HE NIGHTMARE BEGAN just after sundown. At a dimly lit intersection in Iguala, police with automatic weapons surrounded three buses loaded with college students. The police opened fire. Screaming that they were unarmed, the students fled down darkened alleys, pounding on doors, desperate for shelter. Gunmen put the city on lockdown, stalking the streets in a drizzling rain.
By the time the gunfire finally stopped, two dozen people were wounded and six were dead at three locations, the youngest only 15 years old. One student was shot in the head, leaving him brain-dead. A bullet ripped through the mouth of another. Two young men bled to death in the streets, left for hours without medical help. First light brought fresh horrors when the mutilated body of one of the students was discovered in the dirt.
Worse was yet to come. During the chaos, 43 students had been taken captive.
The crimes that began in Iguala on September 26, 2014, had reverberations throughout Mexico. Massive protests have roiled the country. Government buildings have been torched. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was forced to launch what his administration called the largest investigation in recent memory.
More than seven months later, the country is haunted by questions. What really happened that night? Where were the students taken and what was their fate? Though the government has provided its explanation, serious doubts surround the official version of events. While scores of clandestine graves have been unearthed in the southern state of Guerrero since then, the remains of just one student — nothing more than a small chip of bone — have been identified.
Having quickly pinned the crimes on municipal officials and their gangster accomplices, Mexican authorities have been accused of attempting to prematurely close the case. Parents of the victims have pointed to what they regard as evidence of broader government complicity in the terror of that night. Human rights groups, investigative journalists, and ordinary citizens have rallied around them.
The following account is based on more than two dozen interviews with survivors of the attacks and family members of the disappeared, as well as Mexican historians, human rights activists, journalists, and the statements of government officials. In addition, The Intercept has reviewed state and federal records, including communications reports by Mexican security forces and sealed statements from municipal police officers and gang members. The evidence reveals inconsistencies, obfuscations, and omissions in the government’s account.
In the wake of the attacks, the number 43 has become a potent symbol of organized crime and government collapsed into one, of poverty and political repression sustained by decades of impunity, and of tens of thousands of similar cases of kidnapping and murder left unsolved. Popular outrage has been distilled into a simple phrase scrawled on protest signs, spray-painted in the hallways of power, and shouted by protesters in the streets.
Fue el estado.
It was the state.
ERNESTO IS A FIRST-YEAR student at the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, a teacher-training college better known as Ayotzinapa. The all-male campus sits atop the rolling green hills of the southern Sierra Madres in the state of Guerrero. The majority of the school’s students are from indigenous backgrounds, and many speak both Spanish and Nahuatl, a language with Aztec roots.
Ayotzinapa, which means “Land of the Turtles” in Nahuatl, is part of a network of normal schools established in 1926 to serve the sons and daughters of Mexico’s most impoverished communities, providing free and secular education to young people who go on to teach in remote farming regions. With a curriculum that fuses agricultural skills and radical politics, students of these schools — known as normalistas — have made for natural leaders in social justice struggles. For the better part of the last century, the schools’ history has been punctuated with violent, sometimes fatal, confrontations with the state.
Ernesto (the name he uses with the media) enrolled at Ayotzinapa last July. At 23, he’s well-built with broad shoulders. His close-cropped hair gives him away as a first-year — all new students at Ayotzinapa have their heads shaved when they enroll. On a late afternoon in early November, he took a seat at a picnic table on the school’s basketball court. The sun, sinking behind the mountains as he started to explain what happened, was gone by the time he finished.
“On Friday, the 26th of September, we left at approximately six in the afternoon in the direction of the city of Iguala,” he began. “We needed the buses.”
Taking commercial buses — some call it commandeering, others call it hijacking — is integral to activism, education, and fundraising at Ayotzinapa. In the absence of substantive financial support from the government, Ayotzinapa has never had enough money for an adequate fleet of vehicles to transport students to remote locations to observe schoolteachers at work and to attend protests. So the students make deals with local bus drivers and companies, taking charge of large passenger buses for days or weeks, often feeding drivers on their campus. The students insist the drivers are not exploited or abused, although some drivers and bus companies have disputed this.
In mid-September, normalistas gathered to discuss the logistics of an upcoming action. Each year on October 2, activists converge on Mexico City to commemorate one of the darkest days in the nation’s history: the 1968 massacre of students and civilians by government security forces in a section of the capital known as Tlatelolco. At the September meeting, according to Nexos magazine, Ayotzinapa was selected to take the lead in acquiring transportation.
On September 26, nearly 100 Ayotzinapa students, including Ernesto, were dispatched in two buses to collect more vehicles. Nearly all of them were enthusiastic first-years, and most had no idea where they were going. Their first stop was on a highway about 70 miles from campus and 20 miles outside Iguala, the third-largest city in Guerrero.
The normalistas split into two teams. One bus waited on the side of the highway, across from a restaurant called La Palma, while the other was sent to a tollbooth closer to Iguala, where the students quickly managed to stop a bus. They bargained with the driver, who agreed to work with them on the condition that he first drop off his passengers in Iguala. To ensure he made good on his word, a group of normalistas boarded his bus. They headed into a city where the line between the state and organized crime had all but disappeared.
AT THE BUS STATION in Iguala, the small group of students watched as their driver stepped off the vehicle. He spoke to a security guard. He made calls. The minutes ticked away. The students started to get nervous. They tried to open the bus door, but it was locked. They frantically phoned their friends. Responding to the distress calls, Ernesto and his classmates on the side of the highway and at the tollbooth got onto their buses and headed for Iguala.
Though they may not have known it, their movements were being tracked by state and federal police. In fact, the students had been on the authorities’ radar since early evening, according to records contained in the state of Guerrero’s investigation. A communications record, signed by a state police coordinator, shows that at 5:59 p.m. a call came in indicating that two busloads of Ayotzinapa students had set off in the direction of Iguala.
Around 9 p.m. the first wave of student reinforcements arrived at the Iguala station. Young men with shaved heads piled out of the two arriving buses, their faces covered with bandanas and T-shirts. A window was broken and the students in the locked bus were freed. Amid the commotion, the normalistas managed to grab several more buses. Two left on a direct route toward the highway. Three others drove toward the city center and got bogged down in traffic.
Ernesto was on one of the buses crawling through Iguala. He estimated that more than 40 other students were on board. The seats were full and some were standing in the aisle. They had passed the central plaza when they saw police lights and heard sirens. They aren’t coming for us, Ernesto thought.
“We are unarmed! What are you aiming at? … You killed my friend! … Call an ambulance!”
Suddenly, a municipal police truck cut them off. The students leaped out to move it from their path. Police officers fired warning shots. The students threw rocks, smashing the window of the police truck. Pedestrians ran for cover. The students navigated their buses around the blockade. Their caravan moved on, followed by police who kept firing.
“Don’t worry comrades,” Ernesto remembered one of the students reassuring his classmates. “They are shooting into the air.”
The night of the disappearance of 43 students. (Proceso)
The streets were packed, bringing the three buses to a crawl on a two-lane road. The highway wasn’t far, Ernesto recalled, but the number of police behind the buses was growing — as many as 10 patrol vehicles were now tailing them. Officers weren’t shooting in the air anymore—they were shooting at the buses. Ernesto decided he had to defend himself and his classmates, so he and a number of others jumped off the bus to hurl more stones at the cops.
“Close the door and don’t open it for anyone!” Ernesto yelled to the driver.
At the head of the caravan, another police truck zoomed in and cut them off; its driver got out and took off running. The normalistas moved into action. Later, in an interview with the newspaper La Jornada, a student recalled the words of his classmate Aldo Gutiérrez Solano.
“If they come, we stone them,” the 19-year-old Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez joined the others attempting to move the abandoned police truck out of the way. Shoulder to shoulder, Gutiérrez and Ernesto pushed against it in the falling rain. Automatic gunfire broke out again. A bullet punched into the side of Gutiérrez’s skull. He crumpled to the ground.
“They hit one!” Ernesto screamed.
Panicked students dove for cover as Gutiérrez’s blood pooled on the wet concrete. Some crawled under the buses; others ran. Ernesto and another student attempted to pull Gutiérrez to safety, but the gunfire was too intense. Gutiérrez remained in the street, bleeding and unconscious. Tires blew out and glass shattered. One student described bullets kicking off the pavement like firecrackers.
Cellphone video recorded that night shows the students yelling at their attackers.
“We are unarmed!” the students scream. “What are you aiming at? … You killed my friend! … Call an ambulance!”
Left in the street, Gutiérrez was eventually taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced brain-dead. He remains in a coma.
Police began removing students who were on the last bus in the caravan. Bullets had shattered the windows. Blood soaked the seats and spread across the aisle. The students were forced to lie down on the pavement, their hands on their heads. They were then loaded onto the beds of patrol trucks, hoods placed over their heads.
Up at the front of the blocked caravan, police were barking orders at Ernesto and his classmates.
“Get out of here, motherfuckers!” an officer shouted, even though their only means of transportation were riddled with bullet holes.
“We’re leaving,” the officers warned. “You ought to do the same. Get on your bus and get out of here.”
BLOCKS AWAY FROM the screams and gunfire, thousands of people had been gathered at a public plaza for a celebration hosted by Iguala’s mayor and his wife. Dubbed the “Imperial Couple,” José Luis Abarca and María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa were characterized in the Mexican media as having a paper-thin proximity to murder and mayhem. They would become, in the government’s account of what unfolded, key orchestrators of the crimes that began on September 26.
Abarca had started off as a humble vendor selling sandals for a living. Iguala residents say his 2012 election took intimidation, terror, and impunity to new levels. In 2010, federal authorities had investigated Abarca and his wife for illegal enrichment, but no charges were filed. Less than a year into Abarca’s term, a well-known campesino activist was executed and his driver accused the mayor of pulling the trigger. The investigation stalled, and Abarca coasted along unscathed.
Pineda Villa had been an ever-present figure at the mayor’s side, and many people believed the event in the plaza — organized to celebrate her role advancing the city’s welfare program — was the unofficial kickoff of an election campaign to succeed her husband in office. “Lady Iguala,” as she came to be known, hailed from a family of powerful narcos. Two of her brothers were high-level operators within the Sinaloa and Beltran Leyva cartels, at one point overseeing a team of some 200 assassins in and around Iguala, according to the newsmagazine Proceso.
In recent years, Iguala had become emblematic of broader trends across Mexico’s most lawless areas. The region known as Tierra Caliente, the Hot Land — which includes the states of Guerrero and Michoacán — is a place where economic despair has collided with the militarism of Mexico’s drug war. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón ordered Mexican troops into the streets of Michoacán to fight drug traffickers, unleashing a wave of violence. Amid widespread allegations of human rights abuses, popular support for government security forces began to plummet, and civilians took the fight against the region’s criminal groups into their own hands, forming armed community groups to protect their homes.
Guerrero turned into an ever-shifting battleground where smaller groups fought for control of the lucrative heroin trade.
Guerrero is Mexico’s largest producer of opium paste, growing an estimated 60 percent of the nation’s poppies, making it a crucial supplier of heroin to the U.S. In 2009, the figurehead of the Beltran Leyva cartel, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a gun battle with Mexican security forces, and that same month, the two Pineda Villa brothers were assassinated. The Beltran Leyva cartel unraveled and the established order was upended. Now considered by many to be Mexico’s most violent state, Guerrero turned into an ever-shifting battleground where smaller groups fought for control of the lucrative heroin trade.
In October, Mexico’s attorney general described Pineda Villa as a “principal operator” of criminal activity linked to one such smaller group — Guerreros Unidos. The gang — which also raised revenue through murder, kidnapping, and extortion — had staked its claim to power in 2012 by leaving 10 severed heads outside a slaughterhouse. In the years that followed, the government claimed, hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands between Abarca’s office and Guerreros Unidos on a regular basis — roughly $45,000 of which was directed to Iguala’s municipal police, who were under the command of Abarca’s cousin Felipe Flores Velázquez. Abarca’s alleged criminal links were hardly unique, however. In November, the newspaper Milenio reported that 11 other mayors across Guerrero were under federal scrutiny for suspected ties to organized crime.
The Imperial Couple also appeared to enjoy a cozy relationship with the Mexican Army. Abarca had opened a multimillion-dollar mall in Iguala on land partially donated by the army. Military records obtained by Proceso and reviewed by The Intercept show that as Ernesto and his classmates set off from Ayotzinapa, two members of the army’s 27th Infantry Battalion — stationed in Iguala in part to combat organized crime — were leaving their base to attend the celebration hosted by the mayor’s wife. A few days after the attacks, Abarca denied responsibility. He told a radio host, “I was dancing.”
Once the students arrived in Iguala, communications among security forces and emergency personnel began lighting up. The first report of shots fired came in from a civilian at 9:40 p.m., according to the state communications record. Thirteen minutes later another call was registered; a young person had been wounded by gunfire. Two more calls followed in quick succession, one requesting an ambulance.
The calls were logged in a communications system called Control, Command, Communication, and Computation — or C4 — which collects real-time intelligence available to security forces. The C4 centers are common across Mexico and range in sophistication, with some of the more high-tech outposts concentrated along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, subsidized by U.S. counternarcotics programs. According to Proceso, Iguala’s C4 reports that evening were simultaneously conveyed to federal police units and the military.
News of the gunfire quickly reached municipal police in the small town of Cocula, about 13 miles southwest of Iguala. The Cocula officers’ response was detailed in more than a dozen statements included in a portion of the federal case file reviewed by The Intercept.
Around 10 p.m., a mid-level officer said he received a call from his boss. The message was urgent, he said: Come toward Iguala, there’s a shooting and we’re going to provide support. I need three units.
Around a dozen men were assembled. They dressed in tactical equipment, kneepads, and elbow pads, according to one officer, and armed themselves with assault rifles and handguns. They raced to Iguala in three patrol vehicles.
One officer recalled the scene in vivid detail. The windshield of one of the buses had been shattered. Students inside it were yelling, “Don’t shoot! We have no weapons.” From the right side of the bus, the officer saw an arm protruding from a window waving a white cloth.
AN HOUR AFTER the first shots were fired, the violence began spilling over onto the highway outside the city. Armed men were stalking the road as the remaining two buses tried to flee. One bus was caught under a highway overpass. According to the state of Guerrero’s investigation, the discovery of the vehicle was reported just after midnight. The tires were blown out and it was littered with broken glass. A short distance away, there was a pile of clothing — a sweater, a bandana, and eight shirts, one stained with blood.
Army records later released revealed that the bus had been stopped by two patrols of municipal police vehicles. At approximately 10:30 p.m., three more police patrols arrived carrying officers described in the records as hooded and dressed in black. Five minutes after the hooded police arrived, the records described them “trying” to remove the students from the bus. The students have not been seen since.
The innocent people they killed were not the innocent people they set out to kill.
The final bus fleeing Iguala, carrying 14 students, was stopped by police on its way out of the city. Jonathan, a 20-year-old first-year who asked that his last name be withheld, was among those on board. He told The Intercept that as he stepped off the vehicle with his classmates, an officer yelled and pointed his pistol and flashlight at them. They began to walk away from the scene and broke into a run as soon as they were out of the officer’s sight. The group eventually found shelter with a resident of the area who took them in until the next morning.
At 12:45 a.m., the C4 communications system catalogued the aftermath of yet another attack on the highway — armed men had intercepted a bus carrying a semi-professional soccer team. Survivors told investigators the driver of the bus lost control during the assault, and the door was pinned closed by a cascade of earth. The passengers dove to the floor, screaming that they were soccer players. They said their attackers replied they “did not care” and let loose with more bullets. At least 60 shell casings were recovered from the scene, including high-powered assault rifle rounds.
After the shooting stopped, the passengers heard the sound of two vehicles taking off into the night. Fifteen-year-old David Josué García Evangelista, one of the soccer players, was dead. The driver, Víctor Manuel Lugo Ortiz, was gravely wounded and died hours later. Blanca Montiel Sánchez, riding in a taxi nearby, was also killed. Hospital records included in the state’s investigation list at least eight other players and trainers admitted for injuries that night.
Some press accounts have attributed the attack on the highway to Iguala’s municipal police; others reported that members of Guerreros Unidos opened fire, too. One witness, who arrived after the assault, told state investigators the shooters were dressed in dark clothes with balaclavas pulled over their faces. Whoever the shooters were, it seems the innocent people they killed were not the innocent people they set out to kill.
BACK AT THE SCENE of the first attack, midnight was approaching. The municipal police had disappeared with the hooded students in the back of their patrol trucks. Ernesto and his classmates who had not been taken away made calls for help to human rights workers, journalists, and their friends at Ayotzinapa. A handful of reporters arrived, and with the students cordoned off the area to preserve evidence, using rocks to mark the bullet casings left behind.
The danger had not yet passed.
As Ernesto showed reporters the damage done to the buses, Francisco Garcias, a slight first-year student, noticed a patrol truck passing by.
“Now, you will see!” a man shouted from the truck.
Automatic gunfire soon erupted; the students and journalists dropped to the ground and dove behind cars.
During the barrage, two Ayotzinapa students, Daniel Solís Gallardo and Julio César Ramírez Nava, were hit. The young men bled to death in the street. Soldiers from the 27th Battalion, stationed less than 2 miles away, reported discovering their bodies at 2:40 a.m., nearly three hours after the shots that killed them were fired.
Omar García, one of the students who took cover when the shots rang out, sprinted away during a lull in the gunfire. With him was Edgar Andrés Vargas, a young man whose mouth had been lacerated by a bullet. García told The Intercept that he and two dozen other students ran to a private medical clinic to seek treatment for the wounded, including Andrés Vargas, whom they carried. They pounded on the door, pleading to be let in. Once inside, the frightened women working there refused to help.
The students begged for an ambulance. Instead of paramedics, patrols from the 27th Battalion showed up. With weapons raised, the soldiers forced the students to the ground, ordered them to remove their shirts, and rifled through their pockets. No medical care was given to Andrés Vargas. He couldn’t speak because of his mouth injury, so he used his phone to communicate with his friends, according to Sin Embargo, a news website.
“GET ME OUT OF HERE BECAUSE I AM DYING,” he wrote.
The soldiers issued a threat before leaving the clinic.
“If you give us false names, you’ll never be found,” they warned.
WHEN THE SUN ROSE the next morning, the extent of the carnage began to emerge. In the span of no more than five hours, according to the state’s file, at least five buses, six cars, and one motorcycle were wrecked, shot up, or both; and 195 shell casings were discharged in Iguala and on the highway, nearly half of them high-caliber rounds. Twenty-five people were admitted to the hospital that night. Six people had been killed.
Around 7 in the morning, a photograph began to surface online. It showed a young man splayed out on his back on a patch of dirt, amid scraps of garbage. To his right were rivulets of blood, turned deep maroon in the morning sun. He was wearing gray and white sneakers, and his blue jeans had fallen low around his hips. His red T-shirt was pulled up to his sternum, revealing heavy bruising around his torso. He had no ears and no eyes. The skin of his face had been removed from his skull. The tortured corpse had the buzzcut of a first-year student.
Ernesto saw the mutilated body at the medical examiner’s office, where he and a handful of classmates had gone to identify victims collected from the streets.
“The medical examiner told me that he was alive when they did that,” Ernesto said. The young man’s name was Julio César Mondragón.
Overnight, as word of the attacks spread, worried mothers and fathers had raced to Ayotzinapa. Those who couldn’t find a ride walked to the campus. They waited out the night with prayers and candles. In the morning many of them went to Iguala to join the surviving students searching for their friends in the city’s jail cells and hospital beds.
“There were three jails. We searched inside all of them,” said Margarito “Benito” Guerrero, the father of a normalista named Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz. “Not one prisoner in all of them.”
Before returning to Ayotzinapa, the students gave state authorities a three-page, handwritten list of their missing classmates. A crowd of anxious parents and family members met them at the campus. People cried and hugged. Mothers and fathers asked Ernesto about their sons.
“They’re coming,” he said about the ones he knew were safe. For the others, he struggled to answer.
The list had the names of 64 students whose whereabouts were unknown. The following day, as more came out of hiding, the number was reduced to 57.
It wasn’t until September 30, four days after the attacks, that the true number emerged: 43 students were missing.
Photo Essay: A Town Mourns Its Lost Sons
Spanish: Caso Se Enreda en la Desaparición de los 43 Estudiantes
Research: Freelance journalist Andalusia Knoll and policy analyst Jesse Franzblau