Grave found near site of mass student abduction

University World News, October 30, 2014

By Brendan O’Malley

Federal and military forces discovered an unmarked mass grave on 27 October in Cocula, 16 kilometres from Iguala in Guerrero state in southeastern Mexico, where 43 students from a teacher training college in Ayotzinapa were abducted in late September. Bones at the site are being tested by forensic experts to see if they belong to the abduction victims.

Four members of the Guerreros Unidos criminal group were arrested in connection with the case, which led to the investigation of the grave, Al Jazeera reported.

The 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos college in Ayotzinapa disappeared after being detained by Iguala’s municipal police on 26 September during protests against education reforms, according to Amnesty International. At least 38 of the missing students remain unaccounted for.

During the September protest at least two students were killed and several people were injured.

It is alleged that 17 of the missing students were handed over to Guerreros Unidos by the police with orders to kill them.

The mass abduction in September triggered protest marches in cities across Mexico and solidarity strikes at the country’s universities, demanding the return of the students.

Most students at the Ayotzinapa college are from low-income indigenous farming families. The college, whose walls are daubed with slogans championing the struggle of workers and farmers, according to El Pais, is regarded by the authorities as a breeding ground of radical left-wing views.

Protest met with violence

On 29 September around 80 student teachers travelled by bus to Iguala, about 96 kilometres away, to stage a protest against reforms, Amnesty International stated. According to a report by El Pais, when they got there they seized three buses and headed for the city centre, but were stopped by municipal police.

The students then tried to order the police to clear the road and some of them tried to move a police car that was parked there, a student witness told El Pais.

According to Amnesty International, as students got off the buses, the police opened fire, seriously wounding one of them. Three hours later, as students told journalists what had happened, an unmarked vehicle approached and gunmen in civilian clothes opened fire once again on those present, killing two students and injuring several others.

The police arrested an unspecified number of students. In addition, 43 students disappeared.

A student witness told El Pais that when he went to the medical forensic services to identify one of the dead, he found the skin on the face of the body had been cut off and the eyes gouged out.

The case led to the resignation of the governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre Rivero, last week.

Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, said the authorities were still trying to track down former mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez and his wife Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, who have been on the run since the mass abduction, for questioning, El Pais reported.

According to Karam, a captured Guerreros Unidos leader has alleged that the mayor’s wife was involved in running the criminal group and the mayor’s office made regular payments to the group in exchange for collaboration.

Karam alleged that the couple ordered the attacks on the students because they were going to demonstrate against an event organised by the Iguala authorities, El Universal reported.

Al Jazeera reported that dozens of police officers were arrested after the leader of Guerreros Unidos alleged that the police had handed a large number of the students to the criminal group and ordered that they be executed.

Amnesty International has launched an international appeal urging supporters to write to Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, to voice concern that responsibility to investigate the disappearance of the students and the killings during the Iguala protest currently remains with the state of Guerrero.

This could undermine investigations, given the alleged infiltration of organised criminal elements in the police forces and a history of failed investigations and impunity in the country, Amnesty International said.

The human rights organisation called for “prompt, impartial and exhaustive” federal investigations into the human rights abuses to get to the bottom of what has happened to the victims; and establish the circumstances surrounding the participation of municipal police and members of organised crime in the attack on students, including kidnappings and murders.

Education Under Attack

In February Education under Attack 2014, a report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, reported that Mexico was among 13 countries heavily or very heavily affected by violent attacks on education in its reporting period 2009-13.

The coalition – which includes Education Above All, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children, Scholars at Risk, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR, among its leading members – reported that attacks on teachers, academics and students in Mexico took place in the context of high levels of general violence.

Heavily armed criminal groups fought over territory and the control of the drug trade – the main source of heroin and cocaine entering the United States – and against security forces trying to dismantle them.

The drug cartels have thousands of armed men and have increasingly turned to other illicit trades such as kidnappings and extortion.

The federal government has used intensive security operations employing large numbers of troops, but in the course of anti-narcotics operations there have been many human rights violations including killings, torture and forced disappearances, according to Education under Attack.

The Iguala incident is not the first time that students from Ayotzinapa have been killed by police in protests over education reforms.

In a similar incident in December 2011, two students were killed when police tried to stop a protest by 300 student teachers blocking the main motorway between Mexico’s capital and the resort of Acapulco.

Amnesty International reported that photographic evidence showed that some police officers fired live ammunition from automatic weapons directly at demonstrators, killing two and injuring three others. One of the protestors was reportedly detained and tortured.

* Brendan O’Malley was lead researcher for Education under Attack 2014.