43 Missing Students, 1 Missing Mayor: Of Crime And Collusion In Mexico | St. Louis Public Radio

43 Missing Students, 1 Missing Mayor: Of Crime And Collusion In Mexico

Oct 10, 2014
Originally published on October 10, 2014 6:04 pm

On the second story of the municipal palace in Iguala, Mexico, Mayor Jose Luis Abarca 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 this city of 150,000 in the southern state of Guerrero. A national newspaper dubbed the duo the "imperial couple."

But on Sept. 30, their reign ended. The mayor, with his wife by his side, asked the city council for a leave of absence. Neither has been seen since.

That happened four days after 43 university students disappeared after a confrontation with police in Iguala. Twenty-eight bodies — thought to be some of the missing students — were discovered in a nearby mass grave a week ago. More mass graves were discovered Friday.

The case highlights the corruption and collusion between politicians and drug traffickers in many parts of rural Mexico today.

Residents say Iguala changed under the current Mayor Abarca's tenure.

"Crime has been terrible since Jose Luis Abarca took over," says Claudia Guitierrez, a 20-year-old law student. "Iguala was never like this before."

These days Mexico's new paramilitary gendarmerie patrols Iguala's streets. Twenty-two local cops are under arrest, four are fugitives, and the remainder of the force was relieved of duty.

Authorities say that on Sept. 26, officers shot at three buses of students from a poor, rural teaching college who had come into town soliciting donations. After the shooting, with six people dead, the local cops were seen corralling the surviving students into patrol cars. Reportedly some of the officers confessed to turning the students over to a local drug gang, which later killed them.

Authorities say they don't have a motive yet, but focus has centered on Iguala's mayor and his wife, who have well-known connections to traffickers.

Iguala's First Family's Open Secret

Sergio Fajardo Carillo owns a local radio station in Iguala. He says the mayoral family's connection to drug traffickers was an open secret in the town — and throughout the state.

Three brothers of Pineda, the mayor's wife, were lieutenants in the ruthless Beltran-Leyva organized crime gang, according to prosecutors and the family's own statements. Two were killed in a shootout with rivals five years ago, according to news reports.

A third, Alberto "The Eraser" Pineda, was released from prison last year and is allegedly the head of the Guerreros Unidos gang — an offshoot from the once-powerful Beltran organization — that is attempting to take over Iguala. National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido says the cartel, which has been implicated in the students' disappearance, specializes in the transport of marijuana and heroin to Chicago.

In a video released this week, the mayor's own mother-in-law says he was on the drug gang's payroll, receiving $155,000 a month, to give the crime organization carte blanche over the city.

Few appeared to complain — Iguala's streets were paved and the budget was in the black for the first time in years.

The mayor, as 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 — including one who publicly accused the mayor of murdering her husband.

Iguala City Councilwoman Sofia Mendoza says it was the mayor who shot her husband, Arturo Hernandez, a local community organizer, last year. He and the mayor had been longtime political rivals and argued publicly at a city council meeting the day before Hernandez was killed.

She says a witness, who saw the mayor shoot her husband in the head, even gave a statement to state prosecutors, but they did nothing.

"This man had so much power, there was little I could do, I just had to take it," says Mendoza. "I couldn't bear to look at him anymore."

Abarca, the mayor, took away Mendoza's office. She holds meetings with local constituents at a plastic table on the street behind city hall.

'Embarrassment For The President'

The revelations of local corruption and crime in Guerrero have embarrassed the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

His attorney general called international journalists to a meeting earlier this week at his office to discuss the case. Jesus Murillo Karam defended his decision not to investigate Iguala's leaders earlier.

"Look, if your cousin commits a crime, that doesn't mean I can investigate you, even if it's your brother," Murillo said. "I need evidence, not suspicions."

Murillo said he knew about the murder accusations against the mayor, but homicides, he said, fall under state jurisdiction, not federal officials.

Mendoza, the Iguala city councilwoman, says authorities should have done more.

"If they had paid attention to me and what happened to my husband," she says, "this all could have been avoided."

Authorities are searching for the mayor, his wife and Iguala's police chief — who are all wanted for questioning — and for the still-missing students.

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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.