On September 26, 2014, 43 rural college students from southern Mexico were forcibly disappeared in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. Allegedly abducted by municipal police officers as they attempted to hijack buses for a political protest, the federal investigation into the atrocity concluded that the youngsters were handed over to cartel gunmen who subsequently incinerated their remains at a local garbage dump.
Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, a figure with documented ties to organized crime, was arrested last November and charged with masterminding the attack. Gang members and municipal police officers have also been detained. Yet many questions regarding the tragedy remain unanswered.
In a two-part report, Latin Correspondent asks who the missing students were, who was responsible for their abduction, and what the event tells us about the climate of impunity in contemporary Mexico.
The Mexican government moved incredibly slowly to investigate the case of the missing Normalistas and by the time they did, any conclusive DNA evidence had likely perished. Investigators later recovered plastic bags containing bone fragments and ash from a nearby river. Forensic experts in Austria have since positively identified two sets of remains.
Yet a long-awaited report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released September 6 questioned the attorney general’s conclusion that the bodies of the students were incinerated at the garbage dump. The result is that scientific evidence proving all 43 victims were killed at the site is unlikely to ever be found.
Regardless of the students’ fate, an even more pressing issue is why the investigation into the atrocity was so weak. By the admission of the federal government, Mexico boasts an “impunity rate” of 99 percent. The phenomenon is particularly common in cases in which the victims are poor and marginalized. In many ways, the Ayotzinapa tragedy was merely symptomatic of a wider malaise.
Corruption on all sides
Investigations by both journalists and authorities revealed extraordinary levels of corruption within the administration of disgraced former mayor José Luis Abarca, including accusations of nepotism, embezzlement and collusion with organized crime. Notably, Abarca was a close ally of ex-governor Ángel Aguirre who resigned in the wake of the tragedy.
Authorities have yet to follow up the Iguala case with an investigation into wider abuses of power in Guerrero. In January, the attorney general’s office reported that at least thirteen municipalities in the state were effectively controlled by organized crime, yet no prosecutions have been made.
Meanwhile, a key element missing from coverage of the atrocity has been the incredibly opaque financial management of the Ayotzinapa school. Although the institution is routinely portrayed in the press as a hotbed of radicalism, it was funded to the tune of US$3 million per year by the centrist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
Nobody appears to know how the funds allocated to the college by the government of Guerrero were spent. The murky coalition of political parties, teacher unions and state officials who controlled the college have likewise gone unpunished.
It would appear that the lessons from Ayotzinapa have yet to be learned. Local elections in Guerrero in June were plagued by violence while organized crime continues to dominate the region. The hope that widespread protests in the wake of the tragedy would lead to a moment of reckoning for the country appears to have faded, though for the family members of the victims, the struggle continues.
You might also like: