It is 22.30 pm on 26 September 2014. In Iguala, one of the most important municipalities in the state of Guerrero in central Mexico, a criminal hydra displays its long necks, serrated heads. He sees a threat and rams with a warlike, savage force. Opposite, a group of about 100 students try to protect themselves. The contingent, part of the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School, which has been operating for nearly 100 years, has come to the city to pick up buses. Next week, normalistas from all over the country will leave Ayotzinapa for Mexico City, to commemorate the student massacre of October 2, 1968. They need buses and, as they have done before, they will take some by force. Then they will return them. But the mission concludes almost before it begins.
Those hours of darkness remain a mystery today. What happens to boys? Why are they being attacked? Both the motive of the onslaught and the fate of 43 of the 100 normalistas are still shrouded in darkness. Researchers handle a myriad of hypotheses. Today they already know that more than 400 people were involved, by action or omission. They have been able to reconstruct part of the journey of many of them. But there is no way to find the 43: in these years only remains of three have appeared in different points of the geography. The space, physical and temporal, between the findings and the attack itself embodies the darkness surrounding the case.
Searches through July amount to more than 130. That only in these years, with Andrés Manuel Lópz Obrador at the head of the Government. To the 130 we would have to add those that were made in the first years, in 2014 and 2015. Even today, the Prosecutor's Office awaits the analysis of human remains found these months. Just this week, the government reported that it plans to send to the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, remains found in a place south of Iguala. Desperate, with little time before the end of the six-year term, the researchers are also preparing old bones, found in the early years, to also send to the Austrian laboratory.
But that's still the future. Because in Iguala, the night of September 26, 2014 advances. The hydra sees in different parts of the municipality groups of students fleeing or hiding. They have left in five buses from the bus station of the municipality. The monster sees them and lashes out. Among the more than 400 soldiers at his service there are hawks, hitmen, their employers, but also police from Iguala and other nearby towns such as Cocula and Huituzco, agents of the state prosecutor's office, military ...
They are nuts, bolts and cables of a criminal gear that acts with unity in the face of the threat. But is the threat real? For months, the war with other criminal groups has been stark. They fight for territories and routes, for drug markets. Some advance and others retreat, volatile inertia that changes every month, every week. To this day, there is no proof that the threat is anything more than a fantasy of the hydra.
Demonstrators protest in front of the National Palace on September 26, 2023. Hector Guerrero
The monster has a name. It is called Guerreros Unidos and there, in Iguala and surroundings, it responds to the wishes of several characters, who deal with you to you with police and military. There are first the Casarrubias Salgado brothers, the masters. And below them, at the operational level, an uncle of the former, alias El Indio, and a veteran of the criminal world in the area, alias El Gil. There are more and until today, the scholars of the group argue about the importance of each other. There are those who put, for example, another group of brothers, Los Tilos, at the level of El Indio and El Gil. Be that as it may, together they manage the structure, whose interests reach as far as the United States. They send heroin and cocaine, receive money and weapons.
At 22.30 at night, everyone in Iguala knows what's going on. The municipal police, at the service of the monster, the one in Cocula, know the same. The Army knows this, which has two barracks in the municipality and an espionage center. CISEN, the state's intelligence apparatus, which has an office in Iguala, knows this. The Army and CISEN have kept personnel on the ground since the student contingent arrived in the municipality a few hours earlier. The Army has infiltrated the Normal. What's more, one of the 43 students about to disappear is actually a soldier in disguise. Despite all this, the monster attacks without compassion. No one is stopping him.
There are two heads that attack more hard. In the northern part of Iguala, municipal police have fired on three buses, with dozens of students on board. The police have taken from there a group of between 15 and 20 normalistas, who were aboard the third. A while later, the deputy director of the corporation, Francisco Salgado, who heads a special group of agents known as Los Bélicos, communicates with El Gil. He tells her that he has 17 students in a cave. With the passage of time, researchers will discover that this cave is actually a municipal police facility, known in the area as Barandilla.
In the south of Iguala, already on the outskirts, municipal police have attacked with bullets one of the two buses that have tried to leave there. Only one, the first, who stops, pierced like gruyere cheese, in front of the Palace of Justice, when he was looking for the exit to Chilpancingo, the capital of the State, and Huitzuco. They don't do anything to the other. Federal police stop him 100 meters before and let the students out, who flee as they can from the road. In the following hours, this group of boys will see the head of the hydra. Police from the Guerrero Prosecutor's Office will shoot them and try to run them over.
But the first ones do not suffer that fate, a situation that has always attracted attention: the first bus, torn to pieces; the second, not a scratch. Today it is known that Guerreros Unidos built special compartments on passenger buses to send drugs north. And that bus managed to circumvent the siege of the hydra, which was deployed up to 55 kilometers around the municipality, at several checkpoints. Was that vehicle carrying drugs? It's always been a possibility.
Police from Huitzuco, allied with the Guerreros Unidos, arrive at the scene of the Palace of Justice. Agents from Huitzuco and Iguala distribute between 15 and 20 students on the attacked bus. A group is taken south, to Chilpancingo or to Huitzuco itself. To another, back in the direction of Iguala. At 23:21 p.m., a security camera picks up the passage of three patrol cars with civilians inside. It is unclear whether they are the Iguala patrols, which come from the Palace of Justice, or patrols that leave from Barandilla. At that time nobody knows that there are 43 disappeared, they count more. But with the passing of the hours some appear. Those of the bus north of Iguala and those of the Palace of Justice, between 30 and 40, disappear. The rest are hunted by the hydra in Iguala and surroundings in those hours of darkness.
Parents and relatives of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, on the 9th anniversary of the disappearance. Nayeli Cruz
The Army's spy apparatus provides important information here. In the conversation he intercepts between El Gil and the deputy director of the Iguala police, the former tells him to pass him "some [boys] on the road to Pueblo Viejo," that he receives them. Pueblo Viejo is a neighborhood at the northwest exit of Iguala, close to the camera that captures patrols with students. The second says that he sends him 17, but that "in the cave we still have 17". The families of the 43 have interpreted the first 17 and the second to be the same. It could be, however, that they were different groups, although the spelling of those who write prevent us from getting something clear.
In a second conversation intercepted a week later, on October 3, the boys are spoken of again. El Cholo Palacios, head of Guerreros Unidos in Huitzuco, talks to a police officer from Tepecoacuilco, near the first municipality. The policeman tells El Cholo that a "ministerial" police officer from Guerrero had asked El Gil to "release even 10 [boys], whatever they were, to calm down a little." On the night of the events, a person identified as El Caminante, identified as a possible ministerial police of Guerrero, communicates incessantly with members of Guerreros Unidos, particularly with an alias El Chango, of the structure of El Cholo Palacios, in Huitzuco.
Witnesses of confidential identity have pointed to Pueblo Viejo as the destination of a group of students. Also Loma de Coyotes, a colony a little further south. Other witnesses have pointed out points near Huitzuco, such as the Tepecoacuilco garbage dump, or the Los Tilos ranch, at the northern exit of Iguala, where its owners, according to witnesses, disposed of their murdered enemies in acid. To date, only remains of three of the 43, Alexander Mora, Jhosivani Guerrero and Christian Rodríguez, have appeared. None of the remains were found in any of the places mentioned above.
In 2019 and 2020, bones of Rodríguez and Guerrero appeared in the Barranca de La Carnicería, in Cocula, 28 kilometers south of Iguala. The investigators got there thanks to El Gil, who became a protected witness at the beginning of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's term. Mora's bones had appeared in October 2014 in the San Juan River, in Cocula, under controversial circumstances. Current researchers point out that the discovery of Mora's remains in the river was part of a montage organized by his predecessors. The chief investigator at the time, Jesús Murillo Karam, is in prison. His subordinates are in jail, on the run or prosecuted.
Researchers have found dozens of remains of dozens of people in Pueblo Viejo and other places in downtown Guerrero over the years. Some shattered bones appeared in the Cocula garbage dump, the central stage of the narrative deployed by Murillo Karam, now marked as a montage. According to Murillo, the Guerreros Unidos murdered the 43, burned their bodies in the garbage dump and dumped the remains into the San Juan River. Current investigators have verified that the 43 were never together since before the attack began, at about 21:30 p.m. on September 26.
Actors linked to the investigation in the past, case of José Larrieta, who led the investigations for the National Human Rights Commission, between 2014 and 2018, have demanded that the authorities send 34 bones found in the Cocula garbage dump to the genetic analysis laboratory of the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. Both the old Attorney General's Office and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which almost never agreed on anything, pointed out that it is practically impossible to obtain DNA samples from those 34 bones, due to their poor condition, and have criticized the CNDH that the criteria for choosing the bones that should be sent to the laboratory was based on the observation of photographs. The current administration of the Prosecutor's Office now values sending these and other remains to the Austrian university.
Closed de facto for several years, the investigations into the Ayotzinapa case were reborn between December 2018 and June 2019, with the advent of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice (COVAJ), under the Government, and the Specialized Unit for Investigation and Litigation for the Ayotzinapa Case (UEILCA), of the Attorney General's Office. During the first three years, the two teams worked in coordination with a third, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), under the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In August 2022, the balance and harmony between the groups, always difficult to maintain, was broken. COVAJ presented its first report, incorporating more than 400 screenshots of messages allegedly exchanged by Guerreros Unidos members, family members and allies. While some of the messages painted possible scenarios, others pointed to remote possibilities. The GIEI requested an expert report that indicated that its authenticity was impossible to verify. A year later, COVAJ defends that they could be true, although it has cornered them in its narrative.
Students demonstrate in front of the facilities of the Center for Investigation and National Security (CISEN) on September 25, 2023. Sashenka Gutierrez (EFE)
That clash between the GIEI and the COVAJ ended with the partition of the first group, which was left with two of its four members. Disappointed by the COVAJ movement, among other situations, they decided to leave. Those other situations were nothing but the pressures suffered by the head of the UEILCA, Omar Gómez Trejo, to move the investigations at the whim of his boss, the attorney general, Alejandro Gertz, and President López Obrador. The president and Gertz pushed to expedite the arraignment of the charges against Murillo Karam before the judge. Gómez Trejo asked for some time to arrive prepared at the courthouse, but Gertz intervened the UEILCA and left the case in the hands of other prosecutors.
At the same time, Gómez Trejo, pressured to present more accusations before the judge, in particular against people mentioned in the first COVAJ report, presented the court with a document in which he presented his thesis of the case and requested the arrest of 83 people, many of them military personnel. Gertz saw that the arrest warrants requested transcended the scope of the COVAJ report. Irritated, he asked to cancel 21 of the arrest warrants, 16 of the 21 against soldiers.
The cancellation of the orders and the tensions over the Murillo case forced the resignation of Gómez Trejo, who left the country shortly after. Gertz then appointed an old acquaintance of López Obrador to head the UEILCA, Rosendo Gómez Piedra. In the year and few months that have passed, Gómez Piedra has reactivated a good part of the orders canceled last year. The argument has been that the quality of the documents presented to the court last year was poor and that, in this time, he and his subordinates improved them.
In its last year of work, the GIEI focused on deepening its knowledge of the Army archive. The group, already composed only of Ángela Buitrago and Carlos Beristáin, was looking for espionage documents such as those mentioned in the first section of this article, the conversations of El Gil and El Cholo Palacios with police. The logic was irreproachable: if the Army monitored the communications of four people linked to the Guerreros Unidos hydra, at the time of the attack, there should surely be more conversations intercepted. What could they say about the fate of the students?
The search yielded documents proving his thesis. The experts even found papers that indicated that the two original conversations, found by COVAJ years earlier in a military intelligence file, were actually longer. But for many requests they sent to the Ministry of Defense, no matter how much they insisted to López Obrador, no more documents have appeared. What's worse, the army denies its existence.
The ninth anniversary of the case came this week with Army spy documents in the middle of the discussion. The families of the 43 demand that the corporation hand over the missing information, encrypted in hundreds of documents. The GIEI, which dropped the case in July, insists the information exists. The group even managed to get a soldier, familiar with the spy center in Iguala, to denounce that the Army had moved the required documents to prevent the investigation groups from finding them.
The question is why. The GIEI has suggested over the years that the Army is at a crossroads here. Hundreds of messages intercepted by the DEA to the Guerreros Unidos network north of the Rio Grande at the time of the attack prove the military's collusion with the criminal group. These messages are already part of the UEILCA investigation and have allowed, along with other evidence, to prosecute soldiers, including the commanders of the two barracks in Iguala, two generals.
Does Army espionage deepen this collusion between the military and criminals? It's a possibility. The second is the clandestinity of the Iguala intelligence center, officially known as the Regional Intelligence Fusion Center, central region. In theory, the Army cannot intercept communications of civilians, least of all without a judge having allowed it. Delivering documents proving that it did, beyond the two that are already known, could bring legal consequences to the operators and their commanders.
Sit-in on Conscripto Avenue, where the facilities of Military Camp No.1 SILVANA FLORES (EL PAÍS)
These days, too, COVAJ has presented to the public its second report, an extension of the first. The families learned of its contents from Alejandro Encinas, head of the commission, at a meeting on Tuesday, September 19. The next day, the families met with López Obrador and again conveyed their annoyance with the army, for ignoring their requests about the espionage documentation. The parties agreed to meet again on Monday, although the president said that those documents, as the Army says, do not exist.
On Monday, things changed. Encinas read a summary of his report, intervened, as he said on Wednesday, by López Obrador himself, who asked to "incorporate a few paragraphs." Those paragraphs added some of the screenshots of the first report, discarded by the GIEI's expertise, and highlighted some passages of the original document that, according to the families, criminalized the 43. This intercepted summary, they said, implied that the students were infiltrated by criminal groups opposed to Guerreros Unidos. Families are uncomfortable with this argument because, beyond the fact that it has never been proven, it gives rise to argue that the attack was justified.
The families set up a sit-in at the door of Military Camp Number One, in Mexico City, in protest of the lack of military collaboration, and then, also, of the appearance of this intervened summary. On Wednesday, Encinas presented his report in society and returned to the path of the September 19 meeting. The families understood that it was a good gesture and avoided a definitive break with the Government. They assume that COVAJ will insist on the issue of military espionage documents.
On Thursday, the families summoned the press in front of the gate of the military camp, by then filled with posters and posters of the 43. "We have the resistance right behind us," said Emiliano Navarrete, father of Jose Angel, one of the 43 missing. He was referring to the Secretary of Defense. "We're not going to take a step back. We are going to give our lives. It is unacceptable that the truth continues to be administered," he said.
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