top image credit: VICE News
Murder, kidnapping, corruption, torture, whitewashing, and the illegal drugs trade are frequently the subjects of detailed reporting. They have all the necessary intrigues of a titillating news story: outrage, scandal, mystery, and tragedy. But to find each of them as elements in one overarching crime is uniquely rare. Drug kingpins, corrupt politicians, homicidal criminals and police officers are all implicated in the same crime. But the city of Iguala, Mexico has witnessed just such a confluence of villainy.
During the evening of September 26, 2014, forty-three students from a school in Ayotzinapa were disappeared. Even today, more than two years after the event, details are sketchy. What is clear is that a series of heinous crimes and human rights violations took place in a short window of time, and those affected by these events have never received the proper justice. Today, the Collie is going to provide an in-depth investigation into what happened to the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa. While the following events are themselves deeply tragic, this story tugs at the very strings of Mexico’s tumultuous politics, and the implications of September 26, 2014 have rattled Mexican society to the core.
Students were the victims of an organized, planned assault.
On September 26, students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College were out looking for buses. They wanted to raise money for an upcoming trip to Mexico City where they intended to hold protests honoring the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Masssacre. They also set out for Iguala to “protest what they saw as discriminatory hiring practices for teachers.”
This sort of political activism was the norm for students from the Ayotzinapa Teachers College. The students (often called normalistas courtesy of the Teachers College’s status as an escuela normal) read books on Marx, watched political documentaries, and otherwise tried to keep faithful to the leftist principles established in the Mexican Revolution. However, the normalistas did more than read and discuss. They were well known in the Guerrero state for demonstrations that included blocking highways and taking over tollbooths, “asking for donations while federal officers sit nearby.” The confrontational nature of their politics often put them on unfavorable terms with law enforcement.
Their activity on September 26 was no less controversial than their usual tactics. The normalistas were known to commandeer buses, “a tradition that students at the school had done for many years.” The normalistas often took control of these buses, presenting an irritation for their drivers, law enforcement, and other commuters. The students were never violent, the buses were always returned in good condition, and “the bus companies and authorities mostly tolerated” the practice of bus commandeering.
At 8:15 p.m., the students captured their first bus. The driver remained in control as instructed: most bus companies mandated that their drivers stay with their bus to ensure its safe return. The driver informed the students that he needed to stop at the Iguala central bus station. Everything was proceeding normally until, unexpectedly, the driver locked the students in the bus. Something was wrong.
While these normalistas dealt with the sudden turn of events, their peers had successfully commandeered three other buses, all of which were moving north out of Iguala when police arrived. They ordered the students to pull over, and even fired warning shots into the air. This was already unexpected and frightening behavior from the police. As noted above, the normalistas’ commandeering was usually permitted. The students, frightened by police aggression opted not to stop the bus until they had no choice.
Just outside of town, at the crossroads of Periferico Norte and Juan N. Alvarez Street, the three buses and 70 normalistas ran into a police blockade. The police opened fire, severely injuring three of the students and trapping the others in a terrifying stream of bullets. Armed with nothing but rocks, the normalistas attempted to lift and move one of the police cruisers out of the bus’s path. During this burst of fire, one normalista named Aldo Gutiérrez was shot in the head but not killed. Many of the students from these three buses were arrested and twenty-five were subsequently disappeared.
Simultaneous with the attack on the highway police moved on buses headed south out of Iguala. Ironically, the following incidents took place near or directly in front of the Iguala Palace of Justice. Police shattered the windows of one bus with tree branches, enabling them toss tear gas canisters inside. This forced the students out of the bus and onto the streets, where the police were waiting to beat, arrest, and disappear them. Another southbound bus carrying 14 normalistas was pursued out of town by police, though no shots were fired.
Although the police’s attention focused on the normalistas, others were targeted as well. Fifteen kilometers away from Iguala, another bus was attacked. It was carrying not normalistas but a soccer team, Los Avispones. Police began shooting, killing the driver and a fifteen-year-old soccer player. The gunfire spread from the bus to cars and taxicabs parked around it, killing a female taxi passenger and injuring several more people. The soccer players rushed to a nearby army base seeking safety and medical assistance for their wounded. The army turned them away, indicating that “they couldn’t do anything because it wasn’t in their jurisdiction.”
Meanwhile, the fourteen normalistas pursued by the police southward abandoned their bus and were immediately subject to attempts to run them over, stone throwing, and gunfire. Ten of them hid in a nearby house and another four on a hill.
In the early hours of that morning, several of the normalistas called for a press conference, inviting journalists and teachers to document the events in an effort to understand what was happening. The municipal police were seen patrolling the area around the conference for some time. Then a white SUV and black car with occupants wearing hoods and bulletproof vests converged on the conference and fired on the crowd. Two normalistas were shot at point blank range, and others were wounded.
The final event of that evening is by far the most appalling. At around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., a normalista named Julio César Mondragón was killed on the highway. The official report notes that “his facial skin and muscles had been torn away from his head, his skull was fractured in several places, and his internal organs were ruptured.” It is difficult to comprehend why these horrific acts were committed against an innocent young man.
At the end of the night, five people were dead: Two normalistas, a fifteen-year-old soccer player for Los Avispones, a bus driver, and a woman who happened to be in a taxicab near the Los Avispones bus. 43 others, the disappeared normalistas, have been missing now for more than two years. Although no investigation has ever located their remains, they are presumed dead. The attack was rigorously coordinated, involving not only Iguala and Cocula municipal police, but also state, federal, and perhaps even army cooperation. It is also assumed that members of the local drug cartel were belligerents alongside the police.
The horror and bloodshed of this nightmare cannot be understated. The problem now is identifying who was responsible for the crime, why the students were targeted at all, and what can be done to stop this heinous massacre from ever occurring again.
Mexico’s law enforcement agencies are responsible for a multitude of human rights abuses against the Mexican people.
It would be a relief to discover that the attacks and forced disappearances perpetrated against the normalistas constituted extraordinary circumstances. However, police corruption and brutality is far from abnormal in Mexico. Human Rights Watch, addressing the role of Mexican security forces in “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture” discovered a chilling number of such abuses. In a political climate of “systematic and endemic immunity” for officers, fatal police-civilian confrontations are all too common.
Take, for example, January 2015 when eight people in Michoacán were killed by federal officers during a citizen self-defense rally. In May, federal police in Michoacán again opened fire on civilians, killing 42 of them and leaving one officer dead. In November 2014 the Mexican army was accused of killing 22 civilians in Tlatlaya, of which eyewitnesses reported 12 were victims of extrajudicial executions. In this last example, as of 2016 no military personnel had been convicted in connection to the shooting. The situation is so tense that when the army arrives, civilians are often forced to ask “what kind of military we have here:” Will they keep the peace, make arrests, fire into the crowd, or execute whoever they please? From 2006 to 2016, the National Human Rights Commission “received about 9,000 complaints of abuse by the army… and issued reports in over 100 cases in which it found that army personnel had committed serious human rights violations.”
Law enforcement should protect the public. That state security agencies are responsible for attacks against civilians is worsened by the fact that civilians in Mexico are in desperate need of protection. The police may be violent, but their abuses pale in comparison to the depravity practiced by Mexican drug trafficking cartels. Guerrero, the state in which the Iguala mass kidnapping took place, is particularly notorious for heroin trafficking, a practice that makes the region one of the most dangerous places to live in the world.
The cartels employ violent tactics to maintain their foothold in a lucrative industry.
“It was what people call corpse messaging. Usually it involves a mutilated body—or a pile of bodies, or just a head—and a handwritten sign. ‘Talked too much.’ ‘So that they learn to respect.’ ‘You get what you deserve.’”
In September of 2006, patrons of Sol y Sombra in Michoacán were subject to a scene out of a snuff film. The newest cartel around, called La Familia Michoacana, entered the nightclub and emptied a sack of five severed heads onto the dance floor. They left a message as well: “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, it doesn’t kill women, it doesn’t kill innocent people—only those who deserve to die… this is divine justice.”
This variety of extreme violence is not uncommon in Mexico. Many cartels call upon grotesque mutilation to intimidate locals. However, it is a mistake to conceive of these incidents as random acts of brutality. As Rodrigo Canales states in “The Deadly Genius of Drug Cartels,” large confederations like Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana use cruelty as a branding strategy. In the case of La Familia, excessive violence is intended to imply that “all of the people who are dying are somehow involved in the drug trade… and so clearly they were criminals because of the way they died.”
Rodrigo Canales, William Finnegan and many others examining the Michoacán region have noticed that the branding strategy of La Familia (Later known as the Knights Templar) involves portraying their murders as righteous. This builds to a larger narrative painting La Familia as “Protectors of the people.” It comes as a surprise that in some key areas, they are: They “invest heavily in providing local services like dealing with home violence, going after petty criminals, treating addicts, and keeping drugs out of the local markets.” They also lend assistance to the poor and provide protection against other violent cartels like Los Zetas or Los Guerreros Unidos. These actions allow La Familia to become the primary power in Michoacán, in many ways more so than the Mexican government.
Despite clever branding and civic engagement, The Knights Templar, Los Zetas, and the other major cartels are responsible for an unbelievable amount of violence. The statistics alone on the number of drug-trafficking related deaths in Mexico are numbing: Some reports claim 50,000 people died from 2006 to 2012. Human Rights Watch placed their estimate over the same period of time at 60,000 while some believe the number could be as high as 80,000 deaths. Since then, the loss of human life has only worsened. Writing in 2015, Jason Breslow of PBS’s Frontline reported that from 2007 to 2014, “more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide.” To put this figure into perspective, Breslow notes that “over the same seven-year period, slightly more than 103,000 died in Afghanistan and Iraq.” This statistic brings a whole new meaning to the term “war on drugs:” Quite literally, the death toll in Mexico surpassed that of two bloody wars, combined.
The cartels justify excessive violence by portraying themselves as holy warriors, protectors of the people, fighters in a righteous war. They intimidate local populations and politicians until they become complicit. Sometimes, local businesses and politicians even feel that their success or failure is inextricably bound to that of their local cartel. This means that the drug traffickers essentially permeate every facet of Mexico’s politics and society, creating corruption on every level. This appears to have been the case in Iguala as well.
The Mexican Government’s official explanation for the Iguala Mass Kidnapping is false.
The normalistas from Ayotzinapa found themselves at the mercy of corrupt law enforcement. However, the nature of the extrajudicial killings and the magnitude of the violence committed against them is more characteristic of the tactics employed by drug traffickers. So who precisely ordered the kidnapping of the students, why did they do it, and what became of the 43 missing young men?
Immediately following the incident, all fingers pointed to Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca. His wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, is notably related to members of the once-powerful Beltran-Leyva cartel. This particular cartel fractured into many competing splinter groups, including the Guerrero-based Guerreros Unidos. Pineda was giving a speech in Iguala on the evening that the normalistas arrived in the city, and many have since speculated that Abarca dispatched police to arrest the students before they could disrupt his wife’s event. On September 29, Abarca addressed this accusation by claiming that he was “dancing” and was therefore not aware of the kidnapping until after it was over. Abarca’s explanation was deemed insufficient by Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre, and as such Abarca was asked to present himself to the authorities. But by the time Aguirre issued this order, both Abarca and Pineda had gone into hiding.
22 Iguala municipal police were arrested for their involvement in the attack. They were furthermore accused of coordinating with the Guerreros Unidos cartel to kidnap the normalistas. On October 17, Mexico’s attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam announced the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, leader of the Guerreros Unidos. Following this arrest, the attorney general also announced that Abarca and Pineda were directly responsible for ordering the attack. On November 4, authorities finally discover Abarca’s hideout in Mexico City and place him under arrest along with his wife.
With twenty-two police officers, the head of the Guerreros Unidos, the Mayor of Iguala and his wife all under arrest in connection to the disappearance, the mystery of the attack on the students appeared to be resolved. Murillo Karam announced that the students were murdered by the Guerreros Unidos after being mistaken as members of the rival cartel Los Rojos. The cartel members then burned the student’s bodies at a nearby trash dump. The state considered this to be the “historical truth” about the missing students, meaning that they were ready to close the case.
But observers weren’t so certain of the official explanation provided by the Mexican government. The American Commission of Human Rights drafted a report regarding the events that took place in Iguala that uncovered inconsistencies with both the story and the state’s handling of the official investigation. The first major problem was that Mexican authorities obtained many of their confessions only after torturing suspects. Of the nearly 200 people interrogated, seventeen confided to the report’s authors that they “were tortured or subjected to ‘cruel and inhumane’ treatment.” Torture, aside from its moral deficiency, does not often produce truthful testimonies.
The revelation about torture was not the only complication to detract from the veracity of the government’s investigation. After consulting with forensic scientists, the report’s authors concluded that “no fire took place in the trash dump capable of incinerating 43 bodies.” While this verdict on its own is enough to completely discredit the government’s official story, video evidence showing members of the attorney general’s office “planting remains in a river a day before they were recovered” removes all doubt: The Mexican government was lying.
The authors of this independent report received no cooperation from the Mexican government, which was more interested in quieting the report than in discovering the truth behind the disappearance. In fact, the authors even suspected that a smear campaign attempting to discredit their report was the direct work of Mexican government officials.
Perhaps elements of the official story are true. It could be the case that Mayor Abarca disliked the leftist ideals of the normalistas and wished to see them quieted. He could have asked his wife to call on her cartel connections to orchestrate the disappearance. The Guerreros Unidos may have killed the students at Pineda’s bequest due to their familial relationship. But if all of this is true, the official story of the students being mistaken for members of Los Rojos does not fit anywhere into the narrative. The independent investigation, however, advanced an alternative theory as to why the Guerreros Unidos would become involved in an attack on the normalistas. Naturally, it has to do with the drug trade.
Guerrero has changed drastically in recent years due to a surge in demand for heroin in the United States. Guerrero is widely considered to be the epicenter of Mexico’s heroin production. Local drug cartels and militant groups intimidate Guerrero’s farmers into growing and producing Opium paste. If the farmers cooperate, they will be rewarded with their lives. If not, then they could become one of the 163 homicides committed by organized crime in Guerrero in the span of one month. While Mexico’s cartels often traffic drugs produced in foreign countries, the heroin cartels of Guerrero produce the drugs on their own soil before trafficking them north into the United States. It is this particular form of production that led the Ayotzinapa report’s investigators to consider something nobody else had thought of: that the buses, not the students, were the cartel’s targets.
In this version of events, the story makes more sense. It assumes that Abarca and Pineda’s connection with local drug traffickers was intimate, so much so that they could be considered members of the cartel themselves. Considering the level of corruption in the Mexican government, this isn’t an outlandish assertion. This version of events reads like a perfect storm. On the night of September 26, members of the local cartel in Iguala mobilized to transport large quantities of heroin. In order to do this without being caught, the cartel stowed the heroin in several different buses, which were to ship it out of the city. However, as this plan was being executed, it ran into an unforeseen obstacle: students began to commandeer the buses, taking them back toward Iguala and interfering with a very lucrative shipment. Upon learning that the drugs were being hijacked, Abarca ordered local police to stop the buses and apprehend the students. This narrative also happens to explain why the Los Avispones soccer team was also targeted in the attack: neither normalistas nor soccer players were targets. They just happened to be riding in buses loaded with hidden stores of immensely valuable narcotics.
This is simply one of several interpretations of that tragic night, but it also seems to be the only narrative that incorporates all of the evidence. Regardless of which story is correct though, the Iguala mass kidnapping spirals around the themes of organized crime, government corruption, and drug trafficking. Perhaps these central themes explain why Mexico’s citizens arose to protest the government in the wake of the kidnapping.
U.S. drug consumption fuels the cartels, and attempts to fight them have only heightened the violence.
“Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States.”
This quote, attributed to Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s president from 1830 to 1916, must resound prophetically in modern Mexican society. In the wake of the Iguala mass kidnapping, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens across the nation arose to protest the government’s handling of the investigation, and even to accuse the Mexican government of allowing the kidnapping with the powerful slogan “Fue el estado,” it was the state. In many cases these protests took a violent turn, burning government buildings and clashing with riot police. It’s understandable that public frustration turns to violence against the government: Mexico’s populace has witnessed corruption again and again, almost as if it’s built into the system. This corruption is also in most cases linked directly with the drug cartels. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mexico overthrew a dictatorial system adopted a multi-party democracy. However, the transfer was decentralizing and it left large power niches that the cartels were more than happy to fill. Amanda Taub describes the relationship between the government and organized crime from that point on as “a vicious cycle:” Drugs are very profitable and managing a functional drug trafficking network hinges on forming a good relationship with a weak state. Thus, the cartels form pacts with state officials, weakening the state’s necessary institutions. This in turn allows the drug trade to thrive even more, which again further weakens the government.
But even beyond watching the drug trade destroy state institutions, Mexico’s citizens have been too long subjected to the cartel’s cruelties impacting their daily lives. Mass graves are discovered all too frequently. Corpse messaging and brutal murders are no longer exceptionally surprising. In fact, some believe that many Mexican citizens suffer from a collective feeling of paralysis  after witnessing so much violence and seeing so little effort to curb its stranglehold on their country. With no institutions to reliably protect them and little hope of expunging the cartels permanently, many Mexicans truly feel far from God. And as long as the cartels make a fortune off of trafficking drugs to the U.S., corruption and violence will continue to flourish.
This is really the root of the problem. The combination of high demand for narcotics in the U.S. with the illegality of transporting them across the border breeds a hyper-violent and viciously competitive brand of drug cartel. Several U.S. policies have only served to intensify the situation. For example, the U.S.’s war on drugs has succeeded in reducing the number of viable corridors through which drug mules can enter the country. With this reduction in their options the cartels compete over territory more fiercely, contributing to increased violence. It’s difficult to fault the U.S. government for bolstering its borders against the cartels, but such an action serves to facilitate violence in Mexico while doing little damage to the drug trade itself. Indeed, such tactics historically succeed only in pushing drug trafficking corridors into different locales.
Another tactic against the drug trade, practiced both by the U.S. and Mexican governments, involves cutting the head off the snake. That is, a common belief is that killing or incarcerating kingpins and other cartel leaders will cause the whole organization to crumble. This is occasionally true, but its efficacy is questionable. There are two plausible outcomes following the removal of a cartel’s boss: Either another member of the cartel immediately rises to occupy the position (Rodrigo Canales notes that despite presenting themselves as dumb thugs, the cartels are streamlined multinational businesses with clear hierarchical chains of command ) or the cartel fragments into smaller groups who wage a bloody turf war for dominance. Either way, the drug trade is at best only temporarily interrupted by removing a leader.
In looking at tactics to end violent drug trafficking, one quickly realizes that there is no “perfect solution,” just “a bunch of mediocre options.” Some say that going after the drug producers is the best approach, but others say that producers will never disappear until demand is curbed at the other end. But addicts will continue to demand illegal drugs so long as they’re supplied with them. It is difficult to decide what to do. Only a moralist believes that the U.S.’s addicts can all be weaned off of narcotics, and only an idealist believes that the producers will pass up the money from exporting illegal drugs. As an unnamed meth manufacturer in Mexico tells documentarians from Cartel Land:
“What can I say? We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you, traveling the world or doing good clean jobs like you guys. But if we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over. It’s reacting.”
One proposed solution that often sounds distasteful to the American people is the notion of complete legalization. While the drawbacks of this proposal are apparent, it would rob violent cartels of their income and it could very likely precipitate the disempowerment of organized crime in Mexico. It is unlikely that such an idea will ever become reality in the U.S., but perhaps deterring people from doing legal drugs (similar to how the U.S. approaches nicotine) rather than criminalizing them could alleviate the ferocious war raging just south of the border. Given that the bulk of demand for narcotics comes from the U.S., the country should be obligated to mitigate the violence from the drug trade that’s so heavily inflicted on innocent people.
As for the missing 43 normalistas, nearly three years have passed and the Mexican authorities have only ever discovered one body. At this point, however horrible the thought may be, it is likely that the 43 are dead and even more likely that they will never be discovered in any capacity. Their story, however, deserves the international attention it has gained. It is a lesson about the horrors of state corruption and narcotics trafficking that never should have been taught. All we can do now is examine how the circumstance of their disappearance came about, and take any and all necessary steps to prevent this variety of terror from ever occurring again.
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