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Classmates of Mexico's Disappeared Students Reject Claims of Cartel Links

Student leader Omar García says the recent allegations, which stem from an intercepted phone call detailing a recent attempted kidnapping at the Ayotzinapa college involving local cartels, are designed to discredit the college.

by Melissa del Pozo
Nov 12 2015, 9:30pm

Imagen por Hans-Maximo Musielik

A student leader from the same southern Mexican teacher's college as the 43 young men whose disappearance last year sparked national outrage, has dismissed allegations that cartels have infiltrated the school as a smear campaign, though he says criminal groups are a constant menace.

"There's a campaign to link the students to criminal groups," Omar García told VICE News. "When we know it is them [the government] that negotiates with criminals."

The latest claims of narco ties stem from an intercepted phone conversation in which García is heard being informed by another unidentified student that the Ardillos drug cartel had planned to kidnap four students they believe work for the rival Los Rojos cartel.

The two students mention the nickname of one of the possible targets in the plan, with the unidentified student saying he is afraid the news will become known, "because it could make us look really bad."

The government's initial investigation into the disappearance of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa college — who disappeared after being attacked by police in league with the Guerreros Unidos cartel in the city of Iguala on 26 September 2014 — concluded that they had been confused with members of Los Rojos.

Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance that Has Shaken Mexico

This version was always vehemently rejected by both the parents of the missing and other students at the college as an effort to criminalize the victims in order to deflate the public sympathy and anger the events had sparked across Mexico and beyond.

The idea that the students could have been mistaken for criminals was also dismissed by a special team of experts assembled by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to monitor the government's investigation. This was one of several conclusions reached by the experts that have undermined the official version and lead the government to promise to relaunch its investigation, though some officials are reportedly very unhappy about this.

The recording published by the national daily Milenio last week  — and assumed by many to have been leaked from within the government — has put the issue of alleged links to organized crime back on the agenda. It also comes at a time of rising tension between the students and the authorities that took dramatic form on Wednesday in a confrontation between police and students on a road near the college.

García, whose real surname is Vázquez, said that the phone conversation did happen, but said it had been deliberately misinterpreted to ignore the context of the school's location in the heart of a region in which different criminal groups are continually fighting over who dominates the territory, often with the complicity of corrupt officials.

"We are surrounded by criminal groups that can act in all the region with total impunity," said García, who was one of the survivors of last year's attacks in Iguala. "Our fear is still the same. They already disappeared and murdered us without any consequences. What would stop them from doing it again?"

The call, he said, was primarily aimed at encouraging students to be alert to threats from these groups. "The threats from criminal groups are not new," he said.  "There is a war going on here."

Garcia had previously told VICE News that the college's secretary had been kidnapped by the Rojos in late 2013, and that the students had raised a ransom for his release of $80,000 pesos because they feared going to the authorities.

The student leader had also recalled the kidnapping and murder of his elder brother three months before the 43 students went missing in Iguala. Milenio published extracts of a state government investigation on Thursday that claims García's brother was killed in a shootout.

The leaked conversation comes three weeks after the cinema release of a docudrama based on the original government version of events and called La Noche de Iguala, or the Night of Iguala.

Parents of Disappeared Mexican Students Are Furious Over Docudrama of the Case

It has all helped ensure that the relationship between the Ayotzinapa students with the authorities is at a particular low point.

The bubbling tension exploded this Wednesday when clashes broke out between students and police officers following a police pursuit of a convoy of students who had commandeered several passenger busses and a gasoline truck. Around 20 students and seven police officers were reportedly injured in the confrontation.

"They are smashing us up, there are police of all kinds and injuries," student Jésus Castro told VICE News by phone during the confrontation that also lead to the arrest of 13 students from the college, the entrance to which is pictured above.

After the events local human rights group Tlachninollan, that provides legal representation for both the students and the parents of the missing, released a statement denouncing police brutality. "The different police corporations treated the students in a cruel and inhuman way," the statement said, adding that some students received blows to the head, while others were forced to take off their trousers and threatened with torture.

An early statement from the state authorities blamed the students for the confrontation, who they accused of "throwing rocks and a grenade from the busses." Later government statements played down the significance of the clashes, stressing that all the arrested students had been released and nobody was seriously injured.

Government Trying to Discredit Critical Report on Disappeared Students, Lawyer Says

Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps