But for decades, a lethal mix had been seething in Ayotzinapa, known for having a violent and subversive streak that draws a continuous stream of idealistic youth from some of the poorest regions of Mexico. Coupled with the increasing production of poppy and marijuana in Guerrero and exacerbated by a mayor whose wife came from a family with close ties to organized crime, Ayotzinapa had become a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Now, investigators are trying to determine if the 28 bodies discovered in mass graves at a nearby mountaintop are the students. Witnesses say the police who picked them up later handed them over to a local criminal syndicate known as Guerreros Unidos, an offshoot of one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico, the Beltran Leyva group. Iguala has “a municipal authority at the repressive service of organized crime against society,” said Javier Oliva, coordinator of the defense and national security program at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. The case has revolted a population that has grown increasingly accustomed to unfathomable acts of violence since former president Felipe Calderon declared war on criminal groups in 2006. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has steadfastly shifted the national dialogue away from Mexico’s chronic violence and onto his package of widely lauded legislative overhauls, vowed justice.
On September 26, the students—all boys in their late teens and early twenties—left the college, whose famed alumni include the iconic revolutionary schoolteacher Lucio Cabanas, to solicit money and fund their upcoming trip to Mexico City, where they wanted to attend a march commemorating the 1968 student massacre by state forces. Perhaps they were unaware that a few blocks from where they were organizing their fund-raiser, the mayor’s wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, was giving a speech about her activities as the head of the local family services office. Two of Pineda Villa’s brothers were known operatives of the Beltran Leyva cartel.