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Suspected Student Massacre Illustrates Depth of Lawlessness in Mexico

A suspected massacre of teaching students by corrupt policemen seemingly re-confirmed a stubborn fact of life in Mexico: there is practically no rule of law in the country.
Photo by Daniel Hernandez

The grainy footage shows a well-dressed older woman sitting with her eyes and wrists wrapped in bandages. She seems uncomfortable, but calm.

The woman identifies herself as the mother-in-law of the cartel-tied mayor who ruled over Iguala, a city in southern Mexico where local police officers working as cartel hitmen likely killed a total of 46 students and three others, according to statements by authorities.


The case has startled Mexico and sparked large protests in Mexico City and as far away as Tijuana on Wednesday, drawing thousands.

In the clip, Maria Leonor Villa Ortuño is interrogated by a man off-camera. She says her daughter is married to the now-fugitive mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca. She calmly says two of her brothers were members of the crumbling Beltran Leyva cartel. The woman also says her family helped fund the political campaign of Guerrero state's current governor, Angel Aguirre, a member of the PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution.

The taped interrogation is a chilling testament to how deeply ingrained organized crime has become in one of Mexico's poorest and historically volatile states. It reemerged this week after the Ayotzinapa normal school massacre, but it was actually first uploaded to the Internet more than a year ago.

Last October, in fact, political rivals of Abarca accused the mayor before Guerrero state authorities of personally killing one of their allies. While allegations of his links to organized crime seemed to be common knowledge in the state, authorities did nothing.

For average Mexicans, the case seemed to re-confirm a stubborn fact of life in Mexico — there is practically no rule of law in the country. In 2013, a whopping 93 percent of crimes went unreported, according to a study sponsored by the national statistics institute.

In that climate, a bunch of cartel-paid policemen apparently didn't hesitate to shoot and perhaps slaughter a large group of unarmed young men.


Inside the Mexican College Where 43 Students Vanished After a Violent Encounter With Police. Read the story.

Now, nearly two dozen police officers from Abarca's municipal government are under arrest as authorities investigate whether they carried out a mass execution of teaching students after a confrontation that began September 26. Twenty-four others were injured in the Iguala attacks, many seriously, after the officers allegedly fired on them after the students had taken over three passenger buses.

Three normalista students were killed by gunfire that night. Three other bystanders were killed as police apparently shot wildly in the direction of another bus that was carrying a third-division soccer team. One student appeared the next day dumped on a street with the front of his face sliced off.

Many of the normalistas ran into the wooded hillsides around Iguala, but police and armed men detained others, taking them away in trucks, witnesses said. Hitmen present at the incident reportedly told officials they were ordered to kill 17 of them. In total, 43 teaching students, all of them young men from mostly humble rural backgrounds, are missing and considered the likely victims being exhumed this week in mass graves in Iguala.

The case has stunned drug-war-weary Mexico and prompted President Enrique Peña Nieto to make a national TV address about it, where he promised to bring the students' killers to justice.


Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto addresses the country on the Iguala attacks.

On Wednesday, at least 10,000 people marched from the Angel of Independence monument in central Mexico City to the Zocalo main square. There was also another large demonstration in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo, and in other cities.

Current students at the Ayotzinapa Normal School headed the march, calling for the government to deliver their classmates alive. A large portion of the people marching appeared to be civilian residents of Mexico City, many carrying homemade signs.

The normal-school students chanted slogans calling for the "release" of their missing classmates. Some signs decried what protesters described as a "narco-state" in Mexico.

Thousands gathered on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City on Wednesday in preparation for a march to the Zocalo main square. (Photo by Daniel Hernandez)

The United States government addressed the case for the first time Tuesday — 11 days after the massacre was first reported — when a State Department spokeswoman offered condolences after she was was pressed about the massacre during a briefing.

"This is a troubling crime that demands a full, transparent investigation and the perpetrators must be brought to justice," said Jen Psaki during the State Department's daily press briefing.

Gonzalo Ponce, spokesman at Mexico's interior ministry, told VICE News on Wednesday that federal officials had received no evidence or claims of organized-crime links against the missing mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca.

"Rumors are everywhere," Ponce said. "Homicide is a state-level crime, organized-crime is another matter. If those allegations existed, then [federal prosecutors] would investigate."

Governor Aguirre, meanwhile, defended himself this week, as the process of exhuming and identifying the victims found in Iguala continues.

"I've said it before, that the majority of the municipal police in Guerrero are infiltrated by organized crime," the governor said Monday. "I'll say this very clearly. My hands are clean. I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Torture in Mexico is 'out of control' according to Amnesty International. Read more here.