The clock ticks. A nation waits. More than a month after 43 student teachers went missing, a frantic search unfolds in the hills of western Mexico’s Guerrero state.
By some counts, more than three dozen potential grave sites have been searched. Some have yielded bodies. All have added to anguish. Yet no grave has relinquished a body identified as one of the missing students.
As events play out, the pressure is building on President Enrique Pena Nieto to either obtain results with the massive federal search now on or risk having his presidency permanently identified with unpunished violence rather than the economic growth he envisioned with his slogan “Mexico on the move.”
The crisis has ricocheted from the green hills of Guerrero state to Mexico City and on to the Vatican, other European capitals and Washington. The clamor has overwhelmed talk of Mexico’s welcome of foreign investment in the oil industry or the rapid expansion of its automotive sector.
The attention paid this week to a hilly garbage dump near this dusty agricultural town exemplifies the growing frustration and anger. For days, forensic experts dressed in white jumpsuits combed the ground, searching for any sign of hidden bodies. They’d been led there, according to Mexico’s attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, by information gleaned from interrogating the latest of 56 people arrested in the case, who include an unknown number of municipal police from Iguala and Cocula.
But no bodies were reported recovered, and Murillo Karam, who helicoptered in for a brief visit to the site, sounded defensive about whether Pena Nieto’s government was working hard enough.
“I don’t remember – and I’m of sufficient age to remember a lot of things – an investigation with so many members involved,” Murillo Karam said Tuesday in Acapulco. “It is an inquiry with thousands of investigators.”
After a public audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, Pope Francis told the Roman Catholic faithful that he is afflicted by the problems in Mexico.
“Today, I would like to raise a prayer and bring our hearts closer to the Mexican people, who suffer from the disappearance of their students, and for so many other problems,” the pontiff said. “Let our brotherly hearts stay close to them in prayer in this moment.”
On Wednesday night, Pena Nieto finally met with relatives of the missing students for the first time since the night of Sept. 26, when municipal police in Iguala, a city of 130,000, who were in cahoots with the United Warriors criminal gang rounded up the students and turned them over to gunmen.
Three busloads of relatives arrived at the ornate presidential residence, Los Pinos. After a meeting that lasted more than four hours, the relatives refused to leave unless Pena Nieto signed a statement they provided. He demurred, and it was two more hours before the relatives agreed to leave.
Finally, after 9 p.m., Pena Nieto appeared live on television and said he’d agreed on a number of points with the relatives, including setting up a commission to provide better information about search efforts and to offer renewed support for the 17 rural teachers colleges in Mexico, which the relatives have said they fear the government wants to close.
“The government is by their side, it supports them and joins in their outrage and consternation that these events have caused not only among the families but also in Mexican society,” Pena Nieto said.
He noted the “great impatience” to find the missing students.
That impatience – along with anger, frustration and deep distrust of federal government search efforts – is readily apparent among parents of the missing and on the ground in Guerrero state.
“It’s been more than 30 days of suffering, of hell, of insomnia, of not eating, for the family members of the 43,” said Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, a father of a missing student, who appeared at a jammed late-night press conference after the meeting with Pena Nieto. “With all the power of the state, they still can’t find our boys.”
“Everyone blames each other. No one wants to assume responsibility,” said Napoleon Hernandez, a 45-year-old leader of some 300 self-appointed citizen police who flocked to Iguala from Guerrero’s coast to hunt for mass graves.
Hernandez said his activists, who hold a quasi-legal status, had located 26 separate grave sites spread among four different areas west of Iguala. The federal Attorney General’s Office says it has found its own 11 grave sites, including the garbage dump, and has recovered 38 bodies – none of them belonging to the missing students.
Hernandez is dismissive of federal efforts.
“The reaction has been too late,” he said.
Iguala’s city hall is a charred hulk, burned by rampaging protesters last week, damaged in an increasing pace of arson attacks and sabotage. The city’s mayor, his wife and the city public security chief have all gone underground to avoid criminal charges that they colluded with organized crime.
Masked protesters also have torched the headquarters of the state government in the capital of Chilpancingo, and on Wednesday they rammed a pickup truck into a gate of the governor’s mansion there, then set the vehicle on fire. Demonstrations have spread to Mexico City.
The owner of an Iguala radio station, Sergio Fajardo Carrillo, belittled the federal search, saying few in Iguala have faith in a hunt organized in Mexico City.
“I don’t believe in it. No one does,” Fajardo said. “We’re asking them just to show results. It’s the clamor of the people.”
Among the 56 people the government says it has arrested is the regional leader of the United Warriors crime group, as well as lower-ranking gang members. Interrogations from the most recent arrests, Murillo Karam said, led investigators to the remote garbage dump near Cocula.
Murillo Karam brought his top investigators to visit the site. Helicopters buzzed overhead for several days. Naval commandos kept most journalists away.
The failed search also has shined a light on another distasteful aspect of Mexico’s justice system. Relatives claim that several of the detainees have been tortured in custody.
Delia Melina Canto said hooded commandos took her brother, Carlos Canto Salgado, a schoolteacher, from their parents’ home in the wee hours of Oct. 22. After a long search, she located him in a holding cell of a unit in the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico City dedicated to fighting organized crime.
“He looked like he was beaten,” said Delia Canto, noting that her brother’s hands were swollen, his nose broken and his left cheek deeply bruised. She asked if he’d been tortured.
“He told me, ‘Yes, they tortured me,’” she said.
Canto scorns government proclamations on the crisis.
“What they are doing is creating a little show that will collapse sooner or later,” she said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration finds the reports out of Mexico “concerning,” and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, will study Thursday whether to formally monitor Mexico’s actions in the case of the vanished students.
The European Parliament on Oct. 23 passed a resolution with a 495-86 vote condemning the events in Iguala and labeling the disappearances “unacceptable.”
As the crisis unfolds, Hernandez, the community policing activist, said the only sure thing is that his followers will find more graves in the scrub-covered hills around Iguala.
“The number of clandestine graves in the country, and in this state, is incalculable,” Hernandez said. More bodies will soon turn up. “We won’t have enough candles to put on the altars to all of the dead.”