The 43 teaching students missing in Mexico since a September police ambush in Iguala, Guerrero, were likely killed by drug cartel executioners and incinerated in a remote dump in the neighboring town of Cocula the same night that they went missing, officials said Friday.
In taped testimonies, men identified as suspected of carrying out the mass murder said they took a group of "43 or 44" young students to the dump and used diesel, gasoline, and tires to burn the students in a fire that lasted from midnight, September 26, until at least 2pm the next day.
They said the young men were delivered to them by police from Iguala and Cocula, on orders from the ex-mayor Jose Luis Abarca, because the students were "going after" his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda.
The 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School are still formally considered "disappeared" because it will be nearly impossible to identify the remains found in Cocula, said Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam.
Only teeth and bits of bones remained. But he said he met with the parents of the missing students Friday morning in Guerrero and shared the information with them, following rounds of previous meetings that the campesino mothers and fathers said were growing increasingly frustrating.
The parents later said they would not accept Murillo Karam's statements, saying that they would not believe the young men were dead until they saw "proof."
The Ayotzinapa student massacre has shaken Mexico, leading to massive protests in many cities and other cities worldwide. The case seemed to strike a nerve in a country where at least 80,000 have died in the ongoing drug war and at least 20,000 are called missing since former President Felipe Calderon sent military units to the streets in December 2006.
In their confessions, alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang told authorities that they carried the students from Iguala to Cocula in trucks. When they arrived at the dump, 15 students were already dead by asphyxiation.
They said they interrogated the students before killing them, asking if they belonged to any "group," in a sign that the men may have thought they were dealing with rival narcos.
"We are students, we are students," the detained men said the Ayotzinapa victims responded.
Murillo Karam said Friday that there were zero indications that the students had links or belonged to any sort of criminal organization. They were enrolled at a rural normal school, a teachers college in a system developed after the Mexican Revolution but which has largely fallen into neglect.
The night of the Iguala attacks, in which six people were killed, including one student who had his face torn off, the 43 young men were rounded up after the ambush on their buses from police gunfire. At the Iguala municipal plaza, in the meantime, the mayor and his wife were at a party meant to bolster her political ambitions.
The students were delivered to the Guerreros Unidos hitmen, who then drove the young men about 14 miles to Cocula, a rural next-door municipality described as firmly under cartel control.
The students were incinerated, although Karam did not say whether they were shot dead first, or thrown into the ditch alive, as Father Alejandro Solalinde suggested in controversial statements in October.
After the incineration, the three men who appear in the taped testimonies said they picked up the bones and ashes that were left, placed them in plastic bags, and dumped them in the San Juan river nearby. Two bodies were dumped in more complete form, the prosecutor said.
The case has added fuel to long-simmering public clamor over the lack of rule of law in Mexico, and the entrenched, violent control of drug gangs over large regions of the country and over the political class.
Mayor Abarca was arrested on Tuesday, along with his wife, in a poor borough of Mexico City. Angel Aguirre, Guerrero's former governor, resigned in the aftermath of the Iguala attacks. Protests as recent as Wednesday's demonstration in Mexico City have called for the resignation of all authorities responsible for the massacre, and for the students to be returned alive.
When asked by a reporter if Mexico's justice system will be forced to change after the Ayotzinapa massacre, the attorney general said that such change takes time. He said the investigation was still ongoing.
"I am part of the society," Murillo Karam said Friday. "And I am truly indignant, sad, and I suppose that's how the society feels as well."
At the Ayotzinapa campus, students and parents held their own press conference in response, in which they rejected Murillo Karam's statements and said they would wait for the results of the investigation by forensics workers from Argentina who were invited to the case by Mexico's government.
Daniel Velasquez, member of the Ayotzinapa student committee, said they would not accept the government's results delivered today, and that the students could still be alive.
"We don't see the prosecutor's actions today as prudent," Velasquez said. "Now, tomorrow, how will they kill our compañeros again? We think they are playing with us, playing with our situation."
Melissa del Pozo contributed to this report. Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter @longdrivesouth.