The close-up images show a handful of black teeth sifted out of leftover ash, and bits of charred bone picked from a landfill not far from Iguala. There are also shots of plastic bag scraps that washed up on the banks of Río San Juan. The murderers allegedly threw them into the river to dispose of the remains of the incinerated corpses.
Cristóforo García is familiar with the pictures, of course. They were broadcast all over the country on the day that Mexico's attorney general appeared before the media following weeks of uncertainty. The monstrous riddle that has gripped Mexico this fall, he said, had apparently been solved.
The case got its start on the evening of Sept. 26 when police in Iguala, a city 180 kilometers (112 miles) southwest of Mexico City in the state of Guerrero, opened fire on three buses full of students who were on their way to a demonstration. Six people were killed and 43 others have been missing ever since. Evidence seems to indicate that the police turned them over to the contract killers of a drug cartel.
The message conveyed by the images is clear: There is no hope of finding the students alive. But García has a hard time believing it. "A couple of shreds of plastic," he says. "Pieces of bone and charred teeth that even the attorney general doesn't believe will be enough to identify a person. That is supposed to be it?"
García, a short, thickset man, is the head of a civilian militia. He is standing on the large square in the center of Iguala on the morning after the attorney general's announcement and he looks exhausted. For weeks, he has been searching for the 43 disappeared students, having set out with others who, like himself, come from villages in the area where the students are from. They have combed through remote mountain settlements, churches, shacks and forests. Along the way, they have found 26 mass graves -- but they found no trace of those they were looking for.
García removes his cap as sweat drips down his forehead. "Yesterday we went back to the landfill," he said, "to take a look around ourselves, but there was nothing left aside from the bones of a cow."
Final Resting Place
There are no bodies and there is no evidence. That's how he sees it. He will only believe more, he says, once Austrian forensic experts, who have been examining the DNA of the remains in Innsbruck on behalf of the Mexican authorities, confirm it.
García's group is made up of three dozen men, including farmers like himself but also merchants, teachers and others. They all decided to act on their own because they have lost faith in their government. They established their headquarters in the Iguala city hall, but the building now stands in ruins following an attack by enraged locals. García calls the burned-out rooms on the ground floor "our hotel" because it is where they roll out their sleeping bags to rest. Outside, in front of the council hall, young women are preparing tortillas on a grill. A couple of steps away, a number of paving stones are missing. Flowers have been placed at the site along with a sign saying that it is the final resting place of the Mexican constitution.
A mixture of anger, desperation, defiance and impotence drives García and his people to remain on the square in front of a charred city hall that seems like a symbol of a state in decline. How can it be, they wonder, that a mayor apparently issued an order to eliminate a group of peaceful demonstrators just because they allegedly sought to disrupt a charity event organized by his wife? Why did nobody intervene when local police turned them over to the murderous drug-cartel thugs?
It remains to be seen how deeply the crime has penetrated the psyche of the populace, not just in Iguala but across the country. Mexico is a country that has become used to violence, horrific crimes and monstrous statistics. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the ongoing drug war since 2006 with upwards of 25,000 more listed as missing. The bloodletting, the mass graves, the beheadings and the arrests of drug bosses have become so normal that they hardly manage to make it onto the front pages anymore.
But this time, after Iguala, things seem to be different. When officials seized the fleeing mayor and his wife a few days after the crime, newspapers quickly rushed out afternoon special editions. On the day after the attorney general's appearance, demonstrators in Mexico City sought to storm the National Palace. In Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero, protestors last week set fire to the regional headquarters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Incinerated at a Trash Dump
The anger, in short, is widespread. The public is enraged that, according to the latest theory, 43 young men, all teachers-in-training, were executed and then incinerated at a trash dump. Their families, meanwhile, are furious at the uncertainty and at the seemingly endless string of new, unproven explanations for the fates of their sons. Forty-three young men. Gone. It is a case that is incomprehensible even in Mexico -- one that has incensed the population and plunged President Enrique Peña Nieto into his first significant crisis.
The president was unprepared for the crime in Iguala. He entered office in December 2012 promising to proceed differently than his predecessor Felipe Calderón, who spent years battling the drug cartels with tens of thousands of soldiers. Peña Nieto reduced the number of troops deployed against the cartels and promoted Mexico abroad as the "Aztec tiger." He was betting that fewer deaths would translate into increased foreign investment -- and it seemed to work. Now, though, the 43 disappeared students reminded the world that Mexico's improving security was nothing but an illusion.
While Peña Nieto was traveling around the world, the cartels regrouped, diversifying their business portfolios and grabbing for political power themselves. In the state of Guerrero alone, it is thought that 15 mayors belong to organized crime syndicates.
The group that stealthily tightened its grip on power in Iguala and the rest of the state in recent years is called Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). It is one of more than 100 splinter groups that have formed across the country in the wake of the dismantling of the large cartels. Increasingly, they have turned to kidnappings and protection money as a way of generating revenue.
From the perspective of drug bosses, Iguala is a place of strategic importance. The city is nestled in the hilly hinterlands away from the Pacific coast, but it sits astride an important transportation route for cocaine. It is also a growing commercial center offering plenty of opportunities for money laundering. All one needs to carry out important transactions is control over the security apparatus and a close relationship with city hall.
Guerreros Unidos sought to make that relationship as close as possible and simply put up its own candidate in mayoral elections.
His name was José Luis Abarca, a married man whose wife's brothers were high-ranking members of Guerreros Unidos and fixtures on the government's most-wanted list -- before they died in a hail of bullets. Abarca's mother-in-law is thought to have been a bookkeeper for Beltrán Leyva, the large cartel that was dismantled in 2011 and which ultimately gave rise to Guerreros Unidos.
Abarca himself was wealthy, despite his modest beginnings as the son of a sombrero salesman. He initially sold bridal fashion before moving on to gold. Ultimately, he owned several jewelry stores and 18 other properties including, as investigators recently discovered, an apartment in Australia. It was the kind of ascent that raised eyebrows in Iguala, but in Mexico, wealth is seen as a positive attribute for politicians. Rich people, voters hope, don't need to steal money from public coffers. And even if they come from nowhere, they know how to create prosperity. Abarca was a kind of Mexican Berlusconi.
A photo of Abarca, a lanky man wearing a violet, silk shirt under a dark suit, still hangs on a wall in Iguala's burned-out city hall. He looks like a Latino night-club singer on a cruise ship.
Not far away, a plaque on a stairwell landing clearly shows the criteria Abarca used when choosing appointees for key positions in his government. The budget, economy and property portfolios all went to relatives of his wife. He named his own cousin, Felipe Flores, as head of security.
During his first year in office, Abarca had the biggest shopping mall in the city built, complete with foreign fast-food restaurants and a cinema. At the edge of town, a public swimming pool with a large water slide opened for business. His wife, who moved into the office next to his in city hall, led the city's largest charity operation.
Nobody wondered out loud where the money for Abarca's projects came from, but there were clues. The black SUV he used for trips through town was the same model favored by drug bosses and the villa he lived in was surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire, as though he had something to hide. And there were plenty of rumors. A journalist who dared to speculate openly about the mayor's connections says that Abarca's wife threatened him at a ball, saying she would cut off one of his ears. It was not, the journalist says, meant metaphorically.
Most stories told by people in Iguala, though, tend to focus on the case of Arturo Hernández Cardona, a leader of local farmers who was shot in the head in May following a heated debate in a city council meeting. Cardona had demanded the fertilizer Abarca had promised him during the campaign and publicly called him a liar and a Mafioso. On the way back home to his village, Cardona disappeared along with six other farmers. Their driver later reappeared and provided testimony, but the case has never been investigated.
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.