Five weeks since they disappeared, the fate of Mexico’s 43 missing students remains a mystery. The investigation has been characterized by a lack of urgency and transparency, while a whirl of rumors and contradictory statements have left the public with little sense of what to believe.
One of the only constants has been the seemingly endless stream of mass graves uncovered in the southern state of Guerrero. Thirteen corpses were exhumed from the most recent site in the town of Ocotitlán on Wednesday.
The reaction in Mexico has been one of overwhelming public anger. Meanwhile, the story continues to make waves around the world, with Pope Francis praying for the missing students and the White House declaring this week that “reports of the situation are worrying.”
President meets with missing families
President Enrique Peña Nieto met for five hours with the parents of the missing students at Los Pinos, his official residence in Mexico City, on Wednesday evening.
“We’re living a nightmare,” one of the parents told the press after the meeting. “We’re desperate but we’re not going to tire until we find them.”
Read more: “We want them back alive”
Peña Nieto said he had signed a ten-point agreement promising to restructure the search for the students and create a commission to keep their families better informed of the progress of the investigation. He also vowed to provide support for the families of the six people who were killed and the two dozen others who were wounded on the night the students were abducted.
The students, who were training to become teachers at Guerrero’s left-leaning Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, disappeared near the town of Iguala on the night of September 26 after coming under attack by police officers and cartel gunmen.
Many of the missing students were last seen being thrown into the back of police cars. It is thought that they were then handed over to local drug gang Guerreros Unidos (Warriors United).
Four alleged members of Guerreros Unidos were arrested on Monday, bringing the total number of suspects in custody to 56, including 40 local police officers.
Mayor’s wife accused of masterminding the crime
Federal Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said last week that Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa were responsible for the students’ disappearance.
The couple, who have disappeared along with Iguala’s municipal police chief, are believed to have ordered the abduction of the students to prevent them from disrupting a public speech made by Pineda that night.
Pineda, whose family allegedly founded Guerreros Unidos, is thought to have controlled the gang’s finances and was planning to succeed her husband as mayor of Iguala.
Guerreros Unidos leader Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, who was arrested on October 16, reportedly told investigators this week that Pineda had been having an affair with the state governor, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, and that she used her family’s illicit earnings to fund his electoral campaign in 2010.
Aguirre was forced to resign last week, having become the target of public outrage over the disappearance of the students.
Casarrubias claimed that Mayor Abarca provided Guerreros Unidos with three to four million pesos (approximately $225,000 to $300,000) every month or two. The gang then paid the Iguala police force 600,000 pesos ($45,000) each month for protection.
According to Mexico’s Reforma newspaper, Casarrubias also told investigators that his gang attacked the students because they had been infiltrated by rival gang Los Rojos.
On the night the students disappeared, Guerreros Unidos killed 17 members of Los Rojos, then burned their bodies and dumped the ashes in the nearby Cocula River, Casarrubias said. These claims are under investigation, with federal agents searching the Cocula River and a nearby landfill site this week.
Priest claims students were burned alive
Father Alejandro Solalinde, a priest famed for defending the human rights of Central American immigrants in Mexico, claims to have spoken to several people who witnessed the fate of the some of the missing students.
Hours after they were abducted, the students were marched up a hill outside Iguala and forced to dig their own graves, before being executed. Their bodies were thrown into the pits that were laden with wood and doused in gasoline, but several of the students were still alive when they were set on fire, Solalinde said.
A week after the students disappeared, the Mexican government found 28 charred corpses buried on a hillside near Iguala. Government investigators later claimed that the bodies were not those of the students, but the students’ families are still awaiting the results of DNA tests by a team of independent forensic scientists from Argentina.
Solalinde believes these were the students’ bodies and that the government lied in order to prevent even greater public outrage.
“What causes less damage to the system?” he asked. “To say they were burned, with everything that implies? Or say they’re disappeared and that they don’t know what happened. The second has less impact, and is less incriminating, but it’s more painful for the families to keep them hoping.”
The faint but lingering hope that the students might still be alive was enhanced this week by rumors that 22 of them are being held by members of Guerreros Unidos.
Citing Mexican intelligence sources, several Mexican journalists reported that the government is trying to negotiate their release, but there has been no official information to corroborate this to date.
Meanwhile, the students’ families have been left with little recourse but to keep pressuring the authorities with their tireless mantra: “They took them alive, we want them back alive.”