30 Nov 2014

What happened to Mexico’s disappeared students?

Latin America Correspondent

The deaths of 43 students, handed over to a Mexican cartel by the police, has led to dramatic protests across the country. And families of another 25,000 missing also want answers.

After 43 students disappeared two months ago at the hands of local police, things have started to feel a bit different in Mexico.

In the past weeks we have seen tens of thousands of people coming out all over the country to condemn the corruption of the authorities and to raise their voices against “El narco”. Mexicans have started to wake up from an epidemic of violence that was so brutal it left many people numb.

‘They messed with the wrong people’

Every day dozens of people are murdered or disappeared at the hands of the cartels in Mexico. Why is this case different? The students were trainee teachers from the radical Ayotzinapa University in the poor rural state of Guerrero. Formed after the Mexican revolution, schools like Ayotzinapa were created to provide free education to the kids of poor farmers in rural Mexico.

The idea was at the heart of the revolution. Many considered the school a cradle for revolutionaries, others a factory of troublemakers. When you enter the Ayotzinapa School you can soon see why. The walls are adorned with pictures of Che Guevara or Mexico’s own Sub Comandante Marcos.

Camila, a young student who came from northern Mexico to show her support for the students, gave me the most sensible answer on why this event is different. “I can just say to the government and the cartels that they messed with the wrong people. We are students and we are not afraid of anyone”

Students in Mexico

‘They took the wrong bus’

In Mexico I have learned to trust no one. You never really know who is who. Rumours abound about what happened with the students. The official version is that the students were captured by the local police and then passed on to the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who later killed them and burned their bodies. The parents don’t believe the government account – but in Mexico anything is possible.

Then there is another theory that I heard in Guerrero.

“The real problem is that they stole the wrong bus,” a contact told me. The bus they stopped and stole was loaded with a drugs and money from the Guerreros Unidos cartel.

“They really thought the students were from a rival cartel. That is why the police fired at the bus and then handed over the students to the cartel hitmen”.

It makes sense. The narcos are not stupid. They know that killing students is not good for business. My contact also believed that the students are alive and that the traffickers took them up to the mountains to give them a lesson and to make them work in the drug plantations.

From weed to poppies

Until recently more than 60 per cent of the money going into the coffers of Mexico's cartels came from marijuana, but since America started legalising pot the price of grass from the mountains of Mexico has dropped from 100 dollars a kilo to just 25.

But still the Mexicans can no longer compete with America's stronger weed.

In Guerrero, as with most of Mexico's cartels, they are switching from marijuana to poppy, as their attempts to grow coca have so far been unprofitable. That's for one main reason: the alkaloid needed from coca leaf never matched the alkaloid obtained from Andean countries. Mexican soil doesn't suit coca to cocaine production as it does in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

Poppy is different. It has been grown for years and flourishes well. Mexico is now the second largest producer of heroin in the world.

The latex - or "goma", as they call it - comes out of the poppy bulb like milk. The farmers collect it and then they sell it on to the local boss.

"We used to have several buyers here, but now we only sell to one organisation. There was a big fight between them - and then the Guerreros Unidos cartel won.

"For us it is not better because now they set the price - and we cannot complain."

Those who complain are simply killed or disappeared.

Once the buyers gather enough opium latex, they hand it over to a drug laboratory in the mountains of Guerrero. There it is turned into heroin. In the past few years the Mexican cartels have flooded the American market with a cheap and a more deadly type of heroin: brown dust.

I remember last year a DEA officer in Chicago telling me how the Mexican cartels sent free loads of the "brown dust" to their distributors in Chicago.

"They wanted people to try it and get hooked. After that they started charging."

Since, the number of heroin overdoses in America has increased by nearly 50 per cent.

And unfortunately it coincides with a new policy in the United States restricting opioid painkillers - which derive from opium.

Unable to find black-market pills, addicts are being drawn to heroin on the black market, and especially to the cheap brown dust from Mexico.

Guerreros Unidos is among those cashing in. The cartel is today accused of the brutal murder of 43 students, and is one of the more than 13 criminal organisations that operate in Mexico.
Missing notice

Notice asks families of missing persons to bring a photo at a reunion at the church.

Violence everywhere

Outside a restaurant in Iguala, I chatted to two federal police. Ten thousand of them had been drafted into the state in recent weeks. Most Guerreros Unidos had temporarily melted into the hills, but would surely be back soon.

Sitting astride a huge motorbike with a gun on his hip, we talked about his last few years in uniform. Every few months he is posted somewhere new as violence flares.

Do you remember the time we broke that guy’s ribs in Juarez? Federal police officer

His men are not known for pulling punches: “Do you remember the time we broke that guy’s ribs in Juarez?” he chuckled to his partner. “Sorry, sorry,” he added with a grin. “Do you remember when that guy fell and broke his ribs?”

Violence in Mexico is endemic. From the cartels to the police, force is the most common method.

Driving through the spectacular mountains of Guerrero, it is easy to forget that it is a land where money and violence have infiltrated everything.

As we were leaving I asked our driver how many police he thought had remained free of corruption. He threw his head back and laughed: “Not a single one but to be honest, the students were hardly white doves themselves.”