IGUALA, Mexico – The disappearance of 43 students in Mexico has opened a Pandora’s Box — revealing government corruption, police collusion with drug cartels and political inaction.
Signs on the highway here in Iguala offer a reward of one million pesos — the equivalent of $100,000 — for any information on the students’ whereabouts.
The students came from Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college in the southern state of Guerrero. On Sept. 26, about 80 of the students were in Iguala — about a two-and-a-half hour drive from the world famous beach resort, Acapulco.
Witnesses say the students commandeered three buses on their way back from a protest. Police chased the students’ buses down and opened fire. Three students died, and three other people were killed in related shootings later that night. Some students were able to get away; 43 others were hauled away in police cars and haven’t been seen since. Investigators believe the police handed them over to a local cartel, Guerreros Unidos.
That was almost a month ago.
Since then, the mayor and his wife have fled, the governor is rumored to be considering resigning and the students are still nowhere to be found.
Fusion’s Mariana Atencio met 24-year-old Valeria Monge while following the story. Monge studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Like other students across the country, the case has resonated with her.
“I’m excited but scared, I want to see what’s going on,” Monge told Atencio.
Monge accompanied Atencio as they arrived at the school in Ayotzinapa that the missing students call home.
“I wanted to come and see for myself,” Monge said. “I’m shocked this could have been any one of them, this could have been me.”
Her shock is a shared sentiment in Guerrero.
Since the disappearance of the students, the government has taken steps to confront the pervasive problem of local police having links to drug gangs. Federal forces have taken over local policing in 13 towns across Guerrero, including Iguala. About 50 people have been detained, among them police officers and suspected members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel.
Our team followed authorities as they conducted the largest search and rescue mission since the students went missing.
The perimeter was only 10 miles, but the dense vegetation in the valley of Iguala made the area nearly inaccessible.
Authorities must comb through every shrub, rock and dirt trail. In a country where 98 percent of crimes go unpunished, secrets are usually buried with the dead.
At least five mass graves and over half a dozen secret burial sites have been discovered in the hunt for the missing students. Hopes were high when 28 bodies were unearthed in this horrific site a couple of weeks ago. That was until DNA tests determined the students were not among the dead.
But some locals have not given up the search. They are convinced organized crime controls the area. They also claim that some politicians know where to find the missing students, but won’t speak up.
It took Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto 10 days to talk about this case. And, despite his campaign promises, he hasn’t been able to significantly lower crime. While the murder rate has declined, kidnapping and extortion continue to plague large parts of the country.
Last year alone, there were over 100,000 kidnappings and about six million cases of extortion in Mexico. Those numbers are the worst in the country’s history, according to government figures.
This is Mexico’s worst human rights crisis in 46 years. The way it is handled may well determine Pena Nieto’s legacy, and the country’s future.