CHILPANCINGO, Mexico: Mexican authorities scrambled Wednesday to find 43 missing students after concluding they were not in a mass grave containing 28 bodies in a case that has vexed the country.
While news that the aspiring teachers were not in the burial pits brought some relief, officials still had no clue where the students could be, and they now had 28 new unknown victims on their hands.
President Enrique Pena Nieto has been under pressure at home and abroad to solve the confounding case, almost three weeks after the students were attacked by gang-affiliated police in the southern state of Guerrero.
“These regrettable events are a test for Mexican institutions and society,” Pena Nieto said.
Guerrero’s public security department expanded the search, saying it would distribute in six regions fliers with pictures of the 43 young men, who are from a teacher training college near the state’s capital, Chilpancingo.
Horse-mounted police and rescue dogs were deployed to comb rural, hard-to-reach areas of Iguala, the city 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Mexico City where the students were last seen.
Some 300 federal police officers and civilian self-defense militias have been searching for the students for days.
While DNA analysis showed that the students were not in the pits containing 28 bodies, authorities have yet to identify remains in other mass graves found last week and on Tuesday.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said 14 police officers from the town of Cocula, which neighbours Iguala, have been arrested in the case, joining 26 detained colleagues from Iguala.
Iguala’s officers are accused of shooting at buses the students had seized to return home on September 26 in a night of violence that left six people dead and 25 wounded.
Prosecutors says the Cocula officers then handed the students to the Guerreros Unidos gang.
The motive remains under investigation. The students, known for their radical left-wing protests, went to Iguala to raise funds and seized buses to go home, a common practise among the aspiring teachers.
Relatives of the students refuse to believe they are dead and have led protests demanding their safe return.
“It’s possibly a kidnapping, but as time goes on, there is less hope that they will be found alive,” Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Agence France-Presse.
Oliva said it would be complicated to keep 43 people incomunicado for so long, without them being seen by anybody.
“Just think about how they are fed. Even if it’s one daily ration, where do you get food for 43 people,” he said.
In addition to a missing persons case, the authorities are now discovering previously unknown victims as they dig up the mass graves in Iguala.
At least 80 corpses have been discovered around the city of 140,000 people this year alone, revealing the extent of the horrors committed by criminals with impunity.
“They could be victims of fights (between gangs) or extortion, kidnappings and organ trafficking,” Oliva said.
Authorities say the Guerreros Unidos gang, which is an offshoot of the bigger Beltran Leyva drug cartel, was engaged in turf wars with rivals while infiltrating local authorities.
The wife of Iguala’s mayor’s is the sister of two slain members of the Beltran Leyva cartel. The couple and the city’s police chief are on the lam.
Mexicans have endured a drug war that has left 80,000 people dead and more than 22,000 others missing since 2006, but their exposure to atrocities has not made them insensitive to the events in Iguala.
More than 1,000 protesters demonstrated in front of the attorney general’s office in Mexico City, a week after tens of thousands held marches across the nation.
Mexicans are “horrified and ashamed,” Roy Campos, president of pollsters Consulta Mitofsky, told Agence France-Presse.
The case has further tarnished the political class “because it has shown a cohabitation between mafias and politicians,” Campos said.