The couple that danced among the dead

Police are looking for Iguala’s mayor and wife in relation to disappearance of 43 students

Jan Martínez Ahrens
José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda.
José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda.ALEJANDRINO GONZALEZ (AP)

Nicolás Mendoza Villa would write it months later at the notary public’s office in Mexico City. At 6am on May 31, 2013, he and the engineer Arturo Hernández Cardona watched as two hitmen began to dig what was to become their grave. Both were being held in an unknown location in Guerrero. A day before, the two of them and other members of Unidad Popular – an activist group for peasants’ rights – had been kidnapped at gunpoint on the highway to Tuxpan. They were tortured with a wire whip. His leader, Hernández Cardona, got the worst of it. After nightfall, two men they knew very well arrived at the secret location. They walked calmly, each holding a “Barrilito” beer in his hand. It was Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez and his chief of police, Felipe Flórez Vázquez. Hernández Cardona had had a series of bitter disputes with the mayor. The last one had taken place two days before, in Abarca Velázquez’s municipal office. The mayor approached the hitmen and ordered them to torture his political adversary one more time.

“Since you’re fucking with me so much, I’m going to give myself the pleasure of killing you,” the mayor shouted

According to the version told at the notary public’s office, Iguala’s chief of police then lifted the engineer from the ground and dragged him for about 10 meters over to the grave. First, the mayor shot him in the face, then in the chest. The corpse was left uncovered while the the dark skies over Guerrero burst open and it began to rain. Two other members of Unidad Popular were also killed.

The man who saw all of this and managed to escape to tell it is Nicolás Mendoza Villa, the engineer’s driver. Mendoza gave his testimony before a notary public. The engineer’s wife filed a complaint. The press dedicated a good deal of coverage to the case. Some well-known Mexican politicians demanded justice. The Prosecutor General’s Office responded by collecting an eight-volume report. But, as is often the case in Mexico, nothing happened. Iguala’s mayor remained in office, inaugurating shopping malls and happily posing in photos in tight shirts, unbuttoned all the way down his chest – photos in which he always appears next to his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, looking sweet.

“Since then, fear has taken over Iguala,” says Sofía Mendoza Martínez, Hernández Cardona’s widow and councilwoman for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). She was one of the few people capable of breaking the cycle of terror by accusing the mayor even before he became the most wanted man in Mexico for the murder of six people and the disappearance of 43 student teachers in the aftermath of brutal skirmishes with police and cartels on September 26.

I’m going to give myself the pleasure of killing you,” the mayor shouted

Abarca’s whereabouts are a mystery. Investigators believe he has left Iguala and the spoils of his mysterious rise from selling straw hats and sandals at his family’s stand to a business and real estate emporium. He used that platform to get into politics in 2012 with the support of a former PRD senator. Despite his inexperience, he won the election. The realization of a dream – or, of a nightmare. The municipality of 130,000 residents is the third-largest city in Guerrero. It is the historic cradle of the Mexican flag and a strategic enclave for drug cartels.

The mayor’s wife rose to the top along with him. She is a tough character who, at close range, also seems shady. Two of her brothers served the historic capo Arturo Beltrán Leyva, though their careers in that business were cut short. They were both executed in 2009 when they tried to break away from the so-called “Boss of bosses.” A third brother was recently arrested and jailed for drug trafficking and now he is presumed to be one of the leaders of Guerreros Unidos, the bloodthirsty cartel that rose from the ashes of the Beltrán Leyva gang and now controls Iguala. To finish off this family saga, intelligence agents say the mother is a front woman for drug traffickers.

In a place where the murder rate is three times higher than the national average and 20 times the murder rate in Spain, people listen when a woman with credentials like hers speaks. According to PRD leaders, she participated more and more in political matters as the months rolled by. She even thought about running for the mayor’s office in 2015. In order to get herself in line, she succeeded in getting a PRD council seat. She also directed a municipal organization, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), a welfare program. It seemed like nothing could slow her down. At least that is what people thought until the night of September 26. That Friday had to be a big day for her. She was presenting a report on DIF activities in Iguala’s main town square, Tres Garantías – a space reserved for important occasions. Many saw it as a the starting signal for her electoral campaign.

The event began at 6pm just as a two busloads of students from Ayotzinapa’s teacher training college, a nursery for Mexico’s radical left, were arriving in Iguala. The group of student teachers, aged 18 to 23, had come to the city to raise funds for their activities. Municipal police officers were waiting for them. Their clashes with the mayor and his wife were notorious. They had attacked the mayor’s office and accused the mayor of Hernández Cardona’s murder. That evening, after circulating around the city, they went to the town square.

A report from Mexico’s intelligence service, Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN) published by El Universal newspaper said the mayor’s wife asked Iguala police chief Felipe Flórez Velázquez to stop the students. The order was obeyed and soon skirmishes erupted between police and students. There was shouting and some physical contact. The usual. The students took off for the bus station where they took over three vehicles to return to the school. But, the agents were waiting for them on the way out. This time there were gunshots. The students defended themselves with rocks and they succeeded in breaking the siege.

When the mayor heard of the raid, he demanded punishment. In a series of attacks, the police, aided by hitmen from Guerreros Unidos, began a savage persecution. They shot two people dead. They skinned another and gouged out his eyes. Three more people, including a 15-year-old boy, died by gunshot as hitmen and agents mistook a busload of Third Division soccer players for student teachers. And 43 students were abducted by police and allegedly turned over to an ultra-violent group from Guerreros Unidos called Los Peques.

Panic spread throughout Iguala. Bars and businesses closed their doors. But the mayor and his wife said they knew nothing of all of this. They went to a party and danced to ranchera music together while, outside, a barbaric scene played out in the moonless night.

No one believed them. Yet, no one arrested them. Two days later, after asking for a leave of absence and calling on a federal judge to make sure that his constitutional immunity shielded him from arrest, Abarca and his wife fled. Iguala’s police chief also fled. Since then, Mexico has come face to face with the sinister reality: 43 missing and unmarked graves full of corpses. The mayor and his wife, however, are still free. And, no one has been held responsible for Hernández Cardona’s murder.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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