The stunning, dramatic blow-by-blow account of what most likely happened to the 43 missing students in Guerrero is an indication of just how desperately Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto and his team are trying to perform damage control on a terrifying story — one that has not only unsettled his government, but has pushed them to admit that things are not as their public relations machine would have you believe.
In the hour-long November 7 press conference (see video below), Attorney General Jose Murillo Karam announced that the recent capture of alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos led to confessions that the students were taken by police while en route to the town of Iguala. The police handed the students over to the Guerreros Unidos, who then killed them and burned their remains.
Specifically, video testimonies from three recently captured “masterminds” of the attacks revealed that the students were carted like cattle to a landfill in Cocula. According to one suspect, approximately 15 students asphyxiated on the way to the dump site. The remaining students were interrogated by members of the Guerreros Unidos before being shot and killed. The bodies were then thrown into the landfill, arranged in a circle, covered in sticks, gasoline, and diesel, and burned. The fire reportedly lasted for 14 hours, from midnight on September 27, until mid-afternoon.
According to the testimonies, a leader of the criminal group known as “El Terco” ordered the burned human remains to be collected and placed into eight black plastic bags. Members of the Guerreros Unidos then took the bags to the San Juan River in Cocula, where they dumped the contents into the water, while two bags were thrown directly into the river.
Following the confessions, search teams found black bags, one of which was still closed. Mexican and Argentine forensic teams reportedly confirmed the bag contained human remains. However, due to the degree to which the bodies were burned, forensic experts have not yet determined when the remains will be able to be identified.
InSight Crime Analysis
Murillo began with a rare pledge of transparency in the investigation.
“Let’s talk about developments [in the case] step-by-step,” Murillo remarked before giving the full account — complete with accompanying photos, videos, and maps — of what allegedly happened to the missing students.
For this government, which has prided itself on talking about everything but crime, this is an incredible, and telling, about-face.
Peña Nieto entered office promising that this is “Mexico’s moment,” and has done everything in his power — including hiring a high-end lobbying firm in Washington DC — to turn the narrative away from crime. This initially worked, particularly in the US, where Peña Nieto has been celebrated by a New York Times columnist, Time magazine, and many others.
But inside Mexico, Iguala is not the beginning of the problem, it is the final straw for a country that remains saturated in organized crime despite numerous high-profile arrests. A June poll (pdf) ranked “public security” as the country’s number one problem, ahead of a slumping economy. The president’s poll numbers have also tanked this year.
The Iguala crisis really began at a local level. According to Murillo, it was the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife who ordered police to stop four trucks carrying the students traveling from the rural town Ayotzinapa to Iguala. Abarca and his wife have since been captured, as indicated below in InSight Crime’s timeline of the Iguala crisis. Things then moved to the state level, when Guerrero’s governor resigned. Now it has reached the national level, with regular protests and — thanks to a Murillo gaffe at the end of the press conference in which he quipped, “I’m tired” (“Ya me canse”) — now a hashtag.
It is disingenuous to say that Peña Nieto has done nothing to combat crime. He has made different security agencies work more in concert, leading to the capture of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, Beltran Leyva Organization, Juarez Cartel and the Zetas. But the next phase of combatting organized crime — as Colombia is currently experiencing — is more chaotic and more difficult to control.
The blatant way in which Iguala’s mayor-police-criminal alliance functioned was a result of this chaos, but also the result of a belief that such actions rarely result in real consequences in Mexico. None of Peña Nieto’s policies — as laudable as they may be — have changed this dynamic. Until his government makes criminal groups realize that they can’t capture, execute, and burn students with impunity, there is no PR or lobbying firm in the world that will be able to bury this story.