Mexico: student disappearances focus anger at abuse and impunity

Students shot dead by police, others “disappeared”, mass graves located … the absence of the rule of law and trampling on human rights in Mexico is sparking widespread protest.

Alejandro Garcia de la Garza
17 October 2014

On 26 September, a group of students who had gathered in Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, were shot at and carried off by police forces. By the end of the day, six had been killed, 16 were injured and, according to government figures, 57 were missing. The whereabouts of 43 students is still unknown.

Twenty-two police officers from Iguala and 14 from Cocula have been detained and almost 50 people, mostly again police officers, arrested in relation to the shooting and disappearance of the students. The mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, his wife, Angeles Pineda, and the security chief, Felipe Flores Vazquez, have fled from the authorities.

The search for the missing led within a week to the discovery of six graves, with the remains of at least 28 badly burned bodies. More mass graves have since been uncovered. Vigilante and civilian self-defence groups have joined in the search and reports indicate that up to 19 graves, with at least 80 corpses, may have been found so far. Some or all of these could be victims of the infamous drug cartels and organised crime.


Much remains unclear: statements by the Mexican government, independent forensic agencies and human-rights groups keep changing and contradicting each other. The friends and families of the students are still waiting for answers as to the fate of their loved ones.

The episode has raised concerns about the relationship between elected officials, the police and the cartels which control the area. Some speculate that Abarca and Pineda, now in flight, had sought to prevent the students disrupting a public event. Others suggest that police officers were working for the Guerreros Unidos cartel and punished the students for refusal to pay extortion fees. Political collusion with the cartels, in which the students were considered a threat to be dealt with, is also a theory. Unfortunately, Mexico’s recent history of corruption and drug violence, allied to human-rights abuses by the police and military, makes any or all of these scenarios plausible.

The “war on drugs” has seen the Mexican military take on more police roles and the police become more heavily militarised. Violence between the cartels and the authorities has escalated and the population has been caught in the crossfire. Cartels have multiplied and radicalised, expanding their business model to add kidnaping and extortion to their already highly profitable drug trade.

Human-rights organisations, among other national and international groups, have pointed to a great number of abuses, including torture, by the military and the police. The shooting and kidnapping of the students is just the latest case in a long history.


With so little information released, most of it inconclusive—and amid years of growing frustration with the government and police institutions—protests since the disappearance of the students have become increasingly large and angry. Thousands of demonstrators marched towards the attorney general’s office in Mexico City this week, closing off part of one of the capital’s main and busiest streets to demand answers. In Chilpancingo, Guerrero, protesters clashed with anti-riot police, setting a government building on fire after they had failed to occupy it.

The magnitude of the tragedy has resonated across the country, recalling the Tlatelolco massacre of 2 October 1968 in which military and police killed up to 300 students. Protests have sprouted all over Mexico, demanding that the 43 missing be returned alive, bringing schools and universities to a halt. Faculty members have come together with students to call for answers as well as actions from the authorities.

Crime and corruption have been associated in Mexico with extreme impunity. Strategies to fight organised crime have merely resulted in more violence, in which innocent people have found themselves victims of the cartels and the authorities. If the cartels act ruthlessly because they operate outside the law, the police and military have been protected by the authorities in countless cases of abuse. And still there is little or no accountability for the injustices carried out.

The current clashes between protesters and police stem not only from the outrage sparked by a single event in which innocent civilians have been attacked by those meant to protect them but from a long history of having to fear criminals and police alike. Those responsible must be brought to justice—not only the criminals who kill and kidnap but also those corrupt police and government officials who allow such tragedies to take place. 

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