Mexico took a pivotal step Tuesday in the case of 43 missing students when federal police captured the fugitive former mayor of Iguala and his wife, the alleged masterminds of what may be one of the worst recent human rights atrocities in this country.
An elite Federal Police team arrested Jose Luis Abarca and Maria de los Angeles Pineda before dawn in a dilapidated house in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City.
The governor of the state of Guerrero, Rogelio Ortega, called the arrests “a crucial advance” in discovering what happened to the students.
Abarca took leave from his post four days after police clashed with the students, who’d arrived from their rural teachers college to collect money for a future protest. The clash the night of Sept. 26 left six students dead and some 20 wounded. Municipal police detained 43 students and turned them over to members of a criminal gang, the nation’s attorney general said two weeks ago. The 43 haven’t been seen since.
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Authorities issued arrest warrants for Abarca and Pineda, who went underground. Speculation mounted that the wealthy couple had fled Mexico. Instead, they found refuge in a concrete-floor dwelling in a working-class area of the capital.
Pressure on President Enrique Pena Nieto to find the students and punish those responsible for their disappearance soared with the subsequent discovery of dozens of clandestine graves around Iguala, an agricultural hub some 100 miles south of Mexico City.
Students from 80 universities around Mexico plan traffic-clogging marches Wednesday, the beginning of a three-day strike to protest the disappearances.
It will be the latest in a wave of unrest that’s included arson attacks on government buildings across Guerrero, on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Legislators from all major political parties applauded the arrests of Abarca and Pineda, and a spokesman for parents of the missing students said he hoped police interrogation of the couple would provide leads to the students’ whereabouts. The spokesman lashed out at alleged government involvement in the disappearances.
“It was the government who took the young people, and now the coalition between narcos and Guerrero leaders is laid bare,” said Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the families who’s the father of one of the missing students.
Most Guerrero elected officials belong to the leftist opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution, known as the PRD in its Spanish initials, which is scurrying to refute claims that it knew of links between its politicians and the criminal underworld in Guerrero.
In a statement Tuesday, the party said it “joins the widespread clamor for results in the case and that the student teachers be located.”
Whether the students remain alive is unknown.
Backed by helicopters and a fleet of armored vehicles, some 10,000 federal police officers, forensic investigators and others are taking part in the search, including combing clandestine gravesites around Iguala and conducting DNA tests on exhumed bodies.
The case has sunk the Pena Nieto administration into crisis, deflating efforts to present Mexico as a nation that’s overcome security challenges and fortified the weak rule of law.
While homicide rates have declined since Pena Nieto became president in December 2012, many Mexicans voice horror at the way Iguala police rounded up the students and turned them over to gunmen, perhaps for their execution.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam charged on Oct. 22 that Abarca and Pineda were “masterminds” of the events because they were enmeshed in an organized crime group, United Warriors, that used Iguala City Hall to further its interests. Two of Pineda’s brothers are slain crime bosses for the Beltran Leyva crime gang, and a third served a jail term for drug trafficking.
Public patience with the search for the students has dwindled even as Murillo Karam has sought to put a vigorous face on government efforts.
He said in late October that 56 local police, gang members and others had been arrested, including several who detained the students and took them to the ranch of a gang boss known as “El Gil.”
Even so, authorities have looked bumbling as they comb the hills around Iguala on horseback, in off-road vehicles and from the beds of pickups, following one apparent bad tip after another. One federal police officer drowned while searching a river near the town of Cocula for bodies a tipster said had been dumped there.
The newspaper Reforma on Tuesday cited a secret court document that says two low-level United Warriors members claimed after their arrest Oct. 8 that the students were ordered killed by a United Warriors boss, Angel Casarrubias, because he was convinced that members of a rival gang, Los Rojos, had infiltrated the group of student teachers.
The students’ bodies are buried in the rural area of Pueblo Viejo, west of Iguala, in the vicinity where authorities have already found mass graves, the newspaper cited the two members as saying in the court document.
Ortega, the interim governor of Guerrero, said the arrests of Abarca and Pineda represented “the real possibility of gaining substantive leads” and opening “new lines of investigation” on the whereabouts of the students. The two “know who are the main leaders (of United Warriors) and where they hide.”
The PRD recruited Abarca, a jewelry-business owner, to run for mayor of Iguala in 2012. News reports say he owns 65 properties and businesses around the country. Pineda had hoped to succeed him in the post. Before they went on the lam, she ran the state social service agency in Iguala, a prime post to dole out political favors.