There are still many unanswered questions about a Friday night last September when at least 43 students disappeared after coming under attack in the Mexican city of Iguala. One of the most basic is, Why?
According to testimony the Mexican government hasn't yet officially released, cartel hitmen now under arrest may have the answer: They believed that a rival gang was mixed in with the students and was attempting to enter their territory. And in addition, it appears at least 13 more people were kidnapped and executed that night at a hillside ranch in the neighborhood of Pueblo Viejo, about 18 miles from the trash dump where federal authorities say the students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college were murdered and incinerated.
"I shot two of them in the head," one of the alleged killers told authorities of the group of 13 young men. That statement and others delivered to authorities by several of the alleged killers were contained in more than 2,000 pages of a government case file. Those pages, obtained by VICE News, comprise only two of the 82 volumes in the file; officials describe the September 26 disappearances and murders as one of the "biggest cases in memory."
The confessions indicate that the participants in the chaotic attacks — including both members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel and local police officers — believed that members of rival gang Los Rojos rode among the students who traveled through Iguala that night.
Both Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos are splinter groups that emerged from the violent fracturing of the formerly dominant Beltrán Leyva cartel in the state of Guerrero. After the split began in 2009, official figures show homicides and kidnappings both rose dramatically in the state — and human-rights observers say the fights between the splinter gangs actually resulted in even higher numbers of victims. Dozens of clandestine graves have been uncovered in the hillsides above Iguala since the Ayotzinapa students disappeared, a result of the drug war in Guerrero.
It's not clear why authorities have downplayed the execution of the 13 additional men in Pueblo Viejo, but political pressures may have had a role. Sympathy for the missing students swelled in the midst of demonstrations across Mexico and elsewhere in the world late last year, and protests led by surviving students and parents of the missing sometimes turned violent. It may have been deemed politically unwise for the government to suggest that the students were linked to the criminal underworld as some suspects suggested in their statements to authorities.
But early on, as the magnitude of the case became apparent, the group of victims who were killed at Pueblo Viejo were not completely ignored by officials.
A Day of the Dead altar set up for the missing students at the Ayotzinapa campus. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
Iñaki Blanco, the Guerrero state prosecutor who was in charge of the initial investigation prior to the federal government's involvement in the case, said in an October 5 press conference that a group of young men whom the cartel believed to be students were "transferred to an area high up in the hills of Pueblo Viejo, where [the cartel] maintain clandestine graves, where they were killed."
Blanco said that this order came from a man known as El Choky, a local leader of the Guerreros Unidos.
The same day that Blanco mentioned the Pueblo Viejo incident, the state investigation was transferred to federal prosecutor Jesus Murillo Karam. He has seldom publicly mentioned Pueblo Viejo since, though in a November 7 press conference he did say, "The remains that were discovered in those first graves, the ones in Pueblo Viejo, do not belong to the young students."
Federal authorities did not respond to numerous requests for comment from VICE News.
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There is no definitive proof that "infiltrators" from Los Rojos were aboard the buses that carried the students. Students deny any connection to Los Rojos; one told VICE News that they'd been attacked by the cartel in the past.
"We've always said it — we do not have and never had anything to do with narcos," Omar García, one of the Ayotzinapa student leaders, told VICE News.
The case has dragged on for more than 115 days. Protesters and family members of the missing have doubted the government's version since the day it was made public. Independent forensics investigators from Argentina who studied the case also questioned it.
According to the federal prosecutor, the 43 disappeared students were likely massacred by at least three men who allegedly confessed to the crime. The students' bodies were then incinerated at a garbage dump in Cocula, a neighboring community to Iguala, Murillo Karam said the killers told investigators.
The men allegedly said they killed the students, piled the bodies, burned them, and then ground and bagged the victims' ashes. The remains were then thrown into the San Juan River near the dump. But the government also said that the students technically remained "missing," because the ashes and bone fragments found in the river would be nearly impossible to positively identify.
The video-recorded confessions were made public during the attorney general's November 7 press conference. At the time, the government did not disclose to the public that some members of Guerreros Unidos said the attacks were coordinated due to a fear that Los Rojos were attempting to enter the city.
(Graphic by Francisco Gomez)
The true number of people who were killed or kidnapped that night remains unknown. Murillo Karam himself has avoided specifying an exact number of victims, saying officials may "never know" how many bodies were incinerated in Cocula. Casting further doubt on the government's version of events are the numerous abuse allegations made against Mexican security forces over the years for eliciting forced confessions and torturing people suspected of crimes.
According to statements from survivors of the attack, on the afternoon of September 26, two commercial buses each carrying about 45 young men left the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa, located in central Guerrero.
The Ayotzinapa campus belongs to a network of politically radical teacher training colleges meant to serve rural regions of Mexico. The Ayotzinapa school has a history of clashing with the government; in 2011, an encounter with state forces left two students dead along the Autopista del Sol federal highway in Guerrero.
Locals in Guerrero often refer to its students as normalistas or, sometimes disparagingly, as Ayotzinapos. In December, student leaders at the school told VICE News that guerrillas had been "present" at the campus for at least a year.
'El Choky and his hitmen blocked them, and then made them exit the buses. One of the students resisted, and that's when the shootout occurred.'
Students had hijacked the two buses the week before in what has become a common practice at a school. On the night of the attacks, students say, only first- and second-year Ayotzinapa students left the campus aboard the buses. The students told VICE News that they intended to eventually commandeer 20 buses in total that would be used to transport them and students from other parts of Mexico to the annual march commemorating the October 1968 student massacre at the Tlatelolco plaza in Mexico City.
On the 26th, the two buses that left the school each stopped at a different point just outside Iguala. The plan was to wait for other passenger buses and block the road in order to hijack them.
Ayotzinapa students frequently cover their faces and occupy highway toll booths in Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
"Half an hour after the first bus stopped at [the highway turnoff for the town of] Huitzuco, a bus passes, with 10 passengers on board, which the [students] stop, and inform the driver of their intent to hijack it," said Vidulfo Rosales, a human rights attorney representing parents of the disappeared students.
According to testimony gathered by Rosales, the driver promised to hand over control of the bus, but only after he delivered his passengers to the bus terminal in Iguala. So eight Ayotzinapa students got on the bus. When it arrived at the terminal, the passengers got off, as did the driver — who then locked the vehicle's door behind him, trapping the eight students inside.
The driver alerted his superiors, and the students inside the bus phoned their classmates at the highway blockades, who headed to the bus terminal. When they arrived, they broke through the bus windows and freed their eight comrades. Then, seeing an opportunity, they hijacked three more buses from the terminal. The students now had five buses total.
Surviving students say they had no intent to interrupt a speech being given by the wife of Iguala's mayor, as the government's initial account suggested. Instead, they were looking to get out of the city as quickly as possible. According to the survivors, the buses split up. Two headed south while three other buses, perhaps mistakenly, headed toward the center of town.
Unbeknownst to the students, two groups of hitmen from the Guerreros Unidos cartel were watching all of this unfold.
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The cartel kept a network of street spies known as halcones ["falcons"] who monitored virtually everything in Iguala. The first group of halcones watching the students that day were led by the man nicknamed El Choky, who has yet to be captured and whose real name is still unknown. Witnesses said he is under 5 feet tall and bald. The second team included a man named Martin Alejandro Macedo, who joined the criminal organization in early 2014. That evening, Macedo was driving a white Dodge Ram pickup.
Two men Macedo later identified in his testimony only as El Tiner and El Mole accompanied him. He was also joined by Marco Antonio Rios Berber, a.k.a. El Amarguras, who told authorities that he received 7,000 pesos (less than $500) a month to work as an halcon for the cartel.
As darkness descended and the caravan of three buses passed Iguala's central square, a police car blocked their path. Students from the first bus got off and began to throw rocks in the direction of the police. Officers fired rounds into the air.
Guerreros Unidos members who had been following the students since they left the bus terminal told authorities that the people descending from the buses were wearing masks. In their declarations, they also said minivan-like Nissan Urvans were mixed in with the buses — and that armed men exited those vehicles.
Around that time, the chief of the local social-welfare agency, Maria de los Angeles Pineda — the wife of then Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca — had just delivered a public report at the Plaza Civica. Known as an informe, the event is customarily used as a platform to rally support for an office holder's future political ambitions.
In his statement, Rios Berber does not seem to make a clear distinction between the passengers in the buses and those riding in the Urvans, saying simply: "They were armed." Authorities have not identified these alleged armed men in the vans.
Macedo said this was the point when he received orders from El Choky.
"These subjects were very violent," Macedo told authorities. "They were throwing large stones and they had short weapons, like .9mm and .38s…. I received the order to fire at them, ordered by El Choky."
No one was killed during this encounter. But the attacks had begun.
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Amid the gunfire, the students who had descended from the buses returned to them. The police car that was blocking their path moved, students said, and the three buses advanced northbound on Juan N. Alvarez, the main avenue through downtown.
A few blocks away, however, more patrol cars from the Iguala police force once again blocked their path, this time in conjunction with members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. The students were trapped.
A member of the cartel told officials that El Choky and his accomplices attacked the vehicles again because "there were armed people from Los Rojos in the group who were looking to surprise us."
Students are forced to sleep on the floor at the Raul Isidro Burgos campus at Ayotzinapa. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
"El Choky and his hitmen blocked them, and then made them exit the buses," said the cartel member, Ramiro Ocampo Pineda. "One of the students resisted, and that's when the shootout occurred."
According to testimony, El Choky got into his grey Ford Mustang with his hitmen and took the highway toward Chilpancingo to intercept the other two buses that were also trying to get out of Iguala; Macedo and his men remained, shooting at the students. A group of 17 people he thought were students were taken from the buses, loaded into trucks, and later taken to a safe house located in Loma de los Coyotes, a neighborhood west of Iguala that serves as a stronghold for the Guerreros Unidos. The neighborhood enjoyed the full protection of the Iguala police department, which even maintained a security checkpoint at the neighborhood's entrance.
"We killed them immediately, since they did not want to submit, and since there were more of them than us," Macedo told authorities. "El Choky gave the order for us to step on it. Some of them were killed execution style, and others were beaten since they became violent once they were kidnapped, and so they would stop fucking complaining, we decided to kill them."
In addition to this first group of 17 victims, close to 30 other bus passengers on Juan N. Álvarez were loaded into patrol cars from the Iguala police force and taken to the municipal station. They were then handed over to the Guerreros Unidos and taken to Loma de los Coyotes, statements said.
The Cocula police got involved after receiving a request for backup from either the Iguala police or the Guerreros Unidos. Together, the police forces handed over the approximately 30 passengers — separated into four vehicles, each carrying six to eight detainees — who had been at the police station.
The parents of the missing students keeping vigil at the school. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
The Ayotzinapa students who were still on Juan N. Alvarez began to ask for help. They even had time to call members of the local press to the scene, who, at about 11pm, witnessed another attack. Two students were shot to death: Daniel Solis Gallardo and Julio Cesar Rodriguez Nava.
Nearby, the corpse of Julio Cesar Mondragon, a 22-year-old Ayotzinapa student, was found the following morning. The skin had been removed from his face and his eyes had been ripped out. He was still wearing his red school shirt and brown scarf.
Meanwhile, El Choky and his men were still attempting to reach the two other buses they thought were carrying infiltrators. Near the Chilpancingo highway's turnoff toward a town called Santa Teresa, about nine miles from Iguala, they intercepted a bus. El Choky's men then allegedly began shooting. But the bus was not carrying students or infiltrators — instead, it was loaded with young soccer players from the Wasps, a third-division team who were returning from a match they had that night in Iguala against the Iguanas, the local team.
Three people were killed: a 15-year-old player, a woman in a taxi, and the bus driver.
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El Choky and his men then headed back toward Iguala. On the highway, in front of a new state courthouse, the Iguala police cornered one of the two buses carrying Ayotzinapa students that had originally headed south from the bus station; the second bus was also stopped not far away under a bridge.
The testimony in the case file does not specify if El Choky was involved in the attack on the passengers in those buses. But new testimony the surviving students delivered to their lawyer indicates that passengers in at least one of them were kidnapped. It is likely that the group of 13 people later killed in Pueblo Viejo were among them. This encounter has been mostly absent from the government's account of the attacks, raising questions about who was who, and if more than 43 victims were disappeared that night.
This separate group of 13 victims were taken to Pueblo Viejo, a neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Iguala, where El Gil, the supposed criminal chief of the Iguala "plaza," or hub, has property.
Rios Berber said that El Choky and five of his men killed three "Ayotzinapos" in Pueblo Viejo "for causing trouble." Rios Berber said he had picked up the gasoline that would be used to burn the bodies. Another man known as El Chaki, the right-hand man of El Choky, was ordered to dig a grave. Later, a man identified only as El Gaby allegedly poured fuel on the bodies and set them on fire.
The Iguala police, which had detained passengers of at least one of the buses in front of the courthouse, transported another group of 10 people to the entrance to Pueblo Viejo, according to testimony.
At 11:21 pm, the city's surveillance cameras recorded several Iguala patrol units driving on a highway north of town with civilians visible in the pickup beds. They were heading toward the same gas station where Rios Berber said he purchased the gasoline.
According to confessions, the police then delivered these victims to El Choky.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam (in white shirt) stands inside a Chilpancingo airport hangar where he told the parents of the missing about the incident at the Cocula dump. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
With the jugs now full, Rios Berber headed back up to Pueblo Viejo. Another cartel member said that he witnessed 10 detainees in the police pickups, who the alleged assassins confessed they believed were Ayotzinapa students.
"They brought out the 10 of them, and at that moment El Choky ordered us to kill them," Rios Berber said. "I shot two of them in the head with La Mente's gun. El Gaby killed another two, El Choky killed one, La Vero killed another, and we left four of them alive."
El Gaby allegedly poured diesel on the six bodies and set them on fire. And then, with El Chaki's help, they covered the pit with branches. The four who survived were beaten unconscious.
Those four, according to the confessions, were later killed, although it was not clear whether they were killed that night or in the following days.
The murder of this group of 13 people in Pueblo Viejo complicates the official version given by the attorney general's office, which maintains that 40 or so people were burned at the Cocula dump. It indicates that several non-students were also kidnapped and killed in the confusion of the attacks. But for now, it's impossible to know whether the other victims were innocent civilians, guerrillas, or gang members as some of the detainees allege.
Murillo Karam did not respond to requests for an interview.
His office's inquiry has so far resulted in more than 16 raids. There are more than 97 suspects in custody "for varying degrees of responsibility" in the case. Another alleged hitman linked to the students' disappearance was arrested outside of Cuernavaca last week.
A total of 221 arrest warrants have been issued, and 385 individuals have been questioned, including 36 members of the military, said Tomas Zeron, the attorney general's criminal investigations chief, in a press conference last week.
"All lines of investigation have been exhausted," Zeron said.
Only one missing student has been positively identified among the remains the government said it gathered from the Cocula incident. The Argentine forensics team, however, said it could not confirm that the bone fragment belonging to 19-year-old Alexander Mora was actually found at the Cocula dump.
As of Tuesday, studies on the other remains found in the Cocula dump are so far inconclusive. The case, officials say, remains open.