43 Missing Students, 1 Missing Mayor: Of Crime And Collusion In Mexico
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Authorities in Mexico have made more arrests in the case of 43 students abducted by local police officers. The new suspects led officials to four new clandestine grave sites near the town of Iguala. That's where 28 bodies were discovered a week ago. They're thought to be those of the missing students. Mexico's attorney general says, Iguala's mayor, his wife and the chief of police are all being sought for questioning. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the case highlights the collusion between local politicians and drug traffickers that takes place in many parts of rural Mexico.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On the second story of Iguala's municipal palace, Jose Luis Abarca, the mayor, occupied the large corner office. His wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, head of the city's family welfare department, occupied the one right next door. From there, residents say, the two ruthlessly ruled over the city of 150,000. One newspaper dubbed the duo the imperial couple. But four days after the students disappeared, that reign ended. The mayor, with the wife by his side, asked the city council for a leave of absence. Neither has been seen since.
CLAUDIA GUITERREZ: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: Crime has been terrible since the mayor took over, says 20-year-old law student Claudia Guitierrez, who's waiting for a friend in the city hall courtyard. Iguala was never like this before, she adds. These days, Mexico's new paramilitary gendarmerie patrols Iguala's streets. Twenty-two local cops are under arrest; the remainder, relieved of duty.
Authorities say on September 26, officers shot at three buses of students from a poor rural teaching college, in town soliciting donations. After the shooting with six people left dead, the officers were seen corralling the survivors into patrol cars. Reportedly, some confessed to turning the students over to a local drug gang, who killed them. Authorities say, they don't have a motive yet, but focus has centered around the mayor and his wife, who have well-known connections to traffickers.
SERGIO FAJARDO CARILLO: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: Sergio Fajardo Carillo, who owns a local radio station, says, it was an open secret in Iguala. Three brothers of the mayor's wife were known traffickers. The mayor's own mother-in-law says, he was on the drug gang's payroll, receiving $150,000 a month.
Few appeared to complain. Iguala's streets were paved, and the budget was in the black for the first time in years. The mayor, like in many towns throughout this troubled region of Mexico, was able to enrich himself and family members, collude with gangs and use the local police force to maintain control, according to prosecutors, rivals and even members of his own political party, one of who had publicly accused the mayor of murdering her husband.
SOFIA MENDOZA: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: It was the mayor who killed my husband, says city councilwoman Sofia Mendoza. Her husband, a local community organizer, was murdered last year. The mayor and he were longtime political rivals and had argued publicly at a city council meeting the day before he was killed.
MENDOZA: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: Mendoza says, a witness who saw the mayor shoot her husband even gave a statement to state prosecutors, who did nothing. She says, the mayor was very powerful. The revelations of local corruption and crime in Guerrero have embarrassed the administration of Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto. In a meeting with international journalists, Mexico's attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, defended his decision not to previously investigate Iguala's leaders.
JESUS MURILLO KARAM: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: Look, said Murillo, if your cousin commits a crime, that doesn't allow me to investigate you. I need evidence, not suspicions. Murillo said, he knew about the murder accusations against the mayor, but homicides fall under state jurisdiction. Murillo says, he hopes to soon complete forensic tests to determine the identities of the remains found in the clandestine graves. Unfortunately for agonizing relatives of the 43 missing students, that could take up to two weeks. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.