World·In Depth

Mexico's missing students: Thousands mark anniversary of mysterious disappearances

It has been one year since 43 students from a Mexican teachers' college disappeared. Despite a national investigation, high profile arrests and mass protests, it’s still unclear what happened to them.

Flawed investigation, high-profile arrests and mass protests have characterized still-unsolved case

People hold signs during a march to mark the first anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students from Mexico's Ayotzinapa teachers' college. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Thousands of people are marking the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students with a march through Mexico City, in an atmosphere of defiant hope.

Activists said Saturday afternoon the movement might bring justice for Mexico's disappeared, though only two of the students' remains have been identified.

While the march was smaller than past demonstrations, the case has helped publicize the thousands who have gone missing since Mexico's drug war started in 2006.

Peace and anti-crime activist Maria Guadalupe Vicencio, 45, wore a skirt made of a Mexican flag splattered with fake blood. The names of three disappeared activists from her violence-plagued home state of Tamauilpas were written across her shirt.

Vicencio said the students' movement "sets an example for all Mexicans to wake up, and not be silent."

Many questions remain about the case, which has been dubbed the "Missing 43." Basic information about what happened on Sept. 26, 2014, is still unclear and an initial investigation seems to have gone badly awry.

The case has become a symbol of Mexico's drug woes and it has also led to numerous protests and riots over the past year.

A child stands underneath a banner showing the photographs of the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college, at the college in Tixtla in Mexico. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Determining what happened

The students, from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College, were travelling to Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, to protest what they considered discriminatory hiring and funding practices. The protest would potentially have disrupted a conference hosted by the mayor's wife.

On their way to Iguala, the students were apprehended by police. It's unclear whether there was a shootout.

After being apprehended by the local police, the students were handed over to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, which means "United Warriors." Authorities have said Mayor Jose Luis Abarca's wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, has close ties to the cartel.

One theory says the town's mayor and his wife masterminded the abduction in order to prevent the students from disrupting her conference. Another theory says the students unwittingly got in the way of a drug deal.

First investigation

Soon after the disappearance, the Mexican government set up an investigation.

In his findings, Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, who led the case, said municipal police handed the students over to the Guerreros Unidos, which later killed them, burned their corpses at a dump and disposed of the ashes with plastic bags, which they threw into a river in a nearby state.

Karam said they found plastic bags containing the students' remains and could confirm the identity of two of the missing students.

High-profile arrests

Abarca denied any involvement in the disappearance. Amid calls for his resignation, he took a 30-day leave of absence from his mayoral duties, but he eventually fled with his wife and children.

Federal police found the mayor and his wife a month later, hiding in Mexico City. Authorities said the town was run by the cartel, with Abarca receiving payments of $150,000 to $220,000 every few weeks.

Two heads of local police, Chief Felipe Flores and Deputy Chief Francisco Salgado Valladares, also fled after the disappearances. Valladares was arrested in May 2015, while Flores remains on the lam.

A demonstrator takes part in a march to mark the 10-month anniversary of the Ayotzinapa students' disappearance in Mexico City on July 26, 2015. (Reuters)

Independent report

In February 2015, amid widespread criticism and a particularly public gaffe, Karam was replaced as attorney general by Arely Gomez Gonzalez.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights carried out an independent investigation into the disappearance, which was released this month. The organization also hired an Argentine forensic investigation team to help.

Some of the most significant findings were:

  • The fire: The temperature of an open-air fire would not be able to reach levels that would turn 43 bodies to ash. The team found proof of fires at the site, as well as human remains and a tooth belonging to a set of dentures. But none of the remains belonged to the students and none of the students wore dentures. The report also noted that the Guerreros Unidos did not have a history of carrying out such a cremation and did not have enough fuel available nearby to carry it out anyway.

  • The genetic profiles: The team said the investigation made mistakes in 20 genetic profiles collected from students' family members, making them unusable for DNA matches.

  • The dump site: The prosecutor's office did not guard the dump, a key crime site, for weeks, allowing anyone to plant or manipulate evidence.
Fugitive former mayor Jose Luis Abarca, shown on Oct. 29, 2013, was arrested along with his wife about a month after the disappearance of the students. (Stringer/Reuters)

Political ramifications

The "Missing 43" case has taken a devastating toll on the students' families. But observers say it also stands as a symbol of a much larger problem, which is the close ties among the government, police and drug cartels.

The issue has proven one of the biggest challenges to President Enrique Pena Nieto. This month, he said he would create a new special prosecutor for all of the country's missing people.

More than 25,000 people have disappeared in the country since 2007. 

Gomez said that a portion of the government's initial investigation would be reviewed with assistance from top international experts.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters