The police killings and forced disappearances of students and civilians last fall in Iguala, Mexico, put the city in the international spotlight. As outrage and protests spread across Mexico and the world, attention focused on the goings on in the city before and after the attacks on the students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa.
Implicated in the killings and kidnappings of the students, Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife fled the city and eventually were arrested by the federal government. Similarly linked to the brutal crimes, dozens of police officers and individuals connected to the Guerreros Unidos organized crime group were detained.
Exposed as a corrupted institution, the municipal police force was withdrawn for retraining and security assigned to a new federal police force, the National Gendarmerie. Order and public safety were restored, right?
World attention on the city located in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero notwithstanding, day-to-day events on the ground indicate that little or nothing has fundamentally changed since the bloody assault on the Ayotzinapa students last September.
For instance, in the one week period from February 24 to March 3, at least 19 people were murdered in Iguala. Mostly but not exclusively men, the victims included taxi drivers, day laborers, local politicians, rural officials, and a municipal cop gunned down in broad daylight.
Reminiscent of Ciudad Juarez during the worst years of narco violence from 2008 to 2011, the carnage unfolded in public places and under the noses of security forces ostensibly deployed to keep the peace.
“The outbreak of violence and executions went on in spite of the intense presence of federal police, gendarmes, state police, investigative police, and the soldiers that are in (Iguala) after the case of Ayotzinapa,” noted a reporter for the Guerrero daily El Sur.
The latest press reports indicate that the violence could be connected to an attempt by a relatively new organized crime group, United Revolutionary Sierra, or the Cartel of the Sierra, to wrest control of the strategic Iguala plaza from the presumably vulnerable Guerreros Unidos organization.
In several of the recent attacks, narco messages bearing the signature of the Sierra syndicate have been left alongside victims’ bodies. Directed at government officials, some the messages reportedly boasted, “If you can’t do it, we can.”
The spate of killings prompted a March 2 demonstration in Iguala by about 100 people, mainly women, who demanded the departure of federal police forces and raised slogans against the Ayotzinapa students. Supported by taxi drivers and other transportation workers, including a group linked to a municipal official who is a hold-over from the Abarca administration, the protest had the air of a narco demonstration.
Reputed to be the main collection and distribution point for the opium produced in the nearby Southern Sierra Madre mountains, Iguala is a coveted prize for different crime groups like the Guerreros Unidos cartel connected to Abarca, who is now held in a federal prison reportedly refusing to talk about the events involving the Ayotzinapa students.
Last year’s murders and forced disappearances of the students, dubbed “The Night of Iguala” by Proceso magazine, exposed a regional reign of terror under the Abarca administration and Guerreros Unidos. The unsuccessful search for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students ironically led to other hidden horrors: the discovery of mass graves on the outskirts of Iguala which contained the remains of victims murdered prior to the Ayotzinapa episode.
As parents of the Ayotzinapa students took to the public stage demanding justice, another group of victims’ relatives emerged. Like the Ayotzinapa parents, the Committee of Victims of Forced Disappearances is dedicated to finding out the truth about their missing loved ones.
With or without official support, family members have spent months searching for and locating clandestine burial grounds on the outskirts of Iguala. By early March 2015, 52 victims had been recovered during the searches. Five of the victims have been identified so far. According to the federal attorney general’s office, 257 people are documented as disappeared in Iguala apart from the students.
Family representatives told reporters this week that some state and federal support for the group had dried up, leaving family members forced to spend long hours or days attending to the disappearances without adequate food and transportation to tide them through their ordeals.
Anselmo Campuzano Martinez, legal representative for the committee, specifically called on the federal Executive Commission for Victim Attention (CEAV), an official body set up to assist family members of violence victims, “to get to work.” In addition to filing legal complaints aimed at restoring the assistance, the Iguala committee said it would travel to Mexico City in order to petition new Attorney General Arely Gomez on other outstanding issues.
Sources: La Jornada (Guerrero edition), March 4, 2015. Article by Raymundo Ruiz Aviles. Proceso/Apro, March 3, 2015. Article by Ezequiel Flores Contreras. El Sur, February 26, 27 and 28, 2015; March 1 and 4, 2015. Articles by Alejandro Guerrero and editorial staff.