Ayotzinapa Student Murders: Four Years Later, Mexico Searches for Answer to Violence Epidemic

On September 26, 2014, 43 students from the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero disappeared.

The students—enrolled at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College—were on their way to the city of Iguala to join a protest marking the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which hundreds of civilian demonstrators were killed by police and soldiers in Mexico City.

The details of what happened to them remain sketchy. According to a government inquiry, police tried to stop the students as they left Iguala in commandeered buses. A chase ensued, and the police opened fire, killing several students.

Some escaped into the hills, but the survivors who remained were rounded up and arrested. They were first taken to the police station in Iguala before being transferred to the custody of other officers in nearby Cocula.

At some point, the 43 were handed over, alive, to the local United Warriors gang, who was then said to have executed the captives. Their bodies were burned and the ashes thrown into a nearby river. Only one body has been identified as belogning to the missing 43.

But many of the families of the victims refuse to accept this explanation, arguing instead that the military was behind the deaths and that the government has subsequently covered up the crime in an effort to protect the institution.

Their skepticism has been shared by human rights groups. An international team of experts commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights produced a report in 2015 dismissing the government's account, alleging a cover-up that required further investigation. Still, no leaders of the massacre had been definitively identified or convicted.

Federal police officers stand guard next to relatives holding pictures of some of the 43 missing students as they take part in a protest to demand justice for the missing students near the Interior Ministry in Mexico City, Mexico, on April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A Violent Trend

The Ayotzinapa case sent shockwaves not only through the local area but through a country well-versed in both government corruption and the horrors inflicted by Mexico's powerful and ruthless drug cartels.

In the years since Iguala, the level of violence has only worsened in Mexico, with local law enforcement and the military either unable or unwilling to stop it. The number of murders, kidnappings and other crimes has varied significantly by state and intensity, but the situation remains dire.

Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center think-tank, told Newsweek the government "has really proven to be ineffective in terms of reducing violence." Since taking office in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto's government has failed to stunt the killing.

Though its so-called "Kingpin Strategy" of taking down cartel leaders has bagged many high-profile criminals, these successes have actually created more violence. The arrest or killing of cartel leaders has left larger hierarchical cartels weakened, encouraging fragmentation and competition for the lucrative markets they control.

Though drugs are a major income stream, extortion, kidnapping, piracy, human trafficking and other crimes all provide a complex network of income for the criminal gangs. And none of these markets have stood still in recent years.

Cartels have diversified their operations. In the drug market, the rise of new products like fentanyl and artificial opioids have had a "transformative impact" on the criminal scene, Wood explained. As the market shifted, so did the hierarchy of dominant gangs.

A soldier stands guard atop a vehicle during the Flag Day ceremony in Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, on February 24, 2016. In 2014, students traveled to the city of Iguala to join a protest marking the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and disappeared. It's still not known what happened to them. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Death in Every Direction

Last year set a new record level of homicides with about 29,000 people killed—the highest total since records were kept. But this year may be even worse, and deaths could top 30,000, according to The Economist.

And it is not just the work of the gangs. Wood explained that with law and order weakened, civilians were less worried about committing violence themselves. "If you want to settle a score with somebody, your chances of getting caught are very, very slim indeed," he said.

The government, too, has had a significant hand in the killings. In July, Alejandro Madrazo Lajous—a professor at Mexico's Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas—told Newsweek that "torture and mistreatment [had been] systematically used by security forces throughout the country."

As was the case in Iguala—either through local police, federal officers or the army—government forces have been involved in disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings amid the ongoing orgy of violence, though the true extent remains unknown.

Major reform of the judicial system was supposed to take place in 2016, but this, too, has lagged, reported The Washington Post. The project was supposed to make the judiciary more capable of dealing with the high levels of violence, but its success has been patchy.

In many areas of the country, judges and lawyers still had not been brought up to speed, Wood said, despite government assertions to the contrary.

Even elected officials were not safe as Mexicans went to the the polls this year, with gangs looking to safeguard their criminal empires and install friendly faces in local and federal government operations. More than 120 incumbents or candidates were killed between the beginning of the election season in September 2017 and the vote in July.

Mexico's president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks in Mexico City, on September 14. Addressing the violence in Mexico will be one of his biggest challenges as president. REUTERS/Violeta Schmidt

New Government, New Hope?

Despite neutralizing several high-profile kingpins, Nieto's government had failed in its overall goals of reducing the drug flow to the U.S., clearing territory of cartel influence and lowering violence.

A new president is now preparing to take the reins in December, and the violence wracking the country is arguably the most daunting challenge for President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

"They're going to have to come up with some very creative thinking, and they're going to have to dedicate an enormous amount of money if they really want to solve this problem," Wood said.

This will require a comprehensive approach. "One of the problems that Mexico has faced over the past decade or so is that it has tried to find a silver bullet—whether it is the kingpin strategy or whether it was money laundering or justice reform." Wood said.

Obrador must create a "multi-dimensional strategy to address this problem, including poverty alleviation in depressed areas in Mexico," he said.

But so far, Wood said there was little evidence of such a strategy. "I actually think we're going to have more continuity than change in the security strategy," he said, "simply for a lack of options that are out there."