Crime and Violence

Arrests made, search continues for 43 missing students in Iguala, Guerrero

Thousands in Guadalajara protest the Ayotzinpana students' disappearance. Photo: Servando Camarillo, Getty Images.
Thousands in Guadalajara protest the Ayotzinpana students’ disappearance. Photo: Servando Camarillo, Getty Images.

11/30/14 (written by cmolzahn) — The ongoing story of 43 students kidnapped in late September in the Iguala municipality of Guerrero and likely since murdered by the Guerreros Unidos criminal organization continues to occupy the foreground of Mexican media. The search for the students maintains its focus on areas around Iguala involving state and federal agents, as well as community police forces, turning up human remains with conflicting reports over whether or not they belonged to the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School (Escuela Nacional de Ayotzinapa). High profile arrests have been made, both of the former mayor of Iguala and the former assistant security director of the nearby town where the students were allegedly handed over to a drug gang by members of the Iguala police force. The event has had destabilizing effects across the state, with the U.S. government recently advising its citizens to avoid travel to the resort city of Acapulco in reaction to the widespread protests that continue over the failure of the government to locate the missing students.

Following the arrests in October of dozens of municipal police officers and alleged gang members suspected of playing roles in the students’ disappearance, agents of the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) arrested the former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velásquez, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, on November 4. They stand accused of murder, attempted murder, and forced disappearance related to the death of six people and of the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala on September 26 and 27, which arose during a clash with police during a student protest. Noemí Berumen Rodríguez, a friend of Abarca’s daughter who is accused of hiding the former mayor and his wife, was also arrested.

Last month, Abarca was removed from office on the order of the Guerrero Senate after he and his wife were identified as responsible for ordering the attack on the student demonstrators, and ultimately handing the 43 detained students over to Guerreros Unidos. Abarca and his wife were named by various members of the Guerreros Unidos gang captured by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) following the students’ disappearance, including leader Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado. Casarrubias not only claimed the orders to attack the students came from Pineda, but he also named Abarca and his wife as “principle operators”of Guerreros Unidos. Abarca evidently ordered police to act against a protest the students were involved in to keep them from disrupting an event at which his wife was to give a speech.

National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido García explained that the operation to capture the former mayor and his wife, labeled as fugitives by the Mexican government, began on September 29. After a month of searching, the couple was found in what appeared to be an abandoned house in Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Officials say that upon being captured Abarca expressed, “I am tired of hiding. I can’t handle the pressure.” A little less troubled, Pineda was heard proclaiming, “Let me go, who do you think you are” when federal agents escorted her outside the house. Abarca and Pineda were handed over to Mexico’s Office of Special Investigations on Organized Crime (Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada, SEIDO) for interrogation and holding. After Abarca and Pineda’s daughter, Yazareth Liz, voluntarily provided testimony to SEIDO, the ex-mayor was then transferred to a maximum-security prison in El Altiplano, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex).

Later in the month, the PGR informed family members of the 43 disappeared students that it had detained César Nava González, the former assistant director of security for the Cocula municipality, accused of being involved in the students’ disappearance. The PGR said that Nava had hid in the Federal District (Distrito Federal, DF) for some time, but was eventually detained by the National Gendarmerie (Gendarmería Nacional) in Colima on November 17, along with his wife and an unidentified person. He was also in possession of a 9-millimeter handgun. Nava was placed in a maximum-security prison in Puente Grande, Jalisco. According to investigators, Nava ordered his police to “support” the Iguala police in their repression of the student protest that emerged there on September 26. Nava is alleged to have received the students in Cocula, and handed them over to members of Guerreros Unidos. Meanwhile Felipe Flores, who was then in charge of the Iguala police, is currently a fugitive.

Former Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca Velásquez, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa. Photo: Economía Hoy.
Former Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca Velásquez, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa. Photo: Economía Hoy.

According to Vidulfo Rosales, attorney for the Guerrero-based Center for the Defense of Human Rights of Tlachinollan Mountain (Centro de Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan), the search for the missing students has covered 144 different points, without any clear sign of them, which has caused “much dissatisfaction” with the parents. He added that due to their frustration with authorities’ inability to make any progress in locating their children, the parents are working on a plan to carry out their own search, a proposal that will be examined in the National Popular Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Popular). They will also request the support of Guerrero’s community police forces.

On October 12, the PGR believed that a search in the Cocula municipality had turned up the burned remains of the students there, but foreign forensic experts called on to assist in the investigation later confirmed that they were not those of the students. On October 7, the PGR reported that three alleged Guerreros Unidos members in detention had admitted to receiving the students from Iguala and Cocula police on September 26 and later killing and incinerating them at a local dump. The detainees’ statements led investigators to river where they found several garbage bags containing 30 human remains, but the PGR said that the investigation would remain open until the remains were positively identified. Less than a week later, an Argentinian forensics team reported that none of the 24 remains matched DNA samples provided by the students’ families.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Mexico has warned its citizens against traveling to Acapulco, which is Guerrero’s principle beach resort town and tourist draw. Embassy personnel were instructed to “defer nonessential travel to Acapulco,” cautioning U.S. citizens to adhere to the same guidelines. Protests reached the city in mid-November, surrounding the airport and causing the cancelation of several flights. Demonstrations have also been reported blocking the highway connecting Mexico City and Acapulco. Officials from the tourism industry reported 14,000 hotel reservation cancellations for the popular Revolution Day holiday weekend contributing to over $4 million (USD) in losses, signaling that the protests over the disappearance of the students from the remote city of Iguala are beginning to have tangible, negative impacts on the larger economy.

The 43 missing Ayotzinapa Normal School students join the list of 22,322 disappeared in Mexico released by the Attorney General’s Office in October. The National Registry of Data of Missing or Disappeared Persons (Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviados o Desaparecidos) lists Tamaulipas with the most disappeared or missing persons with 4,875, followed by Jalisco (2,113), the State of Mexico (1,554), the Federal District (1,450), and Coahuila (1,332). Those states comprise half of Mexico’s registered disappeared and missing persons. For its part, Guerrero had registered 406. Tamaulipas had by far the highest rate of missing and disappeared persons among Mexican states, with 149.1 per 100,000 residents, followed by Coahuila (48.5), Sinaloa (46.6), and Colima (36.9). For many domestic and international observers, the case of Ayotzinapa is a stark reminder of the lack of an institutional framework in Mexico to address the continuing problem of disappearances in Mexico.


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