Long before the city of Iguala became known for one of Mexico’s most horrific mass murders, its mayor had a cloud over his head.
Word on the street was that Mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez was mobbed up, local police had become his enforcers and Iguala had slid into darkness.
That belief has only mounted since local police under Abarca’s command opened fire on a throng of protesting student teachers Sept. 26, leading to six known deaths and 43 missing students. Mass graves discovered last weekend near this city in coastal Guerrero state have yielded 28 unidentified bodies, deepening distress over the fate of the student teachers.
Abarca and his chief of public security are now fugitives, and the ominous signs around them have only grown.
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Take the video posted to YouTube this week. In it, a woman who identifies herself as Leonor Villa Ortuno is shown blindfolded, her hands bound. Under interrogation, she recounts how two of her sons were killed for drug trafficking. A third got out of federal prison in Tamaulipas last year on drug-related charges.
“How are you related to the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez?” asks a voice off camera.
“He’s my son-in-law,” Villa Ortuno answers.
She then relates her family’s long-standing connections to the Beltran Leyva narcotics cartel. A breakaway faction of the cartel, known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), operates in the region around Iguala. Then another question comes.
“What relation is there between the Iguala mayor and the United Warriors?”
“My son-in-law protects them,” Villa Ortuno responds, “in exchange for a monthly fee of 2 million pesos ($149,200). He runs all city police officers and commanders at his will.”
The veracity of the video couldn’t be ascertained, or whether the woman was speaking under severe coercion. It wasn’t clear whether she was subsequently released.
But Rene Bejarano, a former federal legislator and prominent figure in the Party of the Democratic Revolution, known by its Spanish initials as the PRD, said he recognized Villa Ortuno from the video as the mayor’s mother-in-law and acknowledged that his leftist party’s historic grip on Guerrero state had been damaged by its dissemination.
In the tape, the woman says her sons backed the successful PRD campaign of Angel Aguirre for governor of Guerrero in 2011 on behalf of the Beltran Leyva crime group.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told Radio Formula on Wednesday that he’d been aware of the tape for a year but hadn’t looked into it because it was a matter for “counterintelligence,” without elaborating. He added that a murder allegation had been lodged against the mayor last year but that proof was never gathered.
The disappearance of the students has roiled political waters. Hundreds of armed men who call themselves community police swarmed into Iguala aboard pickups Tuesday at dusk. Largely from settlements along the coast of Guerrero, they formed in past years in response to what they said was the failure of state and municipal police in dealing with organized crime.
Tens of thousands of marchers snarled streets in the Guerrero capital of Chilpancingo on Wednesday afternoon, demanding that authorities clarify the fate of the missing students. A march was planned for later in the day in Mexico City.
For some residents of Iguala, run-ins with the mayor were frightening, perhaps even lethal, and made dealings with City Hall unnerving.
Abarca came to office in 2012. He immediately put a cluster of relatives into the city administration, including his wife, three cousins, a sister-in-law and a brother-in-law, nephews, a half brother and his daughter, among others.
One of the cousins, Felipe Flores Velazquez, assumed the role of public security director over the city police force, which numbered around 140 officers before federal police took over most security functions last weekend.
The murder rap that emerged against Abarca last year led a survivor, a spouse and other activists to travel to Washington last month to appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The victim was the husband of Iguala Councilwoman Sofia Mendoza Martinez, a soft-spoken 32-year-old who says she’s now afraid to enter City Hall or look the mayor in the eye.
Mendoza spoke to a group of foreign reporters seated in an ice cream parlor across the street from City Hall. In a sign of the tensions in the city, employees denied the group service and asked them to leave.
Mendoza’s husband, agronomist Arturo Hernandez, was a founder of the local Popular Unity branch of the PRD. He had a public altercation with the mayor in May 2013, accusing him of pilfering fertilizer meant for public distribution.
On May 30, 2013, two SUVs filled with armed men intercepted Hernandez and seven others. They were taken to a rural site, beaten and whipped with barbed wire, according to the testimony of a survivor, Nicolas Mendoza Villa. The next day, Mendoza said, the mayor and public security chief showed up.
“Why are you f---ing around talking about fertilizer? I’m going to have the pleasure of killing you,” the testimony said the mayor told the agronomist, before shooting him in the face and chest. Two others were killed, as well. The others escaped on a subsequent day.
Mendoza said Abarca dominated the 12-seat City Council and all of City Hall, and that after her husband’s murder her job became bitter.
“This man had a lot of power. I put up with it. I tried not to look at him. During council meetings, some people called me rude and said I should respect him,” Mendoza said.
Asked whether Abarca was an organized-crime figure, she nodded but demurred.
“This is dangerous. I cannot comment. I live in Iguala. I have a 5-year-old son,” she said.
Another council member, Andres Guzman Salgado, said it was now up to federal authorities to resolve the case of the missing students, who came from a radical federal teachers’ college near Chilpancingo, and to sort out the corruption allegations.
The students’ arrival in Iguala late in the afternoon disrupted a speech that the mayor’s wife and intended successor, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, was to give telling of her accomplishments as the head of a city social service agency. The national newspaper El Universal on Wednesday described the “furious” expression on her face – “pretty like a television villain” – at a council meeting Sept. 29 when her husband asked to take a 30-day leave of absence. After that session, the two went underground.
Angel Montiel Diaz, a commander of a unit of the local transit police, which hasn’t been disbanded, said he didn’t know what had happened to the missing students, but he described them in pejorative terms.
“They always create trouble. They are very violent. They are vandals. They commandeer buses, and steal gasoline. They ask for money, or they just take it, like grabbing purses from women,” Montiel Diaz said.