A lawless land

Mexico is a case study in what happens when the rule of law disappears.

It has all the makings of a bad crime novel about a corrupt country where officials and police collude with criminal gangs with gruesome consequences.

There’s a mayor who orders an attack on college students to keep them from interrupting a political event that his wife, allegedly linked to a major drug cartel, was hosting. There are local police that work as enforcers for the same cartel and hand the innocent students over to hit men. Finally, there is a president – a new face of an old authoritarian party – who waited more than a month to meet the distraught families of the victims and has yet to visit the crime scene. It’s the stuff of fiction. But in Mexico, it’s a reality millions of people live with.

What happened in Iguala, a small city in the state of Guerrero just two hours south of Mexico City, is still puzzling. On 26 September, local police following orders from the mayor fired on unarmed students who had commandeered buses to raise funds to travel to a march in the capital in memory of a student massacre in 1968. Six people were killed in the initial attack, and another 43 students were allegedly handed over to Guerreros Unidos, a brutal drug cartel that dominates Guerrero state. The students, ranging between the ages of 18 and 24, attended the Normal School of Ayotzinapa, a teachers college. None have been seen since.

Months after the attacks, the Iguala case is still fueling anger and fury across Mexico. Near daily protests, sometimes violent, are held all over the country. The state governor was forced to step down and Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, who allegedly ordered the attack, was caught on the run with his wife in Mexico City. At least 80 people, including police officers and gang leaders, have been arrested. Protesters have torched government buildings and demanded the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

But why has this case sparked so much fury only now in a country that has seen more than 80,000 people killed and some 30,000 go missing since former President Félipe Calderón launched a war on drugs in 2006?

“It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Ioan Grillo, the author of El Narco, Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. Grillo sees this case as the result of an “accumulation of grievances over the years. An attack that strikes a particular chord because it targeted young students – the hope of the future – and because police and officials, not just gunmen, are responsible.”

In the weeks after the students disappeared, community police like Crisóforo García, the commander of a volunteer search team, spent days looking for the students in the hot, lush and dangerous mountains of Guerrero. A shovel in his sunburned hands, he went out on “secret missions” every day. “We won’t stop until we find them, and we’ll find them alive,” he said at the time. He followed many promising tips but found no trace of the missing students. What he and his group did discover were “a hundred clandestine graves” – a number that can't be independently confirmed.

“All this shows that the entire state of Guerrero is a mass cemetery,” he said. “We’re just civilians. We can do the search but we don’t have the skills to analyze the remains,” García said.

“That’s the government’s job, but we never hear anything back from them.” “I don’t trust the government. They might just make something up and show us some random bones to keep us quiet. I’ll only trust independent DNA test results,” said Maria Olivares, the mother of 20-year-old Antonio, one of the students. She said she would sleep in the Ayotzinapa school dorm, waiting for her son to come back, until someone really proves he is no longer alive.

On 7 November, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showed a chilling video with suspects confessing to having killed the students, burned their bodies in a trash dump near Cocula, about 20 km from Iguala, and dumped their ashes into a river.

Nearly a month later, Austrian and Argentine forensic experts confirmed they had identified the remains of one of the students, Alexander Mora, 19. But the Argentine team stressed there was no physical evidence that his remains were found at the dump, hinting they could had been planted at the site.

The case is far from being resolved and is one of many that might never find justice in Mexico.

Across the country, parents of the missing have been getting together to help each other search for their loved ones. “We had to turn into private detectives, conducting our own investigations and even our own forensic tests,” said Araceli Rodríguez, whose son disappeared in 2009 in the state of Michoacán.

Rodríguez is part of a new project called Ciencia Forense Ciudadana – or “Citizen-led Forensics” – an independent Web registry that will allow all Mexicans to report disappearances on their own, without police interference, and publish the evidence they were able to collect.

“The state doesn’t have a monopoly on truth; what we need is transparency in the investigations, that’s why it’s crucial for this to be an independent database” said Ernesto Schwartz, 33, a Mexican anthropologist who co-founded the project with Arely Cruz, 28. “There is something schizophrenic about this idea that the state commits a crime and then you demand the state to bring you truth,” he said.

At the time of his election, President Peña Nieto promised to make the country safer. But during his first two years, he has pushed economic and energy reforms and diverted attention from security. Nearly 10,000 people have disappeared and more than 40,000 have been killed since he took office – a sign that violence in Mexico is still rampant.

In an atmosphere of distrust, the facts of Iguala have laid bare Mexico’s deadly narco-politics, where there is often no distinction between authorities and organised crime, between Good and Evil. “There are parts of the country that are controlled by drug cartels and where the rule of law has ceased to exist,” said Grillo. “The Mexican Government has to understand there is a public security crisis; and security will have to be a central issue for the country in the years to come.”

With hundreds of federal forces now patrolling Guerrero state, people don’t seem to feel much safer in Iguala. “We live in fear and don’t even go out at night,” a young woman who identified herself only as 'Amalia' said in whispers while she glanced around, suspicious of those nearby. “We don’t know if we should be more afraid of criminals or the police. The police are just criminals in uniform,” she said, adding that she personally knows at least seven people who’ve gone missing in the last few years. None of them have been found. 

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