We Finally Know How 43 Students on a Bus Vanished Into Thin Air
Transcripts of newly released text messages between a crime boss and a deputy police chief have finally lifted the lid on the mystery of 43 students who went missing one night in southwestern Mexico.
The messages indicate that the cops and the cartel worked together to capture, torture, and murder at least 38 of the 43 student teachers who went missing in September of 2014.
The students had made the deadly mistake of commandeering several buses in order to drive to Mexico City for a protest. It now seems clear that those buses were part of a drug-running operation that would carry a huge cargo of heroin across the U.S. border—and the students had accidentally stolen the load.
Gildardo López Astudillo was the local leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel at that time. He was in charge of the area around the town of Iguala, in southwestern Mexico, where the students were last seen. Francisco Salgado Valladares was the deputy chief of the municipal police force in the town.
On Sept. 26, 2014, Salgado texted López to report that his officers had arrested two groups of students for having taken the busses. Salgado then wrote that 21 of the students were being held on a bus. López responded by arranging a transfer point on a rural road near the town, saying he “had beds to terrorize” the students in, likely referencing his plans to torture and bury them in clandestine grave sites.
Police chief Salgado next wrote that he had 17 more students being held “in the cave,” to which López replied that he “wants them all.” The two then made plans for their underlings to meet at a place called Wolf’s Gap, and Salgado reminded López to be sure to send enough men to handle the job.
Aside from a few bone fragments, the bodies of the students have never been found.
A bit later that night, Salgado also informed the crime boss that “all the packages have been delivered.” This appears to be a reference to the fact that one or more of the busses commandeered by the students had, unbeknownst to them, been loaded with heroin that the Guerreros Unidos had intended to smuggle north toward the U.S. border.
Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast that this strongly implies that López was calling the shots all along, ordering Salgado to arrest the students lest they accidentally hijack his shipment of dope.
“The new evidence that has come to light regarding the Ayotzinapa case cracks it wide open and provides irrefutable proof of who was involved in the student massacre,” Vigil said.
“The story of the massacre of the students in Ayotzinapa is like a Hollywood movie, but the events are real. They involve collusion between the police, army, organized crime, and a massive coverup by the Mexican government.”
The students were all enrolled at the Rural Teachers College in the nearby town of Ayotzinapa, and so they became known as the Ayotzinapa 43. The College is considered a bastion of leftist activism and on the night of the disappearance more than 100 students had been making their way to the nation’s capital. There they planned to take part in demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco. Most of the student teachers were in their early twenties, but the youngest—Jose Angel Navarrete, known as Pepe to his friends—was just 18 years old.
The mass kidnapping in Iguala would spark protests across Mexico. The previous government originally put forward a theory—now largely discredited—that the students’ bodies had been burned in a trash dump on the outskirts of Iguala. In the wake of the new evidence, the young men’s families are demanding fresh searches for the bodies and additional evidence to identify all of those involved.
Stephanie Brewer, the Mexico director at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the new evidence shows how often in Mexico “organized crime is comprised of both state and non-state actors.”
Brewer pointed to both “state tolerance and collusion—seen in this case in its most brutal and extreme form, where corrupt police are carrying out the gravest human rights violations that exist.”
Although not specifically mentioned in the text messages, allegations have previously surfaced that Mexico’s military was also involved in the disappearances.
A leading newspaper, La Reforma, published leaked testimony earlier this year that suggested army officers based in Iguala had also worked with the Guerreros Unidos to round up some of the students as well as other enemies of the cartel who were in the town on the night of Sept. 26.
The exchanges between the cop and the capo in Iguala were originally intercepted by the army, which has taken some seven years to release them. That has led to criticism, including from the families of the missing students, that the army is not being transparent despite a presidential commission having been established with universal jurisdiction over the case.
“The army hides information because it’s in their best interest to do so,” said a high-ranking Mexican police commander who agreed to speak to The Daily Beast only under the condition of anonymity. “The whole world knows that the army controls the drug trade [in that part of Mexico.]”
The Reforma report indicated that, in addition to the 43 students, the army had participated in the abduction of some 30 cartel rivals to Guerreros Unidos that same night.
“The army destroys anyone or anything that gets in their way,” the commander said. “They work with organized crime to protect their own objectives.”
WOLA’s Brewer also pointed to the Mexican military’s lack of cooperation in the case.
“The Mexican army had these wiretaps [and so] had knowledge about the facts that it was not sharing,” Brewer said.
“This raises questions about why and how the army obtained this information, and what obstacles still need to be overcome to be sure that the army is in fact sharing its information with those in charge of investigating the case.”
The DEA’s Vigil said it is “unconscionable” that so many of the cartel members, police and military officers involved in the crime have yet to be punished.
“Mexico continues to wonder why violence persists unabated. They don’t understand that no consequence for criminal actions translates to more impunity.”
Unfortunately, the tragedy of Iguala is far from an isolated incident. More than 93,000 people have gone missing during Mexico’s long drug war—and more than 90 percent of those cases have never been solved, according to Brewer, who is helping WOLA push the Mexican government for reforms in its treatment of missing persons.
“During the past three years, over 25,000 people have been declared disappeared or missing and remain so today, according to official statistics,” Brewer said. “That is almost one person every hour.”