In the summer of 2014 it seemed like Mexico's handsome young president Enrique Peña Nieto could do no wrong. Two years into his term, Peña Nieto had passed major structural reforms, overseen declining levels of narco violence, and imprisoned Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, Mexico's most wanted kingpin.
Time magazine hailed him on its cover as "Saving Mexico," but when a group of students arrived in the town of Iguala in southern Guerrero state in late September that year, it ignited a chain of events that would tear this narrative to shreds.
Moments after boarding buses headed for Mexico City, the students from the all-male Ayotzinapa teachers' college were ambushed by police gunmen. Six people were killed, including one student whose face was flayed; dozens were wounded; and 43 young men were driven away in patrol cars, never to be seen again. Three years later, the students remain missing and Mexico's presidency and its politics have never been the same.
Municipal, state, and federal officers were implicated in the coordinated and sustained attacks, along with soldiers who observed the action and threatened a group of survivors. It was one of the worst crimes in recent Mexican history, but the government was slow to react and its eventual investigation was riddled with glaring holes and confounding contradictions.
Peña Nieto had presented himself as the fresh face of a modern and open Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but his cold and detached handling of the investigation brought to mind the party's more authoritarian tendencies during its uninterrupted 71-year reign last century.
The president was criticized for waiting a month before meeting with the missing students' parents and for refusing to investigate the role of the army, fueling widespread suspicion that a cover-up was underway.
His reputation never recovered.
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