More than four months on from the forced disappearance of 43 student protesters in southern Mexico, there is still intense debate about the motivation for the attack.
The Mexican government has placed new emphasis on a theory that could explain why police and cartel hitmen kidnapped and probably massacred the unarmed group in Iguala, Guerrero state, last September.
Captured members of the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) cartel have testified that they viewed the student’s presence in Iguala as an aggression because they mistakenly believed members of a rival gang Los Rojos (The Reds) were among those traveling through town that night.
The theory was repeated by Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam during a press conference on January 27.
“The students were mistakenly identified as being members of an antagonistic criminal gang in the area,” he declared. “That is the reason why they were deprived of their liberty and their lives.”
The extreme violence of events that night, in which one victim had his face cut off and others were shot dead or tortured, suggest that the group may at some point have been viewed as a genuine threat. The theory provides a rationale for the attack and is highly convenient for the government, as it points away from state collusion.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Jane Wood has spent years studying the motivation and incentives that drive dangerous criminals.
“One thing I know about gangs is that they will often behave with extreme violence to save face, to maintain status or to enhance their reputation,” she said.
Dr. Wood also points to the psychological process of entativity, in which a group is viewed as one rather than as a collection of individuals.
“They may well have been aware that some of the targets of their violence weren’t actually gang members,” she said. “But if they believed that the rival gang had infiltrated the student group they would see entativity there, in other words the whole group looks the same so they all deserve to be targeted.”
In the gang conflict scenario, the students are simply more victims caught in the crossfire of a drug war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2007.
Yet Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst, believes there are missing pieces to the puzzle.
“They have mentioned the theory that the Guerrero Unidos thought the students belonged to a gang. What is still unclear is the origin of this belief. Why did they think this?”
Captured cartel hitman Felipe Rodríguez Salgado, known as “El Cepillo,” said a student he interrogated that night confessed that the college director was on the payroll of Los Rojos. The plan had been to send the group to Iguala to “cause chaos.” This connection, however, remains unproven, and it is difficult to determine why a drug gang would recruit unarmed students.
Two other theories have been floated as to why the group was targeted. Early reports suggested that Mayor José Luis Abarca ordered the attack to stop them from disrupting an event that his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, hoped would kick-start her own political career.
The story was initially pushed by the government and gained ground as both the mayor and his wife have a reputation for violence.
Abarca was accused of murdering a local activist in 2013, while Pineda has family ties to the Guerrero Unidos and once threatened to cut off a reporter’s ears.
Yet while the speech theory explains why police detained the group, the subsequent massacre and incineration of the students makes little sense, unless Abarca was working to protect the interests of the local gang and not just the political ambitions of his wife.
A third hypothesis holds that they were killed as part of a program of selective repression.
Omar García is a 24-year-old student who survived the police attack and has been campaigning ever since. He doesn’t believe gangsters mistook him or his classmates for rivals.
“It”s not possible. They were just students, members of the college,” García told Latin Correspondent. Instead, he thinks the motivation was political. “There’s a stigma that’s attached to our school. It’s a school dedicated to social struggle.”
The state repression theory is upheld by parents of the missing, who point out that students from the left-wing college have been attacked by local police before, including an incident in 2011, when two were shot dead.
“All we really want are our friends back”
Relatives and survivors are not the only ones who doubt the official story.
Dr. Jorge Antonio Montemayor Aldrete, a physicist at Mexico City’s UNAM university, has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the case. He dismisses the gang rivalry theory, pointing out that the cartel showed uncharacteristic concern with destroying DNA evidence.
“In 120,000 deaths that drug traffickers have been responsible for in the last 20 or 30 years, I don’t know one that’s has been cremated. Drug cartels have never cremated bodies,” he said.
According to Dr. Montemayor, the attorney general’s claim that the bodies were burned by drug traffickers in a garbage dump is a “fantasy,” as there was insufficient space for the 33 tons of wood required for the cremation.
Instead, he argues that the remains are the uniform color that comes from the homogenous heat of a modern crematorium, such as the one found in the army base in Iguala.
When Omar García and other activists tried to forcibly enter the military headquarters to search for evidence earlier this month, they were violently beaten back by guards.
Yet he wasn’t driven by a desire to prove the government wrong, but a desperate personal need to discover the whereabouts of his classmates. As García points out, the motives of the perpetrators are not the ultimate concern for parents and survivors.
“What they were thinking, if they got us mixed up with others, that doesn’t interest us. All we really want are our friends back.”