Mexico Finds Evidence 43 Students Murdered by Drug Gangs

Forty-three college students kidnapped by police under orders of a mayor in southern Mexico were probably killed by a drug gang that tried to destroy all evidence of the crime, according to investigators.

Criminal suspects rounded up in the probe said police in Iguala, Guerrero, handed them more than 40 people they had taken into custody, Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo said in a news conference in the capital yesterday. The mayor and his wife are accused of asking drug gangs to help police prevent students from disrupting a public event held by the wife, Murillo said.

Fifteen of the captives died from asphyxiation and the suspects confessed to executing the rest, he said. Members of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang told authorities that they burned the victims’ corpses in a landfill for at least 12 hours, along with their clothes and other belongings, throwing in diesel fuel, gasoline and tires to fan the flames, Murillo said. They then placed their remains in garbage bags and dumped them in a river.

DNA tests are being conducted to provide conclusive proof of the victims’ identities, Murillo said.

“The testimonies and confessions that we’ve collected, combined with other investigations, very sadly point to the killing of a large number of people,” Murillo said during an hour-long news conference as he presented the suspects’ videotaped confessions and photographs of human remains. “The high degree of degradation caused by the fire makes it difficult to extract the DNA to allow us to identify the remains.”

Public Outrage

Public outrage over the Iguala case is undercutting President Enrique Pena Nieto’s efforts to focus attention on his economic agenda, including the end of the state’s seven-decade oil monopoly.

Former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de Los Angeles Pineda, were captured Nov. 4 after authorities alleged that they orchestrated the mass kidnapping. The town’s city hall was torched last month during protests over government inaction.

Seventy-four people have been arrested in the case, including Guerreros Unidos leaders and police from Iguala and the nearby town of Cocula, Murillo said.

The investigation into the missing students, who were protesting an education reform approved last year, has turned up at least nine mass graves and evidence of collusion between the drug cartel and local officials in Iguala, a city of more than 100,000 people less than three hours’ drive from Mexico City. The disappearances followed protests by the students on Sept. 26-27 that left six people dead.

‘No Credibility’

Guerrero is Mexico’s poorest state after Chiapas, based on gross domestic product per capita, and had the nation’s highest homicide rate in 2013 at 63 per 100,000 people, according to Inegi, Mexico’s statistics agency.

Parents of the students, who met with Murillo yesterday, said the results of the government’s probe are unacceptable. In the absence of DNA confirmation of the victims’ identities, the families continue to expect that they’ll return alive, said Felipe de la Cruz, a representative of the students’ parents from the school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero.

“For us, there’s no credibility as long as there’s no reliable proof,” de la Cruz told reporters after Murillo’s news conference yesterday.

‘Worst Scenario’

While Pena Nieto or his cabinet ministers have addressed the search for the students on national TV on an almost daily basis, their comments have failed to placate the public.

Protesters have taken to the streets, organizing a 50,000-person march on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma Boulevard on Oct. 22, the same day Iguala’s city hall went up in flames. They also occupied local government offices in the beachside city of Acapulco, which like Iguala is located in Guerrero. A bus was burned in the capital Nov. 5. Activists are scheduling a new march for today that will start outside the attorney general’s office.

Pena Nieto, who met parents of the students at the presidential residence of Los Pinos on Oct. 29, has yet to visit Iguala. With the students’ families still dissatisfied with the government’s investigation, protests over the disappearance will probably continue, said Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City-based university.

“Not having definitive proof whether they’re dead or alive, having this gray area, this is the worst scenario for the Pena Nieto government,” Chabat said in a telephone interview. “This opens the door for political pressure and protests to continue.”

Never Again

Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party should work with opposition parties to pass laws overhauling the judicial system and strengthening the rule of law, Alonso Cervera, Credit Suisse Group AG’s chief Latin America economist, wrote yesterday in a report.

“This could include at a minimum the rethinking of the structure of police units as well as the adoption of safeguards to prevent criminals from running for public positions,” Cervera said.

Murillo said he’ll announce changes to Mexico’s justice system in coming days.

Mexico is “seeking a formula so that what should never have happened doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. “It’s evident that many things must be changed” in the justice system.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.