The bonfire that lit up Iguala’s darkest night

Reconstructing the events surrounding the capture and death of 43 Mexican students

Jan Martínez Ahrens
A student’s desk at the Escuela Normal de Ayotzinapa.
A student’s desk at the Escuela Normal de Ayotzinapa.SAÚL RUIZ

The night of September 26, 23-year-old Ernesto Guerrero saw the mouth of a Colt AR-15 pointing at him.

– Go or I kill you.

He didn’t know it at the time, but the officer was saving him from certain death. It was nothing to do with chance or pity, but plain logistics. As Ernesto would remember weeks later, municipal police officers had dozens of student teachers from the Escuela Rural Normal de Ayotzinapa lying face down on the asphalt and were taking them away in trucks. The vehicles were so full that Iguala police asked officers from the nearby town of Cocula for help and when Ernesto, armed with courage, approached to ask about the fate of his friends, they no longer had time or space for one more. They pointed the rifle at him and warned him to go away. “I saw my schoolmates disappear down the avenue,” he remembers. That was the last time he knew anything about them.

That day, Ernesto and two busloads of almost 100 student teachers had arrived in Iguala from Ayotzinapa. The radical and rebellious students were going to collect funds for their activities, as they had on other occasions. This meant panhandling on the city’s main roads, entering a few business establishments and even cutting off a street.

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Their arrival did not go unnoticed. According to the timeline of events put together by Mexico’s Prosecutor General’s Office, the drug cartels’ hawks followed the students and alerted municipal police of their presence. The normalistas, as they are known, were not welcome. After the torture and murder of peasant leader Arturo Hernández Cardona in June 2013, students had blamed Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, and attacked his office.

The hitmen and police, who cooperated perfectly in Iguala, thought the students were going to repeat the raid not against the mayor but against someone even more powerful: his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa.

Police investigations say she was in charge of the finances of the local Guerreros Unidos cartel. Her ties to the drug trade ran deep. She is the daughter of an old operative of Arturo “the Boss of Bosses” Beltrán Leyva, and her own brothers had created Guerreros Unidos to fight off the Zetas and La Familia Michoacana cartels at Beltrán Leyva’s request. When both were executed and thrown into a gutter on the side of Cuernavaca highway, she took the reigns in Iguala, where she and her husband began a stunning social climb, which she was about to complete with her latest ambition: to be elected mayor in 2015. She had organized a huge event to be held in the town’s main square on September 26. It was to be the beginning of her electoral race.

The arrival of the normalistas, hooded, rebellious, eager to protest, made them fear the event would be disrupted. The mayor ordered his henchmen to stop the students at all costs and, according to various versions of events, to hand them over to Guerreros Unidos. The order was followed blindly.

The students were persecuted with the viciousness reserved for rival cartels

It may never be known exactly how the barbaric events reached the extremes they did, but police investigations say the normalistas, who certainly did not know the breadth of the municipal government’s power in Iguala, were treated as hitmen. They were persecuted with the viciousness reserved for rival cartels. In successive waves, the police attacked the students ruthlessly. Their desperate attempts to flee by seizing some buses came to nothing. Two died by gunshot, another was skinned alive. Three innocent bystanders who were mistaken for students were also shot and killed. During the chase, dozens of students were arrested and taken to Iguala police headquarters. No one gave the order to stop. The clock was still running.

The leader of the hitmen, Gildardo López Astudillo, warned the highest-ranking leader of Guerreros Unidos, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, that Los Rojos, the rival cartel against which Guerreros Unidos was fighting a vicious war, were responsible for the rampage. Sidronio gave the order to “defend the territory.”

In a well-designed extermination campaign, possibly the product of previous experiments of a similar nature, Cocula officers picked the students up from police headquarters in Iguala, changed their license plates, and then handed them over to the cartel’s hitmen at Loma de Coyote. Everything was organized so as not to leave any trace.

Packed like livestock in a truck and van, many of the students suffocated to death during the ride

Under the dim moonlight, packed like livestock in a truck and van, the students were taken to Cocula’s landfill site. It was a trip to hell. Many students, maybe 15 of them, badly hurt and beaten, suffocated to death during the ride. Upon arrival at the garbage site, the survivors were taken out one by one. They were forced to walk a good while with their hands behind their heads, and then to lie down on the ground and answer questions. The hitmen wanted to know why they had come to Iguala and whether they belonged to a rival cartel. According to the confessions of people arrested in relation to the case, the terrified normalistas said they were students and that they did not have anything to do with drugs. That did not help. Once the interrogation was over, they were shot in the head. The main executioners – though they had help from other hitmen – were Patricio “El Pato” Reyes Landa, Jonathan “El Jona” Osorio Gómez and Agustín “El Chereje” García Reyes.

The men prepared a huge pyre at the dump site by putting down a layer of tires and then another layer of wood on a round bed of stones. They placed the bodies on top and doused them with gasoline and diesel.

The bonfire lit up Mexico’s darkest night. The men fed the flames for hours before feeling free enough to step away, leaving the fire to burn out. Just after 5pm, after throwing dirt on top, they approached the remains, examined them carefully and put them in eight big black garbage bags. They left the dumping site at dusk. On the way back, they threw the bags into the San Juan River.

It would take Mexico a few days to wake up to the horror of their actions.  

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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