President Enrique Pena Nieto sought Monday to confront a growing human-rights nightmare, declaring that his government would launch an investigation into reports that police had rounded up 43 student-teachers late last month, then worked with gangsters to have them killed and their bodies dumped in mass graves.
In a brief statement, Pena Nieto said the reports had left him “deeply indignant.”
“Mexican society and relatives of these youth that lamentably are missing demand with every reason the clearing up of facts and the application of justice,” Pena Nieto said. “I’m deeply indignant and disturbed with the information that’s been coming out over the weekend.”
The horrific massacre near Iguala in Mexico’s Guerrero state on the Pacific coast appears likely to become the worst slaughter by police or soldiers since Pena Nieto came to office in December 2012, pledging a savvier battle against drug cartels than that of his predecessor, whose six-year term left more than 60,000 dead and many more thousands officially missing. It’s the second time in just over three months that Mexican police or soldiers have been implicated in a mass execution.
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Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said Mexico faced “a national human rights crisis” over police and soldiers who thought they could remain off the hook for mass murder.
“The message is that in Mexico anything goes, because the security forces – and that includes the army and the police – would reasonably think they could get away with atrocities and mass murder,” Vivanco said. “It’s very revealing of how grave, how serious, the human rights situation is in Mexico.”
Erika Guevara Rosas, the Americas director of the advocacy group Amnesty International, urged Mexico to prove that it’s serious about prosecuting such killings. “It is imperative that Mexico’s promises to respect human rights are not just government platitudes behind which a host of abuses can be committed with impunity,” she said.
Events in Iguala, about 115 miles southwest of Mexico City, began unfolding on the afternoon of Sept. 26. Scores of students from a regional teachers’ college, a breeding ground for anarchic protest, commandeered buses and headed to Iguala to block roads.
Over the next half day, Guerrero state Attorney General Inaky Blanco Cabrera said, city police officers working in cahoots with a drug-trafficking gang known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) fired at the buses, killing six people and wounding 25.
After receiving an order from the gang boss – known only by his alias, “El Chucky” – police rounded up 43 students and summoned gang hit men.
The mayor of Iguala, a city of about 130,000, and his public security chief went underground after the roundup, a sign of how thoroughly organized crime has penetrated the city.
Blanco Cabrera said six police cruisers had taken part in the roundup of the students. He added that 22 municipal officers were detained and 19 came up positive in tests for gunshot residue.
On Sunday, he said, officials had recovered 28 bodies from a deep pit discovered after an alleged small-time drug dealer for Guerreros Unidos offered a tip that bodies would be found at the foot of a hill in an outlying area called Pueblo Viejo. The bodies had been dumped and burned with diesel or gasoline.
Authorities said they’d taken DNA samples from relatives of the missing students and were trying to get matches with the recovered bodies but that the process might take weeks. They cautioned against assuming the bodies belonged to the missing students.
The motive for the atrocity remained murky, although experts said the region was rife with conflict among Guerreros Unidos, a gang known as Los Rojos and a third powerful gang, the Knights Templar. Such bloodletting can be a way for one criminal gang to seek to intimidate a rival gang.
Guerrero state Gov. Angel Aguirre has taken little action to bring order to the region, and Pena Nieto took him publicly to task last week.
Some academic analysts view the massacres in a social context that’s more complex than simply rogue police bought off by organized crime.
“The events in Guerrero are a microcosm of all of the failures of the Mexican state: corruption, narco-traffic, the failures of the state to protect citizens, the entrenched failures of teacher training and the inability of the federal government to work with state governments for the common good,” James Creechan, a retired Canadian sociologist who keeps daily tabs on crime in Mexico, wrote in an email.
The Iguala massacre came only about 35 miles from the first massacre that deeply rattled the Pena Nieto government and the army.
In that incident, the army said soldiers who were patrolling in the town of Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico on June 30 had engaged in a fierce gun battle with members of a gang holed up in a warehouse, killing 22 of them while suffering only one injury on their side.
Days later, Associated Press reporters went to the scene and found blood spattered on walls in a pattern that indicated summary executions. They drew on the testimony of a witness to further cast doubt on the army’s version of events.
The witness, the mother of a 15-year-old girl killed by soldiers, said that only one gang member had been slain and several wounded during the gun battle. The other 21 people were executed after surrendering, she said.
Reporting also from the Mexican edition of Esquire magazine cast such doubt over the army account that an officer and seven soldiers were arrested.
Vivanco, the human rights advocate, said, “It was only after media coverage became too embarrassing that officials decided to take some action.”
He said he expected little policy change with the Iguala massacre.
“My sense is that they view the country’s human rights and security problems as issues that should be dealt with as public relations problems,” he said.