Teeth and Bones Mass Abduction Reveals a Decaying Mexican State
Part 2: Law Enforcement's Weakest Link
The Cardona case, the arbitrary violence that could strike anybody at any time, was likely one of the reasons the students wanted to protest on Sept. 26. They were traveling to Iguala from Ayotzinapa, a village located three hours away by car that is home to a teachers college with a reputation for rebelliousness. Survivors of the group say that they had intended to travel onwards to a demonstration in Mexico City following a stop in Iguala. They were unaware that Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the mayor's wife, intended that evening to announce her plans to run for mayor as her husband's successor.
Iguala is everywhere, say those who are now protesting across the country. They are marching through cities that have become foreign to them, governed by politicians they no longer trust because it is no longer clear if they are carrying weapons under their suits. They feel unprotected in the streets because even the uniforms worn by the police say little about their true intentions.
When investigators from the attorney general's office discovered a weapons depot two weeks ago, they discovered local police uniforms in addition to several Kalashnikovs and an anti-aircraft weapon. After dark, people in uniform walk the streets wearing masks. Who are they? What do they want? Who is prepared to file a criminal complaint when a potential accomplice will be sitting across from them at the police station?
In the courtyard of the Iguala town hall, workers have begun carting away the rubble. They carry desks and files out to the street, past a group of suspended local police officers who are waiting to be given something to do.
Noel de la Cruz Domínguez is one of them, a 34-year-old man wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He had to surrender his uniform on Sept. 26 after federal police, considered to be less corrupt, took over in Iguala. Twenty-two of Noel's colleagues were arrested after the students' bus was fired on while the remaining 298, who are presumed not to have been involved, were sent to a post in the mountains where they received additional training. Noel said there were lessons in human rights and that he was interviewed by a psychologist. More than anything, though, the idea was to make it look as though something was being done.
After a week, Noel and 20 others were sent back ahead of schedule. "My heart," he says, "can't take the altitude in the mountains." Now they are undergoing a kind of occupational therapy.
'A Good, Secure Job'
On this morning, Noel is given a pile of fliers that he is to disseminate to motorcyclists around the city. Avoid penalties, wear a helmet, they read. Noel walks across the city hall square where Cristóforo García's people are currently setting up 43 empty chairs, but he doesn't look over. Noel has been a police officer for 13 years and would like to remain on the force, but he doesn't know if he will be retained after all that has happened.
"It is a good, secure job," Noel says, better than the one he had in Cancún, where he worked as a hotel security guard. He has colleagues who used to work in taco joints or who bagged groceries in supermarkets. It is not difficult to become a police officer in Mexico. Noel only had to submit an application and pass a lie-detector test before he went through an eight-week training program to learn how to pat down suspects and to use a nightstick. Then he was given a uniform and a sidearm and sent out on patrol. Periodically, he says, he was even part of the mayor's security detail.
There are more than 1,600 police units in Mexico with local police such as Noel toward the bottom of the chain of command. They are also the weakest link, earning just 7,000 pesos, around 414, per month. It is enough to make ends meet, but not enough to be able to afford a car or a smartphone. "Of course that makes people susceptible," Noel says. Then he puts his finger on his lips as though he has said too much. You never know, he says. Everywhere there are people hiding in entryways ready to report suspicious movements.
It is said that 60 percent of the police force in Iguala worked for the drug cartels. For their services, they allegedly received cash from the mayor who reputedly handed out some 300,000 pesos per month. He officially declared the expenditures as being "disbursements for snacks." In exchange, the cops would look the other way when drug couriers passed through Iguala or they would inform mafia bosses of imminent raids. "Local police are people who don't ask twice when given an order," Noel says. "They carry it out."
On the night of Sept. 26, as the students made their way into the city in three rented buses, Noel's colleagues on duty received orders, allegedly from the mayor's office, to get rid of them.
Tires and Gasoline
They requested backup from the neighboring town of Cocula before the bus was then fired on. Some students were able to flee into the nearby hills while 43 were rounded up by the police. And it is perhaps not a coincidence that they then turned over their prisoners to deputy police chief César Nava, a suspected gangster who had been in charge of the Cocula precinct for a few months.
To agree on how to proceed, Nava is alleged to have called the leader of the crime syndicate Guerreros Unidos. During interrogation following his arrest, he admitted that he gave the order to hand over the prisoners to Guerreros Unidos hitmen. He told investigators that he thought the students were members of a different gang and that territorial defense was at stake.
State prosecutors say that, after being handed over, the students were driven to the landfill, a place where Nava frequently went for shooting practice together with other gang members who he had brought into the police force. Three hitmen from the local cartel -- Patricio Reyes Landa, Jonathan Osorio Gómez and Agustín García Reyes -- have since testified that they killed the 43 students and incinerated their corpses using tires and gasoline.
But maybe that isn't how things played out. Perhaps they are still alive. Family members continue to believe as much, as does Cristóforo García, the leader of the search team. It is all too common in Mexico for officials to present false confessions in order to produce quick results. And why should a state that has been extensively infiltrated by the mafia be believed?
Recently, Cristóforo García and his group headed out again for yet another search, 30 men, most of whom travel standing in the beds of white pick-ups. García leads the way as they slowly roll out of the city on the road to Cocula. They drive past the landfill and past the public pool with the big water slide. Eventually, they turn into a street that slowly winds its way into the hills. As the undergrowth becomes thicker, García says: "They could be anywhere."
'We Don't Have a Government'
After more than an hour, they reach a remote village where a roadblock brings the convoy to a halt. A dozen armed men approach and indicate that they should get out of their vehicles.
García turns off the engine and he and his group suddenly find themselves standing at an intersection surrounded by men with a distrustful look in their eyes. And once again, nobody knows who is behind the masks worn by the others.
"What do you want here?" demands an older man in a sombrero who appears to be their leader.
García explains that they are looking for the disappeared students but the man doesn't believe him. Just a few minutes ago, the man says, a military convoy rolled through the village and points to a helicopter circling overhead. It looks as though they are carrying out an operation nearby. Perhaps they are once again looking for mass graves.
"What do you have to do with them?" the leader demands.
"With this government?" García asks. "Nothing. We don't have a government. Do you?"
The man in the sombrero shakes his head. His village is called Tianquizolco and is home to a couple hundred indigenous farmers. As in other villages in Guerrero, they have founded their own police force. Someone has to protect us, the man in the sombrero says, adding that people disappear from here all too often as well.
Then, suddenly, the situation changes. The distrust between the two groups vanishes at the moment that the military convoy tries to pass through the village a second time. Together, the two groups block the way and stop the vehicles. The entire village is now in an uproar. The man in the sombrero demands that the military present identification, but they don't have any documents with them.
Of course it makes no sense to ask the military for ID, but the gesture is what matters -- and the result is that nothing happens for an hour. The heavily armed soldiers sit up on their vehicles while García's people and the self-proclaimed village police force with their hunting rifles stand on the ground around them. It is a perfect image of Mexico in November 2014. Everyone is armed, but it is totally unclear who has control.
- Part 1: Mass Abduction Reveals a Decaying Mexican State
- Part 2: Law Enforcement's Weakest Link