The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mass kidnapping of students in Iguala, Mexico, brings outrage and protests

To be sure, many Mexicans and quite a few foreign visitors have little sympathy with the country's militant schoolteachers, whose idea of protest often involves snarling traffic for hours or blocking tourists from catching flights home.

On the whole, they are not mild-mannered, middle-age bookworms with apples on their desks. Mexicans more typically think of their public school teachers just as they appear on television, as young men masked with bandannas, battling police and obstructing the highways when their pay or their union privileges are challenged.

But while plenty of taxi drivers and shopkeepers have cursed the teachers' implacable politics and obnoxious protest tactics, Mexicans have been sickened by the crime scenes of the past two weeks.

In the small city of Iguala, 120 miles south of Mexico City, 43 student teachers appear to have been rounded up after a day of protests, then marched into the hills and apparently massacred by local police and gang members, who prosecutors say control the city and its officials.

Forensic teams have recovered the remains of at least 28 victims so far from a series of clandestine graves and diesel-soaked pyres on the outskirts of the city. The bodies are so butchered and burned that Mexican authorities say it could take two months for DNA testing to determine if they're the missing students, many of whom are from impoverished rural villages where being a teacher is one of the only decent jobs.

The outraged Mexican public isn't waiting that long. Protests broke out in cities across Mexico this week, mostly directed at the security failures of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Iguala — in one of Mexico's poorest and most troubled states, Guerrero — is the place where the country's radical protest traditions have collided tragically with a new reality of gangster-run local governments.

It's not to say that local police wouldn't have roughed up protesters, or possibly worse, in the past. But in Iguala, where prosecutors say police act under the orders of the gangsters, there was no restraint. Where crime bosses rule — the local capo goes by the nickname “El Chucky” — there was apparently no patience for pesky protesters and other such democratic nuisances.

What has been so shocking to Mexicans is that the traffickers would treat them just as any other criminal rivals. One grisly image circulating social media shows a dead student whose face has been removed.

In Iguala, said Sergio Aguayo, a well-known Mexican rights activist and political analyst, "a political insurgency was repressed with violence by the part of the state that has become an enclave of organized crime."

"The massacre has shown just how fragile Mexico's democratic institutions are," he said.

Two weeks after the students disappeared, Mexican authorities have yet to give a clear explanation as to what happened. The mayor and the police chief have fled. The truth is trickling out one grave site at a time.

In an especially chilling twist, the violence seems to have been partly set in motion by the students' plans to travel to the capital for the commemoration of modern Mexico's most notorious incident of political violence: the Tlatelolco massacre of Oct 2, 1968.

The Tlatelolco slayings took place 10 days before the opening of the Olympic games in Mexico City. After days of anti-government demonstrations, police and soldiers opened fire on a group of protesters, killing dozens or possibly hundreds. The massacre has been a rallying cry for rights activists and student radicals ever since.

In Iguala, a group of 80 to 120 students from the local teaching college gathered Sept 26 to demonstrate against education reforms and to raise money for their trip to Mexico City.

At the end of the day, they allegedly forced their way onto three buses. It's unclear if they intended to commandeer them for a trip back their college or all the way to Mexico City.

But the practice, which the students consider "borrowing," is also part of the radical protest tradition. The buses are usually returned. It is a tactic often tolerated by authorities, in spite of the inconvenience to passengers trying to get home or to work, not to mention the bus owners.

At least that's how it worked in the old Mexico. Now, in places where bus companies and other businesses pay protection money to gangsters, the rules have changed.

As the students rode off in the buses, it's not clear if the owners called the local gang, the Guerreros Unidos, or if local police enlisted them. It doesn't really matter when the local criminal organization and the police are the same people.

The buses came under fire as the students tried to leave. The students, who were unarmed, stopped and got out, only to come under attack. Some ran and managed to escape. Others were captured and last seen being stuffed into police vehicles.

At least 22 police officers from Iguala are now in custody, along with alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos who authorities say have confessed to helping murder the students.

Four new grave sites and an unknown number of additional bodies were found Thursday, the same day Peña Nieto announced the capture of a major drug lord, Juarez cartel boss Vicente Carillo Fuentes. The capture barely registered; public attention has remained locked on the fate of the missing students in Iguala and the anger it has generated toward the government.

"Iguala is just one example of the level of decay in state and municipal security institutions," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

"It is probable that it will not be the last example of its kind," he said, "and it has made the need for meaningful nationwide police and justice reform horrifically clear."