Lingering Question from Mexico Student Massacre: Why?

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As Mexico struggles to come to terms with the mass murder of 43 students in Guerrero, among the many unanswered questions is why the group behind the killings did what what it did.

While many details remained to be fleshed out, the basic outline of the incident is essentially accepted: the 43 students were part of a larger group from a rural teachers’ school in Ayotzinapa heading to Iguala, Guerrero, to commandeer buses and raise funds for a future trip to a demonstration in Mexico City. Their stay in Iguala coincided with a major speech by the Iguala mayor’s wife, Maria de los Angeles Villa Pineda, who had political ambitions of her own and whose family is close to the Guerreros Unidos.

Desperate to avoid the interruption of her big political moment from the potentially rowdy student protesters, Villa Pineda and her husband, Jose Luis Abarca, set the municipal police and the Guerreros Unidos on the students. Over 50 people were killed in the melee, including 43 who were allegedly abducted, executed (or suffocated), and incinerated. (Some followers and media have not accepted this explanation.)

In response to the crime and the wave of anger it provoked, the federal government has sprung into action. Abarco and Villa Pineda went underground, and were found by federal authorities in Mexico City earlier this month. A steady stream of arrests of Guerreros Unidos members culminated in the October takedown of the group’s maximum leader, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado.

Among the range of reactions from the Mexican public, beneath the dismay and outrage and sadness, is the unanswered question of why. Why did a mid-level gang take such a provocative step, almost certain to generate the sort of massive media attention that precipitates a group’s collapse? Why did they equate a few dozen protesting teenagers, who were a regular feature in the Guerrero political and social landscape, with a threat worthy of mass execution?

The answers to these questions are important not only for shedding light on one of Mexico’s most notorious crimes in decades. They also speak to potential changes in the Mexican underworld, which could have repercussions elsewhere.

InSight Crime Analysis

It is clear that the Guerreros Unidos made an enormous miscalculation. The group has turned radioactive: its leaders are either in jail or a priority for federal officials, and its political allies that are not on the run or arrested are probably keeping their distance. The group’s total demise is a likely scenario in the near term. The leaders presumably never considered that murdering scores of students would put their livelihood at risk, but the recent developments make clear that they were mistaken.

The gang members also likely saw the students as rabble-rousers, economically disadvantaged and a public nuisance, and therefore not a group to inspire much sympathy. This view is not uncommon in Mexico. As a consequence, they presumably felt that there would be little public drive to investigate the disappearance of the mostly poor, rural teachers. But the executioners misread the popular response; it’s one thing to complain about shakedowns posing as fund-raising, it’s quite another to countenance a massacre in response.

Such a grave miscalculation also suggests an expectation of impunity from the Guerreros Unidos, even as they carried out one of the worst imaginable crimes. This theory is supported by the scores of bodies, discovered thanks to tips from arrested members of the group, which were buried in clandestine graves that evidently had nothing to do with the missing students. One suspects that there have been other killings, similar in method if smaller in scope to the Iguala murders, that have passed essentially unnoticed by the authorities. As the gang realized it could literally get away with murder, it kept pushing the envelope.

The same might be said for the former mayor. Another big part of the explanation likely lies in the details of the Guerreros Unidos’ relationship with Abarca and the mayor’s office. Reports that emerged subsequent to the massacre paint the mayor not only as a corrupt official looking the other way in exchange for kickbacks, but as a murderer and trafficker himself. The Guerreros Unidos appear to have operated as a sort of extralegal shock force at the orders of the mayor and his wife. This expanded the realm of mortal enemies far beyond what is typical for a drug trafficking group, to the point at which it included 43 aspiring teachers with no link to organized crime. And such a relationship not only encouraged delusions of invincibility; it also blurred the line between aggressiveness and foolhardiness.

The Guerreros Unidos’ intimate relationship with the mayor’s office in Iguala is not unusual in Mexico. There are many criminal groups that work with and depend on the local authorities. But it was aided by a series of uncommon circumstances, such as the mayor’s unique background and Iguala’s remoteness. And it seems unlikely to be repeated, making future massacres less likely. Unfortunately, the damage in Guerrero is already done. 

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