IGUALA, Mexico: Gang hitmen linked to police admitted to killing 17 of 43 students missing in southern Mexico, prosecutors said Sunday, amid fears the victims were among 28 bodies found in a mass grave.
Inaky Blanco, the chief prosecutor of violence-plagued Guerrero state, said it would take at least 15 days to identify the 28 bodies, some of which were badly burned and in pieces.
The clandestine grave was found Saturday in Pueblo Viejo, an impoverished district of the city of Iguala, where the 43 students were last seen on the night of September 26, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Mexico City.
“A bed of branches and tree trunks was made, on which the bodies of the victims were laid and a flammable substance was used,” Blanco said.
The case could become one of the worst slaughters that Mexico has witnessed since the drug war intensified in 2006, leaving 80,000 people dead to date, and by far the most horrific since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December 2012.
Earlier Sunday, some parents and hundreds of fellow students from the missing group’s teacher training college blocked the highway between Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo and Acapulco, voicing anger at the authorities.
Some of the parents said they were shown pictures of the bodies but that they did not believe that they looked like their children.
“As parents, we reject this situation. It’s not the youngsters. We know they’re holding them alive,” said Manuel Martinez, whose son is among the missing.
The grim find came a week after the students disappeared when gang-linked municipal police shot at buses they had seized to return home from Iguala, where survivors say they had conducted fundraising activities.
In all, three students were killed in the shooting and another three people died when suspected gang members shot at a football team’s bus outside Iguala later that night.
Witnesses say several students, who are from a teacher training college known as a hotbed of radical protests, were whisked away in police vehicles.
Blanco reiterated at a news conference in Acapulco that Iguala’s police force had links to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), one of the state’s many ultra-violent gangs.
It was Iguala’s public security chief, Francisco Salgado Valladares, who ordered two gang members to go to the site of the students’ buses, Blanco said.
The two hitmen then received instructions from a gang leader known as “El Chucky” to take the students and kill them, he said.
The gangsters made students come out of a bus, “they grabbed 17, took them to the top of a hill in Pueblo Viejo where they have clandestine graves and where they say they killed them,” Blanco said.
Authorities have issued arrest warrants for the town’s mayor and security chief, both of who have disappeared.
Some 30 people have been detained over the shootings, including at least 22 police officers.
Authorities said the mass grave was located following the interrogation of some of the suspects. Soldiers cordoned off the area but officials said the pit was up a steep hill filled with thick vegetation.
In Pueblo Viejo, a hamlet surrounded by forests and mountains, a resident said the region is dominated by gangsters and that he had seen municipal police officers going up the hill in recent days, before authorities discovered the mass grave.
“They were going up there back and forth,” said the resident, Jose Garcia, pointing to a location between two mountains where the graves were found. “This is the land of the wicked.”