Mexico, Impunity, and the Untold Plight of 43 Missing Students

Author: Andrew Karns, Johns Hopkin University


Over the last few weeks, Mexicans everywhere have been awash with a bittersweet sensation of closure. The languishing hope that the 43 missing university students from Iguala would be found alive was all but laid to rest. Yet looming ominously over this profound popular mourning is the unimaginable indignation that Mexicans feel for those responsible for their deaths, as unclear as who those people may be. These students have been missing for nearly two long months. The mayor of the city of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, who is believed to have been complicit in their disappearance, had disappeared, and President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration seemed to flounder aimlessly in its investigations.

Although it is not worth comparing one tragedy with another, it is troubling to wonder why this calamity in Mexico has gone largely unnoticed outside its borders. The world watched and prayed for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls earlier this year, and the international community has expressed a strong solidarity with the students protesting in Hong Kong. Yet even as the case of the 43 missing students remains in the air while social unrest continues to mount across the country, the international media have failed to give attention to the matter, especially to its complex chain of events that reveal several of Mexico’s deeper institutional problems. To understand the significance of the protests and riots occurring in Mexico, it is necessary to frame them in the context of the case of the missing students.

On the 26th of September, a group of students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa, located in a community just outside of the city of Iguala in southern Mexico, held protests against what they declared had been regular excessive use of violence by local police. The state police of Guerrero, having recently confronted another protest held by the same group of students, opened fire on the protesters, killing 6 (3 of whom were students) and wounding 20. In the aftermath of the chaos, 57 students were declared to be missing. Witnesses claimed that ununiformed men were aiding the police to suppress the protest, leading to the initial speculations that the police did not act alone.

Within the next few days, small-scale protests began to erupt across the region against the shooting deaths of the students, while the Mexican government declared that it would investigate the events. Fourteen of the missing students were found to be safe in their homes, bringing the number unaccounted for to 43. In the preliminary steps of the official investigation, it was revealed that the last known location of these students was provided by a witness who saw the students arrested and packed into police vans. The mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife were last seen on September 30th and shortly afterwards, became wanted by federal police.

The initial shootings were then unreservedly condemned by organizations such as the UN, the Organization for American States, and Amnesty International.

Throughout October, Mexican citizens, especially university students, ramped up strikes and protests as part of a “solidarity campaign” for the missing students of Ayotzinapa. On the 13th, many students of Ayotzinapa sacked and burned large portions of the governor’s palace of Guerrero, though there were no injuries reported. On October 22nd, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam confirmed that Abarca had deep ties with the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos and had, in fact, given the orders for the kidnapping. The following day, the governor of Guerrero Ángel Aguirre requested a leave of absence.

On October 29th, the parents of the missing students met personally with President Peña at his official residence, Los Pinos. In a flurry of interviews after the meeting, the vast majority of the parents said they were largely disappointed with the meeting and did not trust the investigation being led by federal police.

In an interview on October 30th, interim governor Rogelio Ortega stated that the government had “plausible indications” that the students could still be found alive.

On the 4th of November, Abarca and his wife were discovered hiding in an apartment complex in Mexico City and were promptly arrested.

At a press conference on November 7th, Murillo announced that several suspects, among them cartel members, confessed to receiving the students from the Guerrero state police and disposing their bodies. In videos released by the PGR—the President’s legal department headed by Murillo—several of the suspects described in detail the order of events.

“Were some of the students dead before you brought them down from the truck?” asked an investigator off-camera.


“Yes,” answered the blurred figure nervously. “At the moment that I went by them, some of them were already dead, approximately 15 of them.”

In a separate video, another suspect demonstrated how the others had been killed as well.

“We pulled them off of the truck like this … then they told us to bring them over here,” said the man as he dragged around a bundled sack to imitate what had happened. “They were arranging them there,” he continued, crouching over and then lying face-down on the ground. “The ones who were alive, they lay over here when the others came over and shot them.”

It was at that same press conference on November 7th that Murillo, after a tense Q&A session with journalists muttered “Ya me cansé” (I’m fed up, or I’ve had enough) into a hot mic. This, along with the harrowing news that dashed the hope of finding the students alive, reinvigorated popular protests against the government and launched a caustic Twitter campaign using a hashtag with the slogan “Ya me cansé del miedo” (I’m fed up with being afraid), joining the other campaigns centered on the hashtags “Resign, EPN” and “It was the State.”

Human Rights Watch strongly condemned not only the massacre of the Mexican students, but the government’s shameful capacity to manage the problem. José Miguel Vivanco, head of the HRW division in Mexico, has called the Ayotzinapa case a symptom of “the deep crisis that drags Mexico down in terms of human rights.” He further declared that “The explanation for what has happened at Iguala is found in the rule of impunity that has reigned in Mexico for many years,” an issue compounded by the problem that law enforcers are either just as complicit as criminals in these crimes or lack the capacity to conduct conclusive investigations. The HRW condemned above all the sheer decadence of Mexico’s institutional system of justice and law enforcement. “That there has not been from 2006 to the present a single conviction for kidnapping explains to what extent impunity reigns in Mexico,” writes journalist Tania Montalvo in an article published last week in Animal Político.

The Mexican regime now appears to be in serious trouble. Peña Nieto and the IRP (Institutional Revolutionary Party) have hardly any good options left in Ayotzinapa. Calls for the president to resign have proliferated. Mobs attempted unsuccessfully to storm the National Palace, but have managed to sack and burn IRP headquarters all across Mexico. The case remains largely unresolved: the most reliable evidence available on the fate of the students is only a cache of voluntary confessions that investigators have acquired thus far.

On Wednesday, during a much-anticipated friendly football match in Amsterdam, many Mexican fans were most looking forward to settling old scores with their former FIFA World Cup opponent after a controversial goal had given Mexico an early departure from the tournament this past summer. At halftime, however, instead of celebrating their current 1-0 lead, half the stadium broke into an unexpected commotion. Frantically waving black handkerchiefs, the Mexican fans erupted into a resounding chant. “¡Justicia! ¡Justicia!” they cried. Their cries show that both in Mexico and in the world, they are a desperate voice that wants to be heard.





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