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LATIN AMERICA

Power, blood and corruption in Iguala

Federal investigation into missing students reveals impunity enjoyed by mayor and wife

José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda went missing following the events of September 26.
José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda went missing following the events of September 26. AP

He told the police what to do; she ruled over the hitmen. He was the mayor of Iguala; she was his wife. José Luis Abarca Velázquez and María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa made for a lethal couple.

On the night of September 26, the couple set into motion an infernal series of events: six college students were left dead on the pavement of this Mexican town in the state of Guerrero; another 43 youths disappeared after the local police turned them over to the mafia group Guerreros Unidos; angry classmates set fire to the state headquarters and Iguala City Hall and promised an escalation of violence if the students are not returned alive; and the entire country headed down a dark path, from which it is yet to emerge.

Nearly a month later, the Attorney General’s Office has provided the nation with the first official reconstruction of events on that fateful evening. And the tale that emerges after 17 days of intense investigations, 52 arrests and an extraordinary deployment of law enforcement officers is one of power, blood and corruption — a tale in which the Abarca-Pineda couple plays a leading role.

María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, who is a daughter and sister of drug traffickers, headed the Guerreros Unidos cartel in connivance with her husband, according to the investigation. But lately she had set her sights on the mayor’s office, and had gotten herself appointed to a municipal agency as a political springboard.

Her first major public event was going to be held that Friday at the public square. It was going to mark the beginning of her campaigning for the 2015 elections. She had support from her husband, from the main political party in the state, PRD, and from the power in the shadows.

Guerreros Unidos had infiltrated City Hall to such a degree that it was cartel leaders who selected the local police officers, the investigation says. Her husband paid out large amounts to the gang (up to €240,000 a week), a good portion of which ended up in the pockets of the hitmen-turned-policemen.

It looked like nothing could stop Pineda. But on that very day, two busloads of students from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa — a place known for its leftist radicalism — showed up in town.

The youths held a grudge against the mayor of Iguala. They blamed him for the torture and assassination of a peasant leader, the engineer Arturo Hernández Cardona. In June 2013, they had attacked City Hall and covered it in spray paint accusing Abarca of the crime.

When the students walked into Iguala the hitmen who control the city immediately alerted the police precinct. It was presumed that they were here to ruin Pineda’s rally. As soon as the mayor got wind of it, he ordered his officers to stop the students at all costs.

The orders unleashed the madness. The police attacked the students as though taking on members of a rival cartel. They shot two dead on the spot; another one had his face skinned and eyes gouged out. Three other people were gunned down on a federal road, including a 15-year-old boy, after being mistaken for students.

Identification of the bodies is in the hands of forensic experts from Argentina with experience in similar horrors in their own country

Meanwhile, dozens of other Ayotzinapa youths were arrested and taken to police headquarters, then turned over to police officers from the nearby town of Cocula. The latter changed their car license plates and drove their victims right into the hands of Guerreros Unidos.

Its leader, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, was informed that the students were members of Los Rojos, a group in direct warfare with Guerreros Unidos. Casarrubias, “to defend his territory,” gave the green light to his chief hitman.

According to the investigation, the prisoners were loaded onto a cattle truck and driven along a dirt track to the hill in Pueblo Viejo. Police have uncovered nine mass graves there and unearthed 30 bodies. While early reports said that the DNA did not match that of the missing students, a second analysis was ordered in case the first test had errors.

Their identification is now in the hands of forensic experts from Argentina with experience in similar horrors in their own country. Nobody will say it out loud, but investigators believe that the missing students may have been killed here.

Although the leader of Guerreros Unidos is under arrest and has begun to confess, the mayor of Iguala and his wife remain at large despite the biggest police operation launched in recent years. The entire nation is awaiting their capture.

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