The nightmarish saga of Mexico’s 43 missing students took another dramatic twist this week with the revelation that another 31 students may have been kidnapped in the southern state of Guerrero in July.
French media outlet France24 reported that the high school students from the town of Cocula were abducted in broad daylight by masked men in navy blue uniforms and driven away in police cars on July 7.
The local families, who said they have not seen their children since, were reportedly threatened with death if they spoke out or reported the incident.
Cocula lies only a short distance from Iguala, where 43 trainee teachers were abducted in late September. Prosecutors believe the teaching students were then driven to Cocula, where they were murdered and their bodies incinerated.
Dozens of police officers from the Iguala and Cocula forces have been arrested in connection with the latter incident.
Read more: Peña Nieto faces growing national anger
There are no government records of disappearances in Cocula in July, but it is not unusual for such crimes to go unreported in Mexico due to fear of reprisals and suspicion that local authorities are working with the perpetrators.
Numerous mass graves have been found in the area in the last two months during authorities’ search for the missing students of Iguala. The latest grisly find came on Thursday, when authorities discovered 11 headless bodies in the nearby municipality of Chilapa de Álvarez. The victims have not yet been identified, but they were all men in their early to mid-twenties who had been shot, burned and decapitated.
Protesters sent to maximum-security prisons
As unrest continues in the wake of the disappearance of the 43 trainee teachers, Mexican civil society has rallied for the release of eleven people who many believe were arbitrarily arrested during last week’s demonstrations in Mexico City.
The detainees, who have been charged with attempted murder and involvement with organized crime, are being held in two maximum-security prisons, located hundreds of miles from the capital, that are normally reserved for dangerous drug traffickers. Prosecutors said the charges are based on the testimony of the officers who made the arrests and the fact that the protesters referred to one another as “compa” – the Spanish word for companion or comrade.
Amnesty International has called for Mexico to drop the “overblown” charges and release the eight men and three women immediately.
“The evidence against the 11 protesters is so thin that it is incredibly hard to understand why they are still in detention, let alone in high-security facilities and treated as ‘high value criminals.’ Such acts raise the question of whether there is a deliberate attempt to discourage legitimate protests,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
President faces more uncomfortable questions
In response to Mexico’s ongoing security crisis, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced on Thursday a number of reforms to the nation’s police forces and several other measures aimed at enhancing transparency and combating corruption.
However, he made no mention of the scandal over his use of luxury properties owned by a favored government contractor.
In addition to the infamous Mexico City mansion that the president’s wife apparently bought from a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, it emerged this week that Peña Nieto benefitted from rent-free use of another property owned by the same company during his campaign and as president-elect in 2011 and 2012.
Critics contend that this represents a clear conflict of interest because Grupo Higa was recently awarded a $3.75 billion contract – which has since been rescinded amid allegations that the bidding process was rigged – to build a high-speed rail line between Mexico City and Querétaro.
Another report revealed this week that Grupo Higa was also given a contract worth more than $68 million to renovate the presidential hangar at Mexico City Airport.
Despite Peña Nieto’s avowed commitment to transparency and ending corruption, his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has blocked the creation of a special congressional committee to investigate the controversial properties and his close relationship with Grupo Higa.