when her taxi came under fire. Gunmen also shot at a bus carrying third-division soccer team Avispones – having presumably mistaken it for a bus seized by students – causing the vehicle to crash and killing the driver and a 15-year-old member of the team.
At least 17 others were injured and 57 students went missing in the aftermath of the attacks. The following day, the body of one of the murdered students was found. Gruesome images circulated on social networks showing his face skinned and his eyeballs gouged out in a gangland-style act of mutilation.
Federal and state police searching for the missing students believe some of them may have fled into the surrounding hills when the shooting started. Fourteen students have been located since last Friday but there is still no sign of the other 43 who disappeared that night.
The surviving students told the press they fear that those missing are now in the hands of organized crime. Eyewitnesses said some 20 students were driven away in police cars but they have not been seen since, and state authorities have confirmed they are not under police custody.
The state authorities arrested 22 members of Iguala’s municipal police force on Sunday and charged them with murder on Tuesday. Forensic tests indicated that 19 of them had fired their weapons on the night of the attacks, and the state prosecutor said they may also face kidnapping charges.
The prosecutor has also issued a warrant for the arrest of Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his public security chief, who have both skipped town and are now considered fugitives. Abarca was accused of murder and links to organized crime only last year, while federal investigators previously identified his brother-in-law as a member of the notorious Beltrán Leyva cartel.
Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero admitted this week that his state has serious security problems as “most of the Guerrero police” are involved in organized crime, and announced a reward of one million pesos ($75,000) for information on the missing students’ whereabouts.
More problems for state security forces
The murder and disappearance of so many people makes this one of the worst instances of violence against students in Mexico since October 2, 1968, when the military massacred hundreds of leftist student demonstrators in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Ironically, one of the reasons the missing students had traveled to Iguala was to raise funds so that they could participate in the annual demonstration commemorating the Tlatelolco massacre.
Masked protestors expressed their anger on Monday by marching through Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, and smashing the windows of the state congress building with rocks.
As a result of the turmoil, President Enrique Peña Nieto decided to cancel a scheduled trip to Guerrero on Monday.
The murder and apparent abduction of the students comes at a difficult time for Peña Nieto, just days after eight soldiers were arrested in connection with the alleged extrajudicial killing of 22 people in the town of Tlatlaya in June.
Three of those soldiers were charged with murder this week, further damaging Peña Nieto’s efforts to distance himself from the widely criticized human rights record of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.