Mexico’s Truth Commission investigating the mass disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College may finally solve the 8 year old crime that inspired the Detective Emilia Cruz novel 43 MISSING.
As more details are uncovered, it appears that complicity in the students’ kidnapping and murders involves virtually all levels of Mexican military and civil authority, and was driven by drug money. Some are calling it a state-sponsored crime.
Ask me why I’m not surprised.
43 MISSING Giveaway
To bring awareness to the issue, I’m giving away 12 signed paperback copies of 43 MISSING on Goodreads. Find the giveaway here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/353598-43-missing-an-emilia-cruz-novel NOTE: the giveaway ends 6 October 2022.
Got a Kindle? Get 43 MISSING on Amazon here: https://geni.us/read-43-missing
So far, former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam is the highest official thought to be involved in the crime. He was arrested at his home in Mexico City in mid-August in connection with the Sept 2014 mass disappearance in the state of Guerrero, not far from Acapulco. Murillo served as attorney general from 2012 to 2015, under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Murillo was charged with torture, official misconduct and enabling forced disappearance. Along with him, charges were brought against 20 army soldiers and officers, five local officials, 33 local police officers and 11 state police, and 14 gang members. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2022/08/20/mexico-attorney-general-arrested-43-missing-students/7855468001/
As CNN reported, the arrest followed the Truth Commission’s report which labeled the students’ disappearance a “crime of the state.” The commission, which began in 2019 and is the latest in a string of investigations over the past 8 years, combed through “thousands of documents, text messages, phone records, testimonies and other forms of evidence.” https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/19/americas/jess-murillo-karam-mexico-missing-students-intl-latam/index.html
Since Murillo’s arrest, more news has leaked out about the crime, much of which is being aired (at least in the English-language press) for the first time. The reason that facts were obscured and reporting muffled for so long appears to be a conspiracy that included local drug gangs in Guerrero, which may well have ties to larger organized crime organizations, as well as the highest levels of Mexico’s federal government during the Peña Nieto administration.
The commission report described a “deep coverup, involving multiple levels of local and federal government offices. Officials concealed facts and covered up links between the authorities and the gangs . . . At all times the federal, state and municipal authorities were aware of the students’ movements. Their actions, omissions and participation allowed for the disappearance and execution of the students.”
One shocking revelation from the commission is that six of the 43 students were kept alive for as long as four days after the initial kidnapping by police in the city of Iguala, at which point they were killed and their bodies hidden on the orders of the local army commander.
Enough, I’m Tired of This
Murillo is the one who famously said Ye me canse, meaning “Enough, I’m tired of this” in early November 2014. In a short press conference, he announced that two suspects led authorities to trash bags believed to contain the incinerated remains of the 43 missing students, then abruptly cut off reporters’ questions with the off-hand remark.
Ye me canse blew up across social media, and became a rallying call for those sick of Mexico’s narco violence and disappearances. “Enough, I’m tired of crime/narco-state/violence/government apathy.”
Meanwhile everyone else was asking Donde estan. “Where are they?”
This illustration from THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA asks “Where are they?”
Murillo left office having created a narrative called the “Historic Truth.” This was an attempt to end the outcry with a story that the local police arrested the students then turned them over to the Guererros Unidos gang, which killed them and burned the bodies, tossing the remains into a dump.
Yet in September 2015, a group of independent experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a 500-page report refuting the theory as scientifically impossible. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/ayotzinapa-disappearances-pena-nieto-s-ultimate-test/
Origins of the Crime
The impetus for this sad tale of crime/coverup/collusion/conspiracy is still murky. Why did the police seize the students in the first place?
The inciting incident was when the students commandeered buses in Iguala to go to a commemorative rally in Mexico City. This isn’t necessarily a big issue in Mexico where transportation is hard to come by. The Ayotzinapa students supposedly did it every year for this event.
But this time, the students may have unwittingly commandeered a busload of drugs being transported by the Guerreros Unidos gang. And who was the gang’s partner in drug transport and distribution? Could it be the Army? Local officials? The local police? All of them?
Mexico News Daily reported on military indictments:
“Retired Gen. José Rodríguez Pérez, a then-colonel who commanded the 27th infantry batallion at the time of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College students’ disappearance in Iguala on September 26, 2014, is accused of ordering the murders of six students several days after they went missing.
“On August 19 – the day former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam was arrested in connection with the students’ disappearance – the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) said that a federal judge had issued a total of 83 arrest warrants against 20 military commanders and soldiers belonging to two battalions in Iguala, five administrative and judicial officials in Guerrero, 33 municipal police officers from Huitzuco, Iguala and Cocula, 11 state police and 14 members of the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos.” https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/arrest-warrants-ayotzinapa-general/
After more than three years digging into the current investigation, prosecutor Omar Gómez Trejo quit this week, “raising questions about the authorities’ willingness to take on politicians and the military,” according to the Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/27/mexico-ayotzinapa-missing-students-prosecutor/
Mexican Attorney General’s Office recently persuaded a judge to vacate 21 of Gómez Trejo’s 83 arrest warrants listed above. Sixteen of the 21 were for military officials.
Was the prosecutor sidelined? Is this a sign that Mexico won’t hold military officials accountable for atrocities?
Interestingly, this comes at a time when President López Obrador is relying on the military for a variety of tasks. He recently shifted put the civilian National Guard under military control. The military has taken on the civilian law enforcement role as well as chasing organized crime and running infrastructure projects.
Solving the crime in 43 MISSING
I wrote 43 MISSING, the 6th book in the Detective Emilia Cruz series, out of a huge sense of frustration with the “Historic Truth” narrative being spun at the time. There was some great counter reporting, however, notably Francisco Goldman’s content in The New Yorker. I read everything I could get my hands on and came to the conclusion that those buses were key to the mystery.
And so I wrote my version of the crime, putting Detective Emilia Cruz into an investigation not unlike the Truth Commission. In the fictional version, a new investigation brings together police officers from across Mexico to take a fresh look after previous investigation were either unequal to the task or actively prevented from investigating. Again, much like real life.
43 MISSING takes Emilia out of the familiar surroundings of Acapulco and into Mexico City. She and the team must cull through a massive amount of documentation, including video transcripts, and are given few resources for the overwhelming job.
Emilia finds those responsible for the mass disappearance . . . She finds the bodies of the dead, too.
The real Truth Commission has done the first part. Let’s hope they can do the second and without paying the price that Emilia pays in 43 MISSING.
Featured image courtesy Kindel Media via pexels
Don’t forget to enter the Goodreads giveaway before 6 October for a signed copy of 43 MISSING: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/353598-43-missing-an-emilia-cruz-novel
Got a Kindle? Get 43 MISSING on Amazon here: https://geni.us/read-43-missing
Find 43 MISSING and all the Detective Emilia Cruz books on Amazon.
Imagine taking a nap on your sofa one afternoon, only to be awakened when the floor collapses, pitching you into a sinkhole.
But it’s not a true sinkhole, it’s a tunnel built by drug cartel smugglers that runs under your house.
This happened last week to a man in Culiacán, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa which is famous for being El Chapo Guzman’s base of operations and the name of his infamous cartel. When the roof of the tunnel caved in, the man fell about eight feet to the bottom of the tunnel.
Luckily, he didn’t suffer major injuries, nor did he fall into a smuggling event in progress. Hard to know which would be worse; a bad tumble or surprising unfriendly cartel smugglers.
As for his property values, well, best not to go there.
The tunnel, which runs under at least eight houses before emptying into a canal, was abandoned a few years ago after discovery by law enforcement. Neighbors used it as a giant trash chute and the tunnel was left to decay. The governor of Sinaloa sent his minister of public works to investigate and promise that the tunnel would be filled in to avoid other homes from collapsing.
This is hardly the first narco-tunnel to make the news. In 2020, the longest narco-tunnel was discovered running between Tijuana, Baja California, and San Diego, California. With a total length of 4,309 feet and running an average of 70 feet below the surface, that tunnel boasted an extensive rail and cart system, forced air ventilation, high voltage electrical cables and panels, an elevator at the tunnel entrance and more.
El Chapo himself famously escaped a México state maximum security prison in 2015 through a mile-long hatch far underground. The shower floor in his cell became a trap door, allowing El Chapo to slip into a narrow tunnel outfitted with a motorcycle on rails to speed him to freedom.
When I wrote the tunnel discovery scene in 43 MISSING, from the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, my goal was to put you inside a similarly dark and terrifying place with Detective Emilia Cruz as she follows cartel killers into a narco-tunnel.
Similar to the tunnel dug for El Chapo, the fictional tunnel has electric lights and a transport system. And yes, an impatient cartel kingpin waits on the other end, confident that he’ll be spirited out of prison.
But besides falling into one, how are narco-tunnels discovered? No spoilers from the book, except this review from Nightstand Book Reviews:
What is uncovered in “43 Missing” is astounding . . . Amato is thoroughly convincing in her version of what might have happened . . . [It] stayed with me long after I finished the book.
If you’d like to leave your own review, use this link to 43 MISSING on Amazon.
It only took 7 years, but the real truth behind Mexico’s most notorious true crime is finally coming out.
43 MISSING TRUE CRIME
On 24 September 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college in the Mexican state of Guerrero—best known as home to the iconic resort city of Acapulco—headed to the central city of Iguala. Their intention was to commandeer buses for a ride to Mexico City to attend the annual protest rally commemorating the shooting deaths of university students by the military in 1968.
They were successful in commandeering a couple of buses, this being an unwelcome but not-uncommon practice. Police raided the buses as evening fell and grabbed most of the students. A few escaped with tales of being hunted during the night. In the chaos, four students and two others were killed. One body is found without eyes or facial skin, like in a cartel slaying.
The 43 students taken by the police were never seen again.
INITIAL INVESTIGATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
Guerrero state authorities promptly arrested 22 Iguala municipal police officers in connection with the attacks, allegedly carried out in coordination with the violent Guerreros Unidos cartel. A few days later, the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca made a lame radio statement, basically claiming to know nothing. A week later, he announced a 30-day leave of absence and disappeared with his wife.
Mass graves raised forlorn hopes of finding the remains of the missing. But those were not the right bodies.
A month later, the then-Attorney General of Mexico announced the arrest of the head of Guerreros Unidos. Next, the Attorney General claimed that the missing students were killed by cartel executioners and incinerated in a remote rubbish dump. https://www.vice.com/en/article/bja4xa/ayotzinapa-a-timeline-of-the-mass-disappearance-that-has-shaken-mexico
This sequence of events was termed “the historical truth,” almost certainly to create a sense of closure and enable the government to stop searching for the students’ remains. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/07/americas/identified-remains-missing-mexico-students/index.html
Yet after a goofy and discredited claim that the police were acting for the mayor’s wife who didn’t want a speech interrupted, the motive behind the tragedy remained murky.
43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6 was inspired by the tragedy.
I wanted motive and closure, if only in fiction.
Related: The Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series
As real life evidence continued to be sifted, obfuscated, and mangled, I had much to draw on, including an independent investigation by The Organization of American States that folded after a few short weeks, accusing the federal government of obstruction.
The website Forensic Architecture provided an amazing mockup of events, built using witness statements, telephone logs, 3-D modeling, and ground-breaking research by journalist and author John Gibler. https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-enforced-disappearance-of-the-ayotzinapa-students.
Groping toward closure, I placed the first female police detective in Acapulco in a last-ditch investigation of a look-alike crime by impartial law enforcement from around Mexico.
Related: 43 MISSING on Amazon
The 2017 novel uses elements of the true crime including buses commandeered by the students, a red herring from the mayor’s office, encounters at highway toll booths, and the burned body/dump disposal theory. The crime had a clear motive.
But could Emilia find the bodies?
Over the past 7 years, members of the Guerreros Unidos, the Iguala Municipal police and the Mexican Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion have been arrested.
But to muddy the investigative waters, 50+ suspects were released because they were reportedly arbitrarily detained and tortured by federal agents now charged with human rights violations. The irony is mind-blowing. https://www.wola.org/analysis/mexico-arrest-warrants-ayotzinapa/
Tomás Zerón, former head of the now-defunct Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC), fled to Israel. Mexico is negotiating to have him extradited. He reportedly approved torture methods and offered bribes to criminals to support the “historical truth” narrative of the Peña Nieto government. https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/former-ayotzinapa-suspect-says-feds-offered-4mn/
Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda, fled Iguala shortly after the tragedy, but were arrested in Mexico City less than 2 months later. Charges against them have gone through several permutations but as of October 2021 they remain in jail awaiting trial. https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/former-ayotzinapa-suspect-says-feds-offered-4mn/
The chief of police of Iguala, Felipe Flores Velázquez, was arrested in 2016 after hiding in plain sight for two years. Head of the Guerreros Unidos, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, was arrested and fingered both the mayor and Flores. https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/iguala-chief-arrested-two-years-after-fleeing/
Humberto Velázquez Delgado (alias “El Guacho”), a retired Guerrero State Police commander and key suspect, was murdered by unknown cartel killers in Iguala in June 2021 after several attempts. His two sons and brother were listed as being on active duty—3 of 165 Iguala cops—that night. None were ever investigated, however, possibly because his brother, Ulises, was deputy director of the Iguala Municipal Police under former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor Esteban Albarran (the same party as former President Peña Nieto). http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2021/06/gunmen-kill-el-guacho-ex-police.html
NEW TEXT EVIDENCE SHOWS MOTIVE
Newly released text messages verify suspicions that the buses the students commandeered were being used by Guerreros Unidos to transport drugs across the US-Mexico border.
FYI, the state of Guerrero is a well-known transport hub for illegal drugs heading north.
Basically, when they took those buses, the students from Ayotzinapa unwittingly seized a load of heroin.
Iguala’s government officials, law enforcement, and local military, whose pockets were lined with $$ from drug sales in the US, couldn’t let the buses go.
Related: Hard Truths about the Drug War from a Retired Intel Officer
COP and CARTEL
Gildardo López Astudillo, aka El Gil, the local leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel at that time, and Francisco Salgado Valladares, deputy chief of the municipal police, working for Felipe Flores Velázquez, were in touch through the night of 24 September 2014.
Salgado texted López to say that his cops had arrested two groups of students for having taken the buses. Exchanges continued during the night to coordinate the transfer of groups of students, using slang to reference handover locations and burying bodies.
Another text message to the gang leader from the deputy police chief said that “all the packages have been delivered,” a probable reference to packages of heroin being sent north to the US-Mexico border.
“Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast that this strongly implies that López was calling the shots all along, ordering Salgado to arrest the students lest they accidentally hijack his shipment of dope.” https://www.thedailybeast.com/we-finally-know-how-43-ayotzinapa-students-on-a-bus-vanished-into-thin-air?ref=home
Salgado Valladares went on the run after September 2015 and was captured in May 2015 in Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos. His monthly income from the Guerreros Unidos is said to have been 600,000 pesos, or about US $40,000. https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/key-iguala-suspect-captured-in-morelos/
Despite gruesome evidence on his cellphone, López Astudillo was released in 2019 along with dozens of other suspects because of the aforementioned human rights issues. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/main-suspect-case-mexico-s-missing-43-students-absolved-attorneys-n1049631
He was listed as among the dead in a confrontation between the military and armed civilians in the community of Tepochica, outside Iguala, http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2019/10/gildardo-lopez-astudillo-aka-el-gil.html but more likely remains at large. https://mexicodailypost.com/2021/10/12/what-really-happened-to-the-43-missing-students-from-ayotzinapa/
NOW FOR SOME LINEAR THINKING
If the US wasn’t so hungry for heroin and other illicit drugs, sales would not be so incredibly lucrative.
If sales of heroin and illicit drugs weren’t so lucrative, civil authority in Mexico wouldn’t be aiding and abetting drug smugglers.
If civil authority in Mexico wasn’t aiding and abetting drug smugglers, those 43 students would still be alive.