Photos: How a police atrocity in Mexico unleashed a nation’s anger

On Sept. 26, 43 students went missing in Iguala, a town in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero. An investigation concluded that local police had kidnapped them and handed them over to a local criminal gang, who killed them. Only last week did the authorities announce they had found what they think are the students’ charred remains.

Horrific violence is nothing new to Mexicans. By some estimates, the death toll in the war on drugs that began in 2006 has topped 100,000. Long before that, drug gangs were murdering with impunity, often with the connivance of officials at every level—including, at one point, the country’s drug czar.

Yet the Iguala massacre seems to have shaken Mexico out of apathy. The protests and rioting have spread from Guerrero—one of Mexico’s poorest and most violent states—to the capital, Mexico City. The “social indignation,” wrote Enrique Krauze (paywall), one of Mexico’s leading historians, is “without precedent in recent decades.”

Though the Iguala atrocity is far worse, there’s a clear parallel with Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson, a white policeman, this summer shot dead Mike Brown, a young black man. There as in Mexico, an endemic but largely ignored problem—in the US case, police racism—suddenly became a national issue. And as with Ferguson, where three months later it’s still unclear whether Wilson will even be indicted, they raise the question: Will anything ultimately change?

The students go missing

FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2014 file photo, relatives of missing students wait for news near a makeshift altar inside the Raul Isidro Burgos school in Tixtla's Ayotzinapa neighborhood, in southern Mexico. Night is the most difficult time at the rural teachers college, where families have stayed on thin, bare mattresses in classrooms since 43 students went missing a month ago. When the day’s distractions of meals, meetings, marches end, the parents are left with their thoughts, questions and a simmering rage. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
An altar to the victims at the Raul Isidro Burgos school. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

The 43 dead were students at the Raúl Isidro Burgos school in Ayotzinapa, a neighborhood of Tixtla, a town in Guerrero. They had gone to Iguala for a protest march, where they clashed with local police and were arrested. At some point, the police handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos, a local crime syndicate.

Mass graves are found…

People watch at a garbage dump where remains were found outside the mountain town of Cocula, near Iguala in the southwestern state of Guerrero, November 8, 2014. Forty-three missing students abducted by corrupt police in southwest Mexico six weeks ago were apparently incinerated by drug gang henchmen and their remains tipped in a garbage dump and a river, the government said on Friday. Attorney General Jesus Murillo said three detainees, caught a week ago, admitted setting fire to a group of bodies in a dump near Iguala in the state of Guerrero, where the trainee teachers went missing on September 26 after clashing with local police. REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: CRIME LAW EDUCATION POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR4DDX0
A garbage dump on the outskirts of Cocula, where mass graves were found. (Reuters/Henry Romero)

The students—some already dead—were taken to a garbage dump outside nearby Cocula, where they were killed and burned, and their ashes thrown in the river, according to a subsequent investigation by Mexico’s federal prosecutor. (A Guerreros Unidos leader, later arrested, said he thought the students were aligned with a rival gang).

…yet the students’ bodies aren’t there

Clandestine graves are seen near Iguala, Mexico, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. State officials worked Monday to determine whether 28 bodies found in the clandestine graves are of the students who were attacked by local police in Iguala. President Enrique Pena Nieto called the deaths "outrageous, painful and unacceptable."  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Graves found near the garbage dump. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Federal police discovered mass graves next to the garbage dump.

A bone next to one of six clandestine mass graves discovered in La Joya, on the outskirts of Iguala, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, October 24, 2014. None of the bodies found in the graves on Oct. 9 belongs to a group of 43 missing students, according to the authorities. The students, who are feared to have been massacred by police in league with gang members, went missing on Sept. 26. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez (MEXICO - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST) - RTR4BJ52
A bone next to one of the six clandestine mass graves. (Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez)

Yet in a bizarre twist, forensic tests found that none of the more than 30 bodies in the mass graves were those of the missing students.

The protests begin…

Teachers clash with riot police in front of the Guerrero state congress building in the city of Chilpancingo, Mexico, Monday Oct. 13, 2014. Hundreds of protesting teachers demanding answers about the 43 students who went missing on Sept. 26 during a confrontation with police, clashed with police at the local congress and outside the state government palace Monday. Officials are attempting to determine if any of the missing students are in newly discovered mass graves. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
Chilpancingo, Oct. 13. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Protests began in the state capital, Chilpancingo…

…and spread…

Demonstrators march along the beachfront to protest the disappearance of 43 students from the Isidro Burgos rural teachers college, in Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. Investigators determined that 28 sets of human remains recovered from a mass grave discovered last weekend outside Iguala, in Guerrero state, were not those of any of the youths who haven't been seen since being confronted by police in that city Sept. 26. (AP Photo)
Acapulco, Oct. 17. (AP Photo)

…and extended to Guerrero’s economic heart, the seaside resort of Acapulco…

…and spread

Demonstrators hold torches in front of the Mexican Independence Monument during a march in protest for the disappearance of 43 students from the Isidro Burgos rural teachers college, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Tens of thousands marched in Mexico City's main avenue demanding the return of the missing students. The Mexican government says it still does not know what happened to the young people after they were rounded up by local police in Iguala, a town in southern Mexico, and allegedly handed over to gunmen from a drug cartel Sept. 26, even though authorities have arrested 50 people allegedly involved. They include police officers and alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mexico City, Oct. 22 (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

…and reached Mexico City.

A woman marches with leaflets with the images of missing students attached to her body, during a protest against the disappearance of 43 students from the Isidro Burgos rural teachers college, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Tens of thousands marched in Mexico City's main avenue demanding the return of the missing students. The Mexican government says it still does not know what happened to the young people after they were rounded up by local police in Iguala, a town in southern Mexico, and allegedly handed over to gunmen from a drug cartel Sept. 26, even though authorities have arrested 50 people allegedly involved. They include police officers and alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Mexico City, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Tens of thousands marched in the capital and across the country on Oct. 22. On Twitter, the movement acquired a hashtag, #FueElEstado—”it was the state.”

There’s an unmistakable historical resonance…

An anarchist wearing a mask carries a banner during an anti-government march by thousands on the anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Mexico commemorated the 46th anniversary of the massacre where students and civilians where killed by the military and police on October 2, 1968. The events are considered part of the Mexican Dirty War when the government used its forces to suppress political opposition. The massacre occurred 10 days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Mexico City, Oct. 2. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The youths disappeared a week before the Oct. 2 anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, during which police trapped students in a Mexico City square and gunned down dozens or hundreds of them. That was one of the flashpoints for a “dirty war” the government waged against leftists in the 1970s, and there are annual rallies to commemorate it.

…and a spiritual one

University students wearing Day of the Dead costumes take part in a procession to protest the 43 missing rural college students, in Mexico City, Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. The Day of the Dead holiday honors the dead as friends and families gather in cemeteries to decorate their loved ones' graves and hold vigil through the night on Nov. 1 and 2. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Mexico City, Oct. 31. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The last day of October is Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a Halloween-like festival when families remember dead relatives by building altars to them and dressing up.

Cempasuchil marigold petals form human-shaped outlines on the ground beside lit candles and a placard during an event held in remembrances of the 43 missing student teachers from the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College Raul Isidro Burgos, who disappeared last month and are feared massacred,  in downtown Iguala, in the south western state of Guerrero October 31, 2014. Authorities on Monday said they had arrested four drug gang members involved in the kidnapping of the students. The placard reads, "Alive they took them away, alive we want them."    REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW POLITICS EDUCATION) - RTR4CEJI
Body outlines made from the marigold petals used to decorate altars on the Day of the Dead. (Reuters/Henry Romero)

It became a day of political protest too.

The feds get involved

Demonstrators march with crosses with writing that reads in Spanish "Narco Cops" in protest for the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. Federal police detained yesterday Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who are accused of ordering the Sept. 26 attacks on teachers' college students that left six dead and 43 still missing.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Demonstrators protest against “narco cops” in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

By mid-October federal police had arrested dozens of local police and members of the Guerreros Unidos, extracting confessions about their close ties. The gang’s leader, Benjamin Mondragón, killed himself as police closed in. A week later the governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, resigned and federal prosecutors were naming José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda, as the ringleaders of the killings. They had gone into hiding, as had the local police chief.

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (L) talks to relatives of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City in this October 29, 2014 handout picture provided by the Presidency of Mexico.  Angry fathers of 43 Mexican students missing for the past month turned on Pena Nieto on Wednesday, accusing his government of deceit, fostering impunity and bungling the search for their sons. Following a five-hour meeting with the president, relatives of the students abducted by police in late September in the southwestern city of Iguala dismissed his efforts to find the missing and said their patience was running out. Picture taken October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mexico Presidency/Handout via Reuters (MEXICO - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW POLITICS EDUCATION) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - RTR4C7TC
President Enrique Peña Nieto talks to relatives of the victims, Oct. 29. (Mexico Presidency/handout via Reuters)

For Peña Nieto, the crisis is the severest test yet of his two-year-old presidency; for Mexicans, it’s a reminder of the issues he has neglected during an unprecedented, high-profile barrage of economic reforms. “Peña Nieto talked of all these ambitious reforms, but the question of public security was put to one side,” says Esteban Illades, an editor at Nexos magazine. “We haven’t had a serious discussion about security, rule of law, and drug-trafficking in the last two years.”

Federal police vehicles patrol the town of Teloloapan, outside Iguala, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, November 3, 2014. On Sept. 26, 43 students went missing from Guerrero. Initial testimony from investigators has suggested that the students, who belong to an all-male leftist college, had a history of conflict with the Iguala mayor and that the city police had handed them over to local gangsters who killed them. REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR4CP6S
Federal police patrol Teloloapan, outside Iguala, on Nov. 3. (Reuters/Henry Romero)

The federales have established a powerful presence in Guerrero. But while they may be cleaner than the local cops, they’re not much more trusted. Mexico has countless separate police forces at local, state and national level, which at times have fought all-out wars over territory and ties to officials or crime bosses.

Arrests are made

A view of one of several homes that police raided in their search for fugitive mayor of Iguala Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda in the Iztapalapa neighborhood of Mexico City, Monday, Nov. 4, 2014. Federal police detained the couple where they were hiding out in a house. They are accused of ordering the Sept. 26 attacks on teachers' college students that left six dead and 43 still missing. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Homes the police raided in Iztapalapa, Mexico City, Nov. 4. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

On Oct. 27, federal police arrested four members of the Guerreros Unidos who led them to a new mass grave. On Nov. 4, they arrested Abarca and Pineda after raiding several houses in Mexico City. On Nov. 7, they announced they had fished bags of ashes from the river, but that extracting DNA would hard. The bodies were so thoroughly burned that many of their teeth had “turned to powder.”

But the protests continue

A group of protesters set fire to the wooden door of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's ceremonial palace during a protest denouncing the apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers, in the historic center of Mexico City late November 8, 2014. The group, carrying torches, broke away from what had been a mostly peaceful protest demanding justice for the students, who were abducted six weeks ago and apparently murdered and incinerated by corrupt police in league with drug gang members.   REUTERS/Edgard Garrido (MEXICO - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST EDUCATION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4DEZ1
Protestors set fire to the door of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, Nov. 9. (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

On Nov. 9, demonstrators firebombed the front door of the Palacio Nacional, the president’s ceremonial residence in Mexico City. (His actual residence, Los Pinos, is some distance away and much better guarded.) Protest leaders have tried to distance themselves from such acts. “People I’ve spoken to suspect they are infiltrators,” says Illades.

A woman wears a black veil and carries a cross reading in Spanish "Assassin State," as thousands march down one of the capital's main boulevards to demand that the government find the 43 students who disappeared in southern Guerrero State, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Investigators still had no word on whether the 28 bodies found in a mass grave over the weekend included any of the missing students, who disappeared after two attacks allegedly involving Iguala police in which six people were killed and at least 25 wounded. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A protestor carries a sign reading “Assassin state.” (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

“There’s a difference between this and Ferguson,” Krauze, the historian, tells Quartz. “In Ferguson the indignation was very clearly pointed at the racist attitude of the police. In Mexico… there various protagonists—organized crime, the municipal police allied with them, corrupt politicians at local and state level—and there’s a kind of amalgam of things that is called ‘the state.’ So there’s a great but very diffuse anger at the state.” The Twitter hashtag, #FueElEstado, reinforces that.

Despite the momentum it’s achieved, Krauze is pessimistic about the movement’s chances of achieving change. Apart from its lack of focus, he says “there’s no caudillo“—no strong leader—to the movement, “and that’s important in Latin America.”

Illades is similarly downbeat. “These protests die out over time. The government lets the matter slide, and doesn’t talk about it… That’s how we deal with things in Mexico.”

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