Mexico’s Brutal Nightmare

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from TIME Magazine,

How an attack on 43 students in September has forced the country to once again confront the scourge of drug violence.

n the end, it took a crime that was shocking even by the standards of Mexico’s blood-soaked drug war for a semblance of order to return to a small community of 140,000 in the country’s southern Guerrero state. On the night of Sept. 26–a date now inscribed on Mexico’s calendar of historic atrocities–corrupt police and cartel thugs in the town of Iguala went on a killing spree. First they shot dead three students and three passersby, slicing the face off one victim and leaving his corpse on the street. Then they kidnapped 43 students, carting them off in police cars before reportedly throwing them into a cattle truck.

What happened next became apparent only after six harrowing weeks that saw the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto face intensifying public anger over its sluggish response to the crime. On Nov. 7, Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam, revealed that three cartel assassins had confessed to taking the students to a garbage dump, where they allegedly murdered them and incinerated their bodies in a huge bonfire kept alight for more than 14 hours with diesel, gasoline, wood and tires.

But the ramifications go beyond the unlucky students, who were training to become teachers. In the weeks before the confessions, security forces discovered corpses of an additional 38 victims of narcoviolence in Iguala, where the mayor and police are alleged to have been in league with a brutal cartel. Iguala has become a massive crime scene.

Locals describe how a climate of fear had been building up for several years, with gangsters driving around with impunity. “The bad men would come in the night in convoys of vehicles,” says Ramiro Vazquez, a corn farmer who lives near the mass graves. “Sometimes we would hear gunshots. Sometimes we would hear screams. Of course I never called the police. Sometimes the police were with the murderers.”

The Iguala attacks shattered Peña Nieto’s efforts to clean up his country’s violent image and have sparked the biggest protests in Mexico in years, as students, teachers and others light candles, block roads and in some cases burn government buildings.

The case brings together several of Mexico’s most fundamental challenges in one chilling crime. The students were the sons of peasant farmers and laborers in destitute villages that underscore the poverty that still blights Mexico’s promise. The alleged role of the police speaks to the brutality of crooked officers. Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca–arrested in Mexico City on Nov. 4–seems, if the charges against him prove true, to symbolize the corrupt politicians undermining the country. The mass graves uncovered in the search for the students highlight the violence and injustice still pervasive in Mexico, where more than 70,000 people have been killed in cartel-related violence in the past seven years.

The bloodshed is also a reminder of the shortcomings of the war on drugs Mexico has been waging, with U.S. support. Though he talks less about the cartels, Peña Nieto has stuck with the basic strategy of his predecessor Felipe Calderón: go after the big kingpins who traffic billions of dollars in marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth to American users.

“The drug-cartel heads used to be like monarchs,” says Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “They used to run their cartels like despotic leaders. But now they are more organized like a global corporation, with subsidiaries that are semiautonomous.” The fragmentation of cartels into these vicious cells multiplies the challenges facing Mexico.

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