From “Mexican Moment” to “Mexico Murder”

Three recent articles in United States top newspapers regarding the situation in Guerrero can be summarized in one single phrase: From “Mexican Moment” to “Mexico Murder”

The mass graves findings, the massacres of Tlatlaya and Iguala and the disappearance of the 43 students are clear evidence that Enrique Peña Nieto’s government might be in decline.


On Wednesday October 8th, The Economist posted an article entitled “Outrage, at last” regarding the killings of Tlatlaya on June and the Iguala situation that started with the killing of 6 and the dissapearance of 43 students on September 26th.
On Saturday October 18th, The New York Times published a story named “Mexico Finds Many Corpses, but Not Lost 43“, stating that Peña Nieto’s administration is passing through a major human rights crisis and loosing credibility internationally.
On Saturday October 22nd The Washington Post published an article entitlted: “Hunt for 43 students highlights Mexico’s missing, demonstrating that in his first two years in office, Peña Nieto has focused on revamping the economy and drawing foreign investors, earning praise from some economists who say he has set the stage for future growth; but he has largely overlooked the lawlessness of regions like the southern State of Guerrero.

The Economist:

It was “outrageous, painful and unacceptable”. With those words, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto echoed the feelings of the nation on October 6th after the discovery of 28 charred bodies, dug up the previous weekend in mass graves near the city of Iguala, 80 miles (125km) southwest of the capital.

Though the authorities have not yet publicly identified the corpses, Mr Peña indicated the truth of what everyone suspects: that the victims were among 43 teacher-trainees who went missing after a night of police violence in Iguala on September 26th in which six people were killed. Authorities from the state of Guerrero, Mexico’s most murder-plagued, have arrested 22 Iguala policemen in connection with the disappearances. If confirmed, it would be the worst massacre in almost two years of the president’s tenure.


But it may not be the only one. Late last month, the army arrested seven soldiers in connection with the killing in June of 22 people in Tlatlaya, a crime-ridden town 100 miles west of Mexico City. Throughout the summer the official version was that the deaths occurred during a shootout between a group of criminals and the armed forces. That only changed after the Associated Press found a witness who said the victims were shot after they had surrendered and been disarmed. The government now says it will charge at least three of the detained soldiers with murder.

Both cases are a test of the credibility of Mr Peña’s administration in enforcing human rights. So far, it is not getting high marks. “They talk the talk, they don’t walk the walk,” says Alejandro Hope, a security consultant.


Shortly after the disappearance of the students from the Ayotzinapa teacher-training college, Mr Peña put the burden of responsibility on the government of Guerrero to find them. He appeared to overlook the fact that in 2011 Guerrero security forces shot dead two politically militant students during a protest. This created a powerful mutual hatred. Only on October 6th did Mr Peña order federal forces to investigate.

Since the Tlatlaya incident, Mr Peña has continued to heap praise on the armed forces, despite what looks at best like a sluggish investigation, at worst like an attempted cover-up. “Only after the media coverage became too embarrassing to ignore did the federal authorities decide to act,” says José Miguel Vivanco of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Mexico is facing a national human rights and security crisis that demands a far more serious response from the federal government.”

Authorities in Guerrero have linked members of the Iguala police force to a druglord who they say ordered the massacre. But it is not clear why drug traffickers would kill left-wing students whose protests are mostly against state and local political bosses. Nor is it clear why federal authorities have not previously investigated allegations that local politicians in Guerrero are mixed up in the drug trade.

Mr Peña’s administration has sought to play down Mexico’s violence and play up its economic potential. But cases like this suggest a tendency to bury its head in the ground.


The New York Times:

With borrowed shovels and pick axes, the farmers drove their battered pickup trucks to a series of suspicious clearings in the countryside, jumped out and started digging.

“Hey, hey, it’s a spine,” one of the men, part of a citizen police patrol, called out last week, fishing out what appeared to be a piece of spinal column. Soon came other fragments — a rib? a knee bone?

Five mass graves have already been discovered in the hunt for 43 students who disappeared last month after clashing with the local police — and another half dozen secret burial sites like this one are being tested to determine the origins of the remains inside.

The students were reported missing after the local police, now accused of working with a local drug gang, shot to death six people on Sept. 26. Prosecutors say they believe that officers abducted a large number of the students and then turned them over to the gang. The students have not been seen since.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has declared the search for the missing students his administration’s top priority. But if anything, the hunt is confirming that the crisis of organized crime in Mexico, where tens of thousands are already known to have been killed in the drug war in recent years, may be worse than the authorities have acknowledged.

The federal government has celebrated official statistics suggesting a decline in homicides in recent months. But the proliferation of graves here in the restive state of Guerrero — including at least 28 charred human bodies that turned out not to be the missing students — has cast new doubt over the government’s tally, potentially pointing to a large number of uncounted dead.

Relatives of the students, who were training to be teachers and planning a protest against cuts to their college, agonize over the discovery of each mass grave. Some have given up searching on their own, convinced that a mafia of criminals and politicians knows where they are but are not saying.

Mass Grave near Iguala Guerrero (Photo: NY Times)
Mass Grave near Iguala Guerrero (Photo: NY Times)

Many still believe the lost students are alive, joining the distressed fraternity of relatives of the thousands still missing from the drug war in Mexico. Such cases are rarely solved.

Hours before the latest possible graves were found, María Oliveras, the mother of Antonio Santana, one of the missing students, lit a candle and prayed at the campus where she and other relatives are holding a constant vigil.

“I just want to know how he is, where he is and what he is doing,” she said. “When they find remains, I don’t want to believe it is him. You have to believe he is alive and for some reason they haven’t turned him over.”

In his first two years in office, Mr. Peña Nieto has focused on revamping the economy and drawing foreign investors, earning praise from some economists who say he has set the stage for future growth.


Martín Bello looked for graves near Iguala, Mexico. Credit Janet Jarman for The New York Times

But critics argue that in the process, Mr. Peña Nieto has largely overlooked the lawlessness of towns like this one, 120 miles south of Mexico City, the evidence of which lies literally just under their surface.

“Impunity is the main motivation for these numerous disappearances,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official. “We must remember that only one in every five murder cases is solved in Mexico, whereas in the U.S. it’s two out of three cases. This is due to impunity, weak institutions and a decentralized search and localization process.”

Members of the farmer brigades searching for the students — calling themselves “community police” who have stepped into the vacuum of authority in southern Mexico — said they were acting on a rash of tips from residents who do not trust any of the professional police.

Leaning on a shovel, Miguel Ángel Jiménez, a leader of the community police, said he doubted the students could have been buried in this spot because the growth of weeds over it looked thicker than a few weeks would produce.

“But even if it is not them, we can’t let these graves go unsolved,” he said, bringing a halt to the digging. “Once we find some bones, we stop and let the forensic investigators come in.”

It will take a couple of weeks for the authorities to test all of the new remains discovered in recent days. Prosecutors have confirmed that the corpses and remains in at least five mass graves uncovered so far are human, but they have not yet tied them to any of the students.

On Friday, acting again on tips from residents, the farmer brigades searched a hilly trail, looking for caves in which residents believe bodies were left. Along the way, they found what appeared to be a safe house for a gang, littered with bottles, old clothes, candles and a portrait of Jesús Malverde, a gang icon.

Later, a local guide working with them got a threatening telephone call as he headed down the trail from the cave.

At Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, Eleucadio Ortega and other parents awaited word about their missing children. (Photo: Janet Jarman for The New York Times)
At Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, Eleucadio Ortega and other parents awaited word about their missing children. (Photo: Janet Jarman for The New York Times)

At Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, Eleucadio Ortega and other parents awaited word about their missing children. Credit Janet Jarman for The New York Times
“Stop going up there,” the voice said over and over before hanging up, the man said.

The school the students attended, the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, is a teacher college with radical roots, steeped in revolutionary ferment and slogans.

Now parents and other family members of the missing bide their time there, sipping coffee, chatting in clusters and sleeping on mattresses stuffed into classrooms and other spare space.

The students had been organizing an Oct. 2 protest against cuts to their state-financed school, but they appear to have gotten into a skirmish with the police when they tried to steal buses to travel to and from the demonstration, human rights groups said.

“Sometimes I can’t just sit and think,” said the mother of one student at the school, declining to give her name out of fear. She clutched a piece of paper with a prayer for “the Protection of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ” written on it.

Her husband scoffed at what he considered a big charade on the part of the authorities. “We can’t search; we don’t know the terrain,” he said with anger. “But they already know where they are. Just bring him to us.”

Eleucadio Ortega, another father, said his gut tightened with each report of a grave being found. In the days after his son, Mauricio Ortega, went missing, he searched parts of Iguala with other parents. But they found the effort futile and believe that only informants in the criminal world can provide real leads.

He wonders if somehow the students got mistaken for any number of groups in conflict in the state, including a range of guerrilla groups and gangs. But, he said, his son was simply a peasant farmer who wanted to be a teacher to get ahead.

“Somebody knows what happened to him and the others,” he said. “Somebody needs to bring them back.”



The Washington Post

Long before 43 teachers college students disappeared in an attack by police, Maria Guadalupe Orozco’s son went missing in the same southern Mexico city of Iguala.

Orozco says Mexican soldiers took Francis Garcia Orozco as he was ferrying equipment between a nightclub and the fairgrounds for a festival, an assertion based on witnesses and grainy security camera footage that day in March 2010. The military denied it.

Now she wonders if he’s among the 28 bodies found in five burial pits at a clandestine mass grave uncovered during the all-out search mounted by authorities for the missing students. Officials say none of college students was among the remains recovered, so rather than solve an extraordinary crime that has captured international attention, a mass forced disappearance by the state, the discovery of the bodies has added layers of horror to a situation already difficult to fathom.

Maria Guadalupe Orozco
Maria Guadalupe Orozco

Instead of finding the 43, authorities are asking “Who are the 28?” Guerrero has long been a stronghold for both leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers, so the dead could be both. Or neither.

Given Mexico’s record on identifying the missing, Orozco may never know if her son is among them.

“It’s like reliving those days of anxiety, desperation, of wishing and asking God for the telephone to ring,” Orozco said of the grisly find. “If anyone knocks on the door at any minute, you think, ‘He’s here now.’”

The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto took office two years ago saying it would make a verifiable list of the missing in Mexico, and released a searchable database of 22,322 people in August. Government officials, who say at every turn that violence has dropped dramatically on their watch, put little attention on the fact that 9,790 of those people — more than 40 percent — have gone missing since Pena Nieto took office.

The rest were from the previous six years under former President Felipe Calderon, when disappearances began to spike with his attack on organized crime.

The list does not include the 43 students of the radical Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa. The government says it still does not know what happened to the young people after they were rounded up by local police in Iguala and allegedly handed over to gunmen from a drug cartel Sept. 26, even though authorities have arrested 50 people allegedly involved. They include police officers and alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel.

While the state is getting all the attention, an analysis of the government numbers by the newspaper Reforma doesn’t even put Guerrero among the top six states with the most disappeared. Tamaulipas, where 72 migrants were slaughtered in 2010 and hundreds more found in mass graves the following year, was No. 1. Jalisco, home to Guadalajara and warring drug cartels was No. 2. Some 67 people were found in mass graves there just last Christmas.

Mass graves are regularly found around the country — 11 bodies in August in Michoacan state, 19 others in Iguala just last May.

Figuring out who they are is the government’s challenge, and progress is slow despite the creation of a special unit of the Attorney General’s Office in May 2013 to find the missing. Mexico has had no national database to match characteristics of missing to unidentified dead, and is in the process of building one from scratch. Although the government finally has a list of the missing, there is no official number of unidentified bodies, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

The Attorney General’s Office won’t release results of the team’s work so far. But a Human Rights Watch statement earlier this month criticized the government’s handling of the missing, saying the team has reviewed only 450 cases and located 86 people, of which 57 were alive and 29 dead.

The rights group also questioned why the federal government cut its proposed 2015 allocation to the unit by more than 60 percent.

“What I always say is that nothing we could do is enough,” said the federal assistant prosecutor for human rights, Eliana Garcia, adding that she expects the missing database to be accessible nationwide by 2016. “They’re right to be angry; they’re right to be frustrated. I’m frustrated.”

Only six of 32 states so far have the International Red Cross software designed to match missing persons with unidentified bodies, a program that asks not only DNA and fingerprints but characteristic and habits of the person who disappeared.

In Mexico City, where there are more workers available to build a database, officials of the Institute for Forensic Science have 13,000 unidentified bodies going back to 1980, and it took a month to upload 20 of them into the database.

The institute only started collecting DNA samples on all unidentified corpses this year. The data searches are still done by hand.

“We get a thousand requests a year from all over the country asking us to look in our archives,” said Maria Antonieta Castillo, head of identification services. “We’ve only given about three positive identifications.”

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam announced the formation of his agency’s identification unit three weeks after relatives of young people who had gone missing staged a hunger strike in May 2013.

Erika Montes de Oca, one of those protesters, said the case of her nephew was one of the first solved by the attorney general’s team. Sergio Guillen Eduardo Montes de Oca, 27, disappeared from a bar where he worked in the center of Mexico City in November 2012.

“It says one thing: When you seek, you find. He had been in a mass grave for eight months,” Montes de Oca said.

Now she works for the team helping other families.

“In one year, I’ve found two girls, one dead and one alive. For me that’s success,” she said. “We’re trying.”

But it doesn’t seem so in Iguala, where Felix Pita’s 17-year-old son, Lenin Vladimir, disappeared with Garcia more than four years ago, and where 43 more desperate families are now demanding to know what happened to their missing.

“We’re going to keep protesting until there are positive results,” said Pita. “If we don’t, they will disappear all of us.”



The Economist
The New York Times
The Washington Post