Protesters stormed and set fire to the main government building in Iguala, Mexico on Wednesday, the latest violent incident in the town where 43 students from a local teachers college vanished last month in a case that has shaken the nation.
The protest came as Mexico's attorney general accused the fugitive mayor of Iguala of ordering the September 26 attack on students from Ayotzinapa Normal School that left 6 people dead and 43 missing. Jesús Murrillo Karam issued an arrest warrant for the official, his wife and the town's police chief, none of whom have been seen since the incident.
The Iguala demonstration was meant to be an act of defiance against the town's center of power. But after the teachers and students who had led the protest departed, VICE News watched as an unaffiliated group, mostly masked young men, stormed the town hall and began taking off with furniture, fans, and televisions.
The separate incidents by unrelated groups are a sign that civilian governance is fragile at best in Iguala, although an interim mayor, Luis Mazon, was scheduled to be sworn in on Thursday.
As the attack on the town hall occurred, Mexican federal police forces, which have been in charge of public safety since the September attacks, were nowhere to be found. Before the Ayotzinapa protesters arrived, police trucks and armed officers cleared out of the central plaza and a main hotel of Iguala where they had been based for days.
At 9am, students who survived the attack and parents of the disappeared left the Ayotzinapa campus aboard 10 buses, intent on re-entering the town where their classmates were taken in police cars, not to be heard from again. An hour later, they were joined on the road by a caravan of 12 buses carrying the Guerrero state teachers' union, known as CETEG.
Eight other buses carrying various Guerrero civil groups also joined the caravan.
By 1pm the demonstration in Iguala had begun, with approximately 3,500 people present, according to transit police at the scene. Local businesses closed up shop.
At around 1:30pm, about 20 protesters — all with their faces covered — separated themselves from the crowd of thousands of students, teachers, and supporters who were marching through Iguala, and began to throw rocks at the municipal government building.
Moments later, at least six explosions were heard as the group threw Molotov cocktails at the building, which quickly caught fire.
As the blaze spread, VICE News watched protesters enter the building and spray-paint its walls with phrases like "Justice for the 43" and "We want them back alive." During the demonstration, three plainclothes federal police officers were identified as "infiltrators" by the CETEG and detained. It was not clear if or when they were released.
It wasn't the first time that protests surrounding the Ayotzinapa case had turned violent in recent days. Last Monday, demonstrators stormed and attacked government headquarters in the state capital of Chilpancingo, setting fire to several structures and destroying property. On Tuesday, teachers and other demonstrators set fire to the state offices of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
An hour or so after the attack on the town hall started, the students and teachers left the scene and headed back to Chilpancingo and the Ayotzinapa school campus. No arrests or injuries were reported at that point.
That is when another set of people arrived in downtown Iguala and re-took city hall.
The new group appeared to be taking advantage of the lack of police presence, and carried no signs or protest materials as the previous marchers did. They kept news photographers out as masked young men gathered in the central courtyard of the building and began methodically ransacking it.
Later, VICE News watched as the group boarded mini-buses and headed to a local mall, Plaza Tamarindos, where they proceeded to loot stores and businesses. A chain department store was the hardest hit, the looters taking off with large television sets and other electronic goods.
Mexico's attorney general said that the disgraced fugitive mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife — who allegedly has cartel ties — directly ordered the attack on the students and the subsequent kidnappings. Murrillo Karam claimed that Abarca, already angered by the college's left-wing activism, had given the order to prevent the students' protest from interrupting a public appearance by his wife.
The attorney general characterized the incident as an act of "forced disappearances," the clearest signal yet from the federal government that the attacks were carried out by state forces. That could significantly raise international pressure to solve the case; the United Nations human rights commissioner has already called on the government to carry out a transparent investigation, and Human Rights Watch has described Mexico's state security abuses as "out of control."
Fifty-two people, most of them believed to be police officers, have been detained in connection to the Iguala case. The attorney-general also updated the figure of bodies recovered from the mass graves that dot the hillsides around Iguala, saying 30 bodies have now been found by officials in nine locations, although he again declined to say whether any of these victims are the missing students.
Murrillo Karam said the order to apprehend the students was received by Iguala's police, who were on the payroll of the Guerreros Unidos, an offshoot of the crumbling Beltrán Leyva cartel which now holds a firm grip on the town. He added that the final order was given by the mayor, whose code name among the municipal police was "A5," the detained officers told federal investigators.
The attorney general also alleged that the mayor's wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, is related to two financial operators of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, and that she was involved in the students' disappearances. Authorities are still actively searching for the missing students, Murrillo Karam added.
The case of the missing students has prompted protests that have circled the globe.
Solidarity marches and protests were held on Wednesday in cities across Mexico, including a major rally in Mexico City, while at least 39 colleges and universities in the capital alone said they would hold a two-day strike to demand the students' return.
Demonstrations have also been held in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Paris, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, New York, and other cities.
In Argentina, among several Latin American countries where concurrent demonstrations took place, dozens of protesters gathered on Wednesday outside the Mexican embassy in Buenos Aires to call for the return of the students.
Many of the Argentines told VICE News that they were concerned about the attacks in Mexico because Argentina experienced a dictatorship defined by government abuses of civilians. Although Mexico is far from experiencing the level of state-led violence seen in the worst days of Argentina's "Dirty War," the Ayotzinapa case seems to have stuck a nerve.
"We know what violence of the state is about, this part of the continent has lived it," said one demonstrator, who identified himself as Julio, 32. He suggested the disappearance of the students was an assault on popular resistance, adding: "This was clearly a political attack."
As tens of thousands of students and other demonstrators settled in for the two-day strike called in Mexico City, Eder Aguilar Nova, a 26-year-old enrolled at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, said Mexicans have had enough of the collusion between political and criminal forces in the country.
"Our goal is to organize ourselves and lift our voice ... to inform the people who only watch television, which doesn't tell the truth," Aguilar told VICE News. "The government, no matter [which party], coexists with narco-trafficking and narco-political groups. And once again, they are repressing us."
With reporting by Andalusia Knoll in Mexico City and Emanuel Villavicencio in Buenos Aires.