Episode 39 | 43 MEXICAN STUDENTS MURDERED | The Kidnapping and Cover-up
This episode of Homicide Inc. takes us South of the border into the Mexican state of Guerrero. It was 2014 when dozens of college students vanished after being violently apprehended by a squad of corrupt military and police forces. Corruption in Mexico is nothing new, but the level of cover-up and terror we’re about to discover takes it to a horrifying new level.
Carlos Martinez made a run for it with a dozen of his classmates and scaled a fence while under heavy gunfire from the police. It was night and raining heavily as they hid atop a roof of a small red dwelling. Padre Nuestro que estas en los cielos santificado sea tu nombre.. the Lord’s prayer. Martinez would whisper it quietly to himself over and over as if his life depended on it- ‘cause it did. The shots continued to ring out down on the road where more of his classmates, the unlucky ones, were beaten and rounded up by the authorities.
It was 9 pm on the 26th of September, 2014. Somewhere in Iguala, Mexico five buses were making their way in the darkness. The buses were filled with the cheerful chatter of undergraduate student-teachers of the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ college. They were on a road trip. But, this was no spring break. It was a trip with a mission. But they would never reach their destination.
In the early hours of September 27th, after a wet night marked by crackling gunfire and screams ripping through the night air, the still lifeless body of 22-year old Julio César Mondragón; a husband and father to a 2-month old, lay near the industrial zone north of Iguala.
His eyes were gouged out, his face flayed to a bare skull. He had been tortured and beaten to death. Mondragón was last seen alive, running away from police gunfire. His wife could only identify him by the clothes he wore. Yet, he was one of the lucky ones, his body was found along with 6 others killed that night.
43 other young men were not so lucky- their bodies were never found stripping distraught families of any closure.
What happened to them on that wet September night? How do 43 young men disappear under the nose of the police and military?
About the school
The school the students had come from was the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ college. It is located in Ayotzinapa, in the mountainous state of Guerrero, West of Mexico City. The all-male college was created in 1926 in a plan by the state to provide education in its smaller rural towns. You see, Guerrero was a state steeped in poverty and the college would provide education to those in the community who would then graduate as teachers and help educate some of the poorest and most remote communities in Guerrero.
The students enjoyed free tuition, room and board, and in exchange they cleaned and maintained the school. They were only required to pay for educational materials. They also grew vegetables and flowers on the school property; some of which they sold to help support the college.
But, this teachers’ college was unlike any other. It held a long history of activism, radical political stances, and demonstrations. The school classrooms had educated many famed Social leaders who fought for the activism and revolutions in Mexico. This history of social leadership is no coincidence.
The school was created to maintain a social transformation that had started after the Mexican Revolution. You could see the ideals in portraits of Che Guevera and other socialist figures painted on the building’s exterior walls. Students required reading included books on Marxism, Pablo Neruda, Eduardo Galeano, Maxim Gorky, Karl Marx, and Lenin. They also had weekly discussions on political documentaries championing leftist causes and tried to adhere to the social justice ideals.
The result was left-wing political activists who pushed boundaries in their protest and were often in continuous contention against the central and state governments that were in bed with drug cartels.
Drug cartels held a huge stake in Guerrero. The mountains once used to hide revolutionaries, now hid their traffickers and poppy fields. The inaccessible mountains protected the farms and the high elevations had the warm, humid air ideal for growing high-quality poppy – the raw material for making heroin.
For a state like Guerrero, where jobs were rapidly disappearing. Poppy production is the only viable, steady trade for a lot of the poor farmers in the area. They grow the crop, harvest it, and sell it to traffickers who process it into Heroin and sell it to the cartel who then ships it to the USA, their number one market. God bless America.
The ocean resort city of Acapulco is located in Guerrero and was once home to the country’s poshest resorts. Its breathtaking views of the bay, high rises, and the Sierra Madre del Sur attracted the eyes and money of Hollywood stars, Mexico’s elite, tourists … and their many vices. Including drugs.
Drug traffickers increased in the area competing violently to be the suppliers to those rich and famous. Things went from bad to worse when the cartel that dominated the state fractured and splintered into smaller criminal groups. Over thirty of them! All vying violently and ferociously for power, control, and territories. Funded by the needs of the insatiable US heroin market, they had the money and power to control the state. And they did. From judges, police officers, soldiers, and politicians, to every Tomas Dick and Harry in between.
It was get in line or get mowed over. And, the list of the mowed over is long: environmentalists, civilian activists, union activists, and leaders in Guerrero all haunted down in a campaign of terror by the police, soldiers and drug cartels alike. This state of extreme violence: extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture, and disappearances, gave the state top billing for the highest death rate in the country, and the 7th in the world! Not too shabby!
As activists, it is not hard to see that the Ayotzinapa college students would be on their list of persona non grata.
Each year the college students went to the state capital, Chilpancingo to protest a lack of funding, ask for renovations and revisions on the budget and solicit donations through the only language the Mexican government understood: Protests and demonstrations.
The year 2014 had an added incentive. An education reform bill had been passed that introduced a more competitive process for hiring teachers. Teachers in under-equipped rural schools were somehow expected to deliver the same standard of education as their modern, urban counterparts, and with no added support from the government. They would then be graded on their performances and promoted based on their delivery! This put the rural-based teachers at a disadvantage.
The cherry on the sundae? The tenures of ALL teachers, principals, and school administrators that did not align with this brand new process were declared null. That’s right, shit-canned.
The students of the Rural Teachers College used every opportunity to air their grievances against the bill. And the one the mayor of Iguala was planning fit their MO.
On September 26, preparations were underway at the town square in Iguala where the mayor Jose Abarca and his wife Maria were holding an annual conference celebrating her public works. It was still hush-hush, but they were also going to launch her campaign for the position as the new mayor, trading places with her old man Jose. It was an event that had a lot riding on it, local dignitaries were in attendance. Everything needed to go perfectly.
Twenty-five miles away, the students of the Rural Teacher’s college planned to crash the function to voice their objections to the government education bill, solicit for funds for the school and begin a trip to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Massacre, where the Mexican Armed Forces had opened fire on unarmed students and citizens, who were protesting the Olympics being held in their city.
At 5.30 pm, around eighty students stepped out of the school and made their way to commandeer buses that would take them to Iguala, about 2 hours away. Commandeering sounds vaguely like stealing but in this context it isn’t. For over thirty years, the students held a tradition; at this time every year they got on buses en masse and demanded to be taken to Mexico City for the October 2nd protest. As they couldn’t afford to hire one to go themselves, this was their tried and trusted way. The towns expected it… Bus drivers expected it… even the police expected it.
Plus, the buses and their drivers always made it back intact and unharmed.
The plan was simple; protest at the Iguala town square where the Mayor was holding the program, solicit money for school activities, and then begin the 120-mile journey to Mexico City for the demonstrations.
First, they secured two buses. One still had passengers so, some students piled into the bus and the rest got into another. The bus driver said he needed to drop the passengers off at the Iguala bus station. No Problema. Shortly after 7 pm, they crossed the Iguala toll gate, where they soon commandeered another bus. Now the three buses filled with the raucous students made their way to the Iguala bus terminal arriving around 9 pm.
But on arrival, the butt-hurt driver exited the bus with the passengers leaving the students locked in the bus. Alarmed, they called out to their friends in the second bus who quickly helped get them out. They then commandeered three more buses, splitting into five groups and leaving the bus with the butt-hurt driver behind.
By 9.20 pm, the five buses left the bus terminal, where they split into 2 convoys. One solo bus headed south while the remaining 4 buses continued north to the city Centre of Iguala. Neither would make it to their destinations.
You see, what the students didn’t know was almost as soon as they had left their college, they were being tracked by scores of police officers. And not just the Iguala police. The Cocula municipal police, Huitzuco municipal police, the Guerrero state police, the federal police, and the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Mexican army; all skulking in the darkness, setting up roadblocks, itchy fingers on their triggers.
The four buses suddenly ran into a blockade by policemen who, with no provocation, took warning shots into the air. One bus split from the rest of the convoy due east to meet with the bus that had earlier separated from them while the remaining three buses sped on due north.
At roughly 9.40 pm, the first sets of buses were attacked simultaneously at two different locations. Across the city, the bus who had escaped from the convoy was blocked off under a bridge in front of the state courthouse by four Iguala municipal patrols who proceeded to fire at the bus for 15 minutes. As the attack continued, more and more patrol vehicles arrived, including Huitzuco municipal police and federal patrols. By 10.30 pm, the bus was now surrounded by 12 vehicles. Using teargas, the police forced the students off the bus. About 15 students were beaten up and loaded into the police vehicles. They were driven south in the direction of the state’s capital, Chilpancingo. They are never seen again.
At 10.20 pm, a little over 100 meters from this bus, another bus was waylaid by two unidentified patrols. Though it was not attacked, the students were forced to exit the bus by armed policemen. As soon as they got out of the bus, they made a break for it down the road. Suddenly, three more Iguala municipal police vans arrived and tried to intercept them. The students ran deep into the bushes and hid. They stayed quietly as best they could. An hour later, and noting the increased silence, they emerged to check the fate of their friends who had been in the bus ahead of them. But, four police cars still lay in wait. The cars chased after them, even attempting to run them over while firing shots at them. The terrified students ran into the town and hid as best they could. Three hours later, tow trucks arrived to hurriedly remove the two now deserted and bullet-pocked buses.
At 9.45 pm, the northbound convoy of three had been blocked at an intersection by Iguala and Cocula municipal police cars. Six to their backs, seven to the front. They were attacked from both directions for several minutes and two students were injured. Aldo Guitierrez was not so lucky, he was the first victim of the night with a gunshot to the head. The students begged to be allowed to take their injured friends to the hospital. After a while, the police relented. While none of the three died, Aldo remains in a coma to this day.
At 10.30 pm, with the injured removed, the police once again resumed their assault on the convoy of three. When one student sustained gunshot wounds, the rest on one bus quickly surrendered; hoping that no one among them would need to make such a sacrifice. They were loaded into 6 police vehicles. The vehicles drive into the night and the students were never seen again. The sole survivor of that bus was the person who had sustained the gunshot wounds. He was allowed to be taken to the hospital.
At around 11 pm, the rest of the police left the scene leaving the remaining students. Even though they had endured the attack from the police for over two hours, they didn’t run away. Instead, they tried their best to protect the scene and preserve evidence of the attack as Journalists and teachers who had heard of the attack started to arrive at the location. At 12.15 am, with the increased presence of journalists, the students protecting the crime scene decided to hold a press conference to report the attack. During the interviews, 2 police patrols, 1 civic protection patrol, and a pick-up truck passed. None of them stopped to investigate the situation, they just seemed to observe the growing traffic at the location. Fifteen minutes later, another pickup truck that resembled the Federal police passed. Soon after, heavily armed non-uniformed assailants approached from their vehicles and engaged the mix of students, journalists, and curious on-lookers. At the end of the attack, two students lay dead with four injured.
Elsewhere in Iguala, at around 11 pm a bus carrying a junior football team was heading to Chilpancingo. The teenagers were in high spirits; They had just won 3-1 in an away game at Iguala stadium and were on their way back home, behind them were vehicles filled with their families. The team bus and the cars were stopped at a federal police checkpoint. The police at the checkpoint ordered the vehicles bearing the family members to use a detour while the bus containing the teenagers was ordered to continue on the highway. A short distance ahead, one of the families pulled up to a taxi riddled with bullets. It had come under attack at the Saint Teresa crossing. Its driver had only escaped by flooring it in reverse for half a km. His passenger was not so lucky. 40-year-old, Blanca Montiel, lay dead in the back seat.
Minutes later, the bus carrying the high school students passed the taxi and reached the intersection where it was immediately attacked from both sides without warning. Their shouts that they were unarmed and just a high-school team fell on deaf ears as bullets rained into the bus.
Two more taxis and a truck carrying goods, passing by were attacked as well. Eventually, the attackers realized they had shot at the wrong bus, they then sped into Santa Theresa in four cars while still shooting indiscriminately at passing vehicles. Behind them the high-schoolers discovered one friend was dead, and 8 other players injured, the bus driver mortally wounded.
Multiple state agents in more than a dozen vehicles arrived at the scene within the hour: None of them offered any help to the victims that littered the crossing. Ambulances finally arrived at a quarter to one in the morning. Their attackers turned out to be an unknown criminal cartel working hand-in-hand with the Huitzuco municipal police.
The attack that began with the three buses loaded with the Rural College students had taken place within blocks of the 27th infantry battalion barracks. There was no attempt by any of its soldiers to investigate, even with the heavy gunfire erupting down the road from them. But finally, three hours later, the soldiers would finish donning their makeup and begin searching for wounded students in the local hospitals. But it wasn’t out of the kindness of their hearts. They interrogated and threatened the surviving injured. Fearing for their lives, the students relocated to another hospital where they remained till morning, not knowing the fate of their schoolmates. It was in the morning they realized that 43 of their group were nowhere to be found.
A month after the disappearings and murders, in what the government calls: the historical truth, the government presented an explanation for the killings and abductions.
It boiled down to one thing: Heroin.
Based on the government investigations, the students had commandeered buses without knowing that one of the buses had heroin hidden on it, the cartel then employed the service of the police, believing a rival gang had stolen their dope. The police, apprehended the bus from, what they thought was just a rival gang, and delivered both the herion and culprits to the cartel.
The forty-three students were assumed to be members of a rival gang and were shot dead by the cartel. Their bodies, clothes, and phones were doused in fuel and burned from the hours of 12 am to 2 pm of the following day at the local trash dump using diesel fuel, tires, and wood. The ashes were then put into bags and tossed into the Iguala River.
The problem with the government’s historical truth was that it held some big whoppers.
Firstly, the night of the 24th had been a very wet one- a downpour. How then could a fire strong enough to incinerate bodies to ashes have been kept going? Various forensic scientists debunked this. “only a crematorium can get a bone burned to ash,” the report said. Like the military crematorium a few miles from where the buses were ambushed.
An independent Argentinian investigation team of forensic experts would also conclude that there was no biological or physical evidence to support the claim that the evidence had come from a dumpsite.
Then there was the evidence itself. Of all the trash bags full of ashes turned over by the government, only one bone contained DNA and it identified missing student, Alexander Mora. He was just 19 years old.
Surveillance Footage was found showing personnel from the Mexican Attorney general’s office planting a trash bag at the location. A Group of Independent Experts released a report that said the experts weren’t immediately allowed access to the site and were found at a different time and place than the authorities had said.
Furthermore, experts from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights raised an alarm that the chain of evidence had been broken and they could not ascertain that the bone fragments had come from the dump. It also didn’t help that the president at the time, Enrique Pena Nieto, refused to let the soldiers be questioned by anyone but government prosecutors.
What’s more, the state was working hard at incompetentence, and getting straight A’s for their efforts. Security videos that once existed were somehow deleted or could not be located. Crime scenes that were secured, were then left unguarded for weeks. Human remains that were delivered to labs arrived too damaged to accurately identify. Yet, in their rush to hide this evidence, the police were just exposing the depth to which corruption and impunity had rotted their systems from the inside out. These weren’t just bad apples… they were a bad harvest.
Yet, the question about what really happened continued to loom in the country and abroad. Why were they shot at? Why were they killed? Where are they?
As time passed and with no certain answers, theories started making the rounds. There were two that seemed to stand out as the most plausible.
The first is that the mayor did it. Well, more his wife.
Alittle known fact was, the Iguala mayor’s wife had ties to the cartel. Blood ties. Remember at the beginning of this story she was secretly campaigning to replace her husband as mayor. The plot thickens.
María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa had three brothers, all known drug traffickers in Iguala. They had formed a group of 200 hitmen called “Los pelones” and had one job, to control Guerrero and defend against rival cartels. In fact, her husband Mayor Jose Luis Abarca had had no chance of winning the elections but with the backing of the cartel he got in. It was rumored she was the hand in the shadows, he, the puppet.
Long before the massacre of the 26th, the student activism and protests had angered both the mayor and his wife. With the possibility of the students showing up to disrupt the event, there are speculations they ordered the police to keep the students from crashing the party and disrupting events held in the city.
The fact that they fled the city after the incident only helped the rumor mills gather more momentum.
Another theory is, the cartel ordered the hit because one of the buses that were commandeered was a drug mule. Investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, alleged that there was a government cover-up and that the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Mexican Army was directly involved in the kidnapping and murder. She claimed that two of the buses were secretly transporting heroin, without the students' knowledge, and that a drug lord ordered the battalion to intercept the drugs. The students had to be killed as collateral damage so they could not testify about the corruption they had witnessed. If only she knew how close she was to the truth.
It took over six years but finally in 2021, leaked transcripts of text messages between a crime boss Gildardo López Astudillo, leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel at the time, and a deputy police chief of the municipal police force, Salgado Valladares has finally shone a light on the occurrences of that tragic night. The messages indicate both cops, the army, and the cartel worked together to capture the student-teachers. The students, it seemed had made the mistake of accidentally commandeering a bus that was part of a drug-running operation, carting heroin across the US border.
Once he had captured the student-teachers, Salgado texts Lopez that they had 21 students who were being held on a bus. Lopez responds with a description of a location where he said he “had beds to terrorize.” It is believed this is in reference to torturing the victims. Salgado replies a little later that he had 17 more students ‘in the cave’. Lopez declares: “I want them all.”
Salgado, ever the planner, reminds Lopez to send enough men to handle the job.
Some hours later, Salgado texts Lopez that “all the packages have been delivered.” This could either be in reference to the buses that were towed from outside the courthouse in the early hours of the 27th or the abducted students.
The most shocking revelation was still to come. This exchange between the two had been first intercepted by the military all the way back in 2014. They had then held on to the information for seven years. Add that to their lack of cooperation and you wonder, what exactly did they have to hide?
In some leaked documents, a protected witness identified only as Juan revealed that in addition to the 43 student-teachers, 30 suspected members of a rival gang were also detained by the police, Guerrero Unidos, and (you guessed it) the army. The witness revealed that after they were tortured and killed, some bodies of the deceased were dissolved with acid and caustic soda and poured down a drain. Others were butchered at a cartel hideout in Iguala and cremated at a funeral home on the outskirts of Iguala called “El Angel.” The Angel. While the rest of the body parts not cremated were dumped near abandoned mines, north of Iguala.
Juan also admitted that state police in bed with the cartel planted ashes of cremated students and spent casings at the dump in Cocula to support the federal government’s historical narrative. He also alleges that the Mexico City police chief, received $200,000 every month from the cartel in exchange for helping the gang operate with impunity in the state. This definitely explains how so many municipcal police stations in the state were working together outside of their jurisdictions and side by side with the cartels.
Despite all this juice, investigations are still on-going.
So far, only three of the disappeared 43 have been confirmed dead. Alexander Mora, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, and Christian Alfonso, all aged 19. Searches for the bodies of the 43, unearthed numerous mass graves of unidentified bodies, exposing the level of crime and terror the state of Guerrero functions in.
That upstanding mayor of Iguala and his upstanding wife, though never prosecuted for the students' disappearance, were arrested in 2014 for the murder of activist Arturo Hernández Cardona.
While numerous arrests were made in the beginning, evidence has slowly emerged that proves suspects had been tortured and beaten by the police to get evidence and give false statements. This has led to multiple releases from jail, including a key suspect, Guerreros Unidos leader, Gildardo Lopez Astudillo aka El Gil as well as 24 local police officers.
In 2020, 6 years after the massacre, Mexican authorities made the first arrest of any military personnel in connection with the crime: Captain Jose Martinez Crespo.
In June 2020, José Ángel Casarrubias Salgado, alias "El Mochomo" was also arrested in connections to the disappearances.
Every month, on the 26th, parents of the disappeared sons trek 200 miles each way to Mexico City, reminding the world they have not forgotten their beloved sons.
In just one night, the lives of almost 80 people are snuffed out. Some for criminal activity, others for choosing to stand up for a better country. Neither of them deserved death. Yet, the tragedy of the loss of the student-teachers reaches further than theirs and their families. It extends to the lives of the impoverished children that they intended to dedicate their lives to teaching.
And yet, even in death, the young men of Ayotzinapa, have highlighted the depth of corruption that permeated a Town, a state and a country. In a way that they might never have been able to do in life.
As for the Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos Teachers’ College. It remains open and welcoming to student-teachers. “This school has kept up its fight,” said Mr. Hernández, principal of the college at the time. “In other places, it might be that the school would have just shut down, everyone would have left.”
But the spirit of the school endures. The students, their professors, and communities made the decision to preserve the memory of the 43 by continuing in their work; Even in the face of constant hostility from the Mexican government. Because as long as poverty and repression remain, there is a reason for the Normalista schools to exist.
Let's sow the seed of freedom in the virgin field of the heart of young people…
The duty is to teach our students to be free.
- Raúl Isidro Burgos (Founder of the college)
A lot about this remains unexplained. Lapses in the events that supposedly took place. Security videos that once existed that now can’t be found or were somehow deleted. Crime scenes that were secured, then for weeks left unguarded. Human remains that were delivered to labs too damaged to accurately identify. Yet, in their rush to hide this evidence, they continue to expose the depth with which corruption and impunity continue to rot those systems from the inside out.