The municipal police in Iguala were strict with traffic violations. Cars found double parked or in no-parking areas were stripped of their license plates and not returned until the driver paid every last cent of the fine.
The local police force employed the same logic with residents who had managed to save some money. A week before the student massacre that put this Mexican town on the global map, police officers kidnapped a bus driver and did not release him until his family paid a €600 ransom.
In this land where license plates and citizens get taken away without distinction, authorities are suspected of being at the service of organized crime.
The mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, has been missing ever since 43 college students were arrested by local police and never seen again. Two hitmen recently confessed to having killed 17 of them, and six mass graves have turned up containing 28 as yet unidentified bodies.
The criminal gang was thought to be angry at seeing these troublesome students in its territory
Abarca had personal ties to the Beltrán Leyva cartel, one of the most powerful drug organizations in the country until the capture and death of its leaders. Abarca’s two brothers-in-law, who died in 2009, held high-ranking positions within the criminal group.
Internal reports issued by his own party, the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), claim that he had three opponents assassinated. This information has been in the power of Cisen, the Mexican intelligence services, for a year.
After the massacre, all politicians in the area are under suspicion.
Ángel Aguirre, governor of Guerrero – a state that is out of control and posts the highest poverty rates in the country – announced on Tuesday that its 81 mayors and their respective police forces will be investigated and the conclusions sent straight to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“We know that crime has infiltrated several municipalities […] We demand the ability to act swiftly and resolutely, with support from the federal government, in cases where we can accredit that there are police officers like those in Iguala,” he said. But Aguirre himself has come under fire, and many are calling for his resignation.
Meanwhile, 22 police officers from Iguala have been arrested and the rest have been suspended from their duties and salaries because of their ties to the local Guerreros Unidos criminal gang. The town is now under the control of heavily armed federal police forces and a special crime-busting unit called the Gendarmería.
“They warned us suddenly and told us we’re going to be here a couple of months,” said one of the deployed officers as she unloaded a printer and several computers from the back of a truck.
The newly arrived forces, who do not wear balaclavas and act friendlier than the military personnel who have fought the cartels in the past, made a point of chatting with the locals and taking selfies in a bid to dispel the negative image they have had for years.
We will start revealing the names of the government people who supported us ... the war has begun”
But the Guerreros Unidos were not quite as welcoming, and issued the following warning: “Federal and state governments, and everyone who supported us: we demand the release of the 22 arrested policemen. We are giving you 24 hours, or else prepare for the consequences. We will start revealing the names of the government people who supported us ... the war has begun.”
In these uncertain times, locals are getting their information from Facebook, where members of groups such as Solo Chilpo and Solo Iguala provide real-time coverage of what is happening in front of their eyes.
“All the gossip is there. Last Friday I read there was a shootout near here, and I pulled down the blinds of my establishment. Later it turned out two people were killed right next to this place,” says Carlos, the owner of a cyber-café. Solo Chilpo has received 200,000 visits a day in the last few days.
Meanwhile, the bodies in the mass graves have yet to be identified. The main working hypothesis is that Iguala police officers arrested most of the students at a street protest – two others were shot on the spot and a third was skinned and his eyes gauged out – before turning them over to the cartel’s hitmen.
The criminal gang was thought to be angry about the fact that the students, who were part of a militant group that routinely protested for teachers’ rights and against the system, had come into their territory to make trouble.