The young father’s corpse was left on the street of the southern Mexican town of Iguala with his eyes gouged out and flesh ripped off almost to the skull—a technique typical of the cartel murders that have become too common in this country. But unlike many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, he was no gang member, police officer or journalist. The body belonged to a 19-year old trainee teacher who had been preparing to participate in a march to commemorate a notorious massacre of Mexican students by the military and police in 1968. Instead of making it to that demonstration, though, the young man found himself the victim of a what will be a new atrocity date on Mexico’s bloody calendar.
The murder, which occurred on the night of Sept. 26 or morning of Sept. 27, was part of a brutal attack on student teachers by corrupt police officers and drug cartel assassins that has provoked protests across the nation. During the violence, at least six students and passersby were killed and another 43 students disappeared, with many last seen being bundled into police cars. Soldiers and federal agents have taken over the city of Iguala and have arrested more than 30 officers and alleged gunmen from a cartel called the Guerreros Unidos or Warriors United. They have also discovered a series of mass graves: on Oct. 4, they found 28 charred bodies and on Thursday night they discovered another four pits where they are unearthing more corpses. Agents are conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies belong to the students.
The atrocities have triggered national outrage and presented the biggest security-related challenge yet for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Taking power in 2012, Pena Nieto promised to reduce the tens of thousands of cartel killings and modernize a sluggish economy. He has overseen the arrests of major drug lords like Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, nabbed in February and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “The Viceroy,” who was detained on Thursday. But while the total number of homicides declined by 15% in his first year in office, parts of Mexico—such as Guerrero state, where Iguala sits—still suffer some of the highest murder rates in the world. There were 2,087 murders last year in Guerrero, a state of 3.4 million people, giving it a rate of 61 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
On Oct. 6, Pena Nieto swore the students would receive justice and ordered a major federal operation in response. “This is infuriating, painful and unacceptable,” he said in a televised address to the nation. But human rights groups and family members accused him of being slow to respond to the tragedy, allowing some of the possible perpetrators to escape. Iguala mayor Jose Luis Arbaca fled town more than four days after the shootings and disappearances. It later emerged that Mexico’s intelligence service had a file linking him to the Warriors United cartel. The mayor’s brother-in-law was arrested this week for involvement in the killings. “Very slow, Pena Nieto, very slow,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “This issue could have been cleared if the federal government had immediately taken responsibility for these students.”
However, the atrocities are also devastating to the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. (Pena Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for most of the 20th century.) Arbaca was a PRD member, and the party’s leader went to the city on Oct. 7 to personally apologize to residents. The governor of Guerrero state is also in the PRD and there have been calls for his resignation. The governor has denied the killing was his fault and called for a referendum on whether he should stay in power. Furthermore, when PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas joined a protest over the killings in Mexico City on Oct. 8 he was booed and had bottles thrown at him.
The march into Mexico City’s central plaza was joined by tens of thousands of people and was headed by family members of the victims. “I won’t rest until I have my son back,” Mario Cesar Gonzalez, father of 21-year old disappeared student Cesar, told TIME. “This is a problem of corrupt police and politicians working with drug cartels. I am going to fight until we discover the truth of what happened. I don’t care if they kill me. Nothing matters to me except my son.” Most of the disappeared students were the children of poor farmers and workers and went to a university for rural school teachers near Iguala.
Protesters also demonstrated in dozens of other cities across Mexico. In jungle-covered Chiapas state, thousands of the Zapatista rebels who rose up for indigenous rights in 1994 marched in silence in solidarity with the teachers. “Your pain is our pain,” said one banner. In Guerrero state itself, thousands blockaded major highways and shouted outside government buildings.
The killings brought back to the surface another problem that Pena Nieto’s government has been grappling with: vigilante groups that have risen to fight cartels. A Guerrero vigilante militia that operates in villages where many of the students come from has gone to Iguala, promising justice for the students. A local guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Army of Insurgent People said it will form a brigade to attack the Warriors United cartel. ” [We will] confront the political military aspects of this new front of the Mexican narco state,” says a masked man on a video message posted online as he stands besides photos of revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
The actual motives behind the attack on the students remain murky. About 120 students went into Iguala and had absconded with three buses from the Iguala station, which they wanted to take to the march in Mexico City. Students across Mexico often commandeer buses for their marches, a practice that is largely tolerated by the authorities. It was also reported by Mexican media that the students had disturbed a public event, angering city officials linked to the cartels, while the gangs might have believed the students were invading their turf.
One student who survived the attack said he wasn’t sure why the cartel and police went after them. “It came as a complete shock and surprise. We were relaxed and heading out of town, when suddenly there were bullets being fired from all directions,” said Alejandro, 19, who asked his surname not be used in case of reprisals. “I feel lucky that I am alive. But I think all the time about my companions who were taken. I don’t know what they could been through or how much pain they could have suffered. This makes me very sad and very angry.” Pena Nieto—and the rest of Mexico’s power brokers—should beware of that anger.