It only took 7 years, but the real truth behind Mexico’s most notorious true crime is finally coming out.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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?

43 MIssing


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.

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.

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.

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.

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).


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


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.”

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.

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.

He was listed as among the dead in a confrontation between the military and armed civilians in the community of Tepochica, outside Iguala, but more likely remains at large.


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.


Mexico, Women, Femicide, Fiction

Mexico, Women, Femicide, Fiction

“Women and glass are always in danger.” – Mexican proverb

Imagine if Portland, Maine, or Greenville, South Carolina went missing, simply ebbing away like shadows in sunlight over the course of 14 years.

The official count of people missing in Mexico since 2006 is about 62,000, just under the population size of each of those cities.

The real number of missing in Mexico is almost certainly double the official number. Real accounting is elusive and a political hot potato for Mexico City. More than 30,000 went missing in 2019 alone. More than 800 mass graves or “burial pits” have been found with thousands of unidentified bodies.

Missing Women

According to official statistics, women account for 25% of the total number of missing in Mexico. They are the nameless bodies discovered in mass graves in the state of Guerrero. They are the hundreds of women lost in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Gone, as if they’d been plucked off the face of the earth by aliens.

They are the Lost Ones of my Detective Emilia Cruz police series. Prompted by her own losses, Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, hunts for missing women. She keeps records in a binder she calls “Las Perdidas.

Can fiction help raise awareness? I think so. THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA, a Detective Emilia Cruz novella won the 2019 Silver Falchion award for Short Story/Collection, the first bilingual work to do so. So many more people are now aware of what is happening because of this award.

The Artist

Related post: If you went missing, who would know?

Now let’s count femicides

The LA Times reported “In 2019, Mexico recorded 35,558 homicides, of which 3,825 were female victims. Officials classified 1,006 of those killings as femicides. Officials recently issued a statement signaling that femicides were up 137.5% since 2015.”

Human Rights Watch, however, claims that “Many state and local authorities are unable or unwilling to recognize when gender played a factor in a murder, leading many femicides to be reported under the more widely recognized definition of homicide, which doesn’t identify gender as a motivating factor.”

In short, the number of women murdered because of gender is probably higher than 20% of all women killed.

mexico, women, femicide

Shoes have become the symbol of the missing in Mexico. Picture courtesy AFP/Getty Images as published by

Aren’t there laws against that sort of thing?

In 2012, Mexico added femicide to its penal code. In determining if the crime is femicide or murder, the law takes into account:

  • Emotional or close relationship between the victim and the suspect
  • Whether the victim was ever subject to threats, harassment or sexual violence
  • Did the victim suffer bodily harm or mutilation before or after being killed
  • If the victim’s body was put on display

Public servants found to delay or obstruct investigations into the killings are subject to three to eight years in prison.

See the full article:

If found guilty of femicide, a killer could face up to 65 years in prison, after Mexico’s lower house of congress voted to up the penalty from 45 years.

This is better than Nicaragua. When I lived there the penalty for femicide was as little as $15.00. I wrote about it here: The Mary/Mujer Paradox

Even 45 years is a big prison sentence. Why isn’t it working?

Illustration from The Artist

This illustration of shoes of the missing from THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA asks “Where are they?”

Catch me if you can

Law enforcement in Mexico has a dismal record of catching criminals and putting them behind bars. Corruption is the major factor. There is so much drug money swimming through the system to pay people to look the other way–and the public is so afraid to assist corrupt cops–that few crimes are ever solved.

Corruption within law enforcement has led to entire police forces being disbanded and rebuilt. In fact, according to, “An average of 1,688 corruption cases were registered for every 1,000 active-duty police officers in Mexico in 2017, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). That translates to 1.6 acts of corruption for every police officer.”

According to the UK’s Guardian news outlet, 10% of crimes against women are solved.

I think this is an optimistic figure, based on my experience as a CIA intelligence officer helping to fight the drug war. There are law enforcement officers in Mexico trying to “serve and protect” who were the inspiration for Detective Emilia Cruz, but pressure to “take and forget” is omnipresent.

The president, Andreas Lopez Obrador, hardly put an urgent spin on the matter in February when he complained that the femicide issue was distracting from his plans to raffle off the presidential airplane. P.S. In case you wanted to get in on that, the plane remains for sale.

She did not die in vain

The murder of Ingrid Escamilla in February was an unforgettable femicide that surely will become a rallying cry. After an argument, boyfriend Erick Francisco Robledo stabbed her to death, then attempted to cover up his crime by skinning her, removing her organs, and attempting to dispose of various body parts. But overcome with remorse, he confessed to his ex-wife.

Ingrid’s death was publicized by a tabloid newspaper, complete with pictures of her defiled body, with the headline “It was Cupid’s fault.”

I believe that Ingrid Escamilla did not die in vain. Her murder and several others around the same time have helped light a fire that led to demonstrations in February and a “strike” on 9 March to protest violence and the apathy that enables it.

Detective Emilia Cruz will be there in spirit.

To support the strike and encourage awareness, THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA will be free for Kindle 9-13 March:

mexico, women, femicide

You may also like

mexico, women, femicide


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


mexico, women, femicide


The real story behind 43 MISSING

43 MISSING, the latest Detective Emilia Cruz novel, is fiction but is based on a true, unsolved crime.

A big, terrible, words-fail-me unsolved crime.

43 Missing

In September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School disappeared while in Iguala, Guerrero attempting to commandeer buses to take them to a rally in Mexico City. Three years and dozens of arrests later, the details around the crime are still sketchy and the families of the missing still do not have closure.

Neither truth nor bodies have been found.

I was just beginning the Detective Emilia Cruz series in 2014 when the 43 students disappeared. As time went on and the aftermath became spotted with half-truths and confusion, I wondered if I should write about it. Fiction has been my way of bringing awareness to the scores of Mexicans missing amid the country’s drug violence, but this crime and the possible secrets behind it, were almost unthinkable.

If Detective Emilia Cruz took on this investigation, I had to bring honesty and compassion to the project while creating both a believable motive and a firm resolution.


As I researched the book that would become 43 MISSING, Francisco Goldman’s reporting in The New Yorker provided crucial details. I met him in October 2017 and thanked him for the superb reporting. He in turn praised the work of John Gibler, whom Goldman quoted in one of his articles:

“Scores of uniformed municipal police and a handful of masked men dressed in black shot and killed six people, wounded more than twenty, and rounded up and detained forty-three students in a series of attacks carried out at multiple points and lasting more than three hours,” Gibler wrote to me in an e-mail. “At no point did state police, federal police, or the army intercede. The forty-three students taken into police custody are now ‘disappeared.’ ”

The motive for the assault on the students in the city of Iguala, not far from Acapulco, remains a mystery. One hypothesis reported by and other outlets which sparked my interest is that “the police were not after the students, but their bus . . . carrying shipment of drugs and/or money, which corrupt officers were trying to recover.”

The novel 43 MISSING tackles many of the real anomalies related to the case, including a discredited motive, how the 43 bodies were disposed of, and multiple identical confessions.


The case quickly became a political hot potato and still is. In 2016, the Organization of American States was called in as a neutral party but its investigation withered. James Cavallaro, Stanford law professor and human rights expert who led the effort, had this to say in an interview with Americas Quarterly magazine:

Americas Quarterly: Mexico’s attorney general has called this “the most comprehensive criminal investigation in the history of law enforcement in Mexico.” What does that say about law enforcement in Mexico?

James Cavallaro: Unfortunately, given the results of the investigation, it’s quite a damning statement. It’s a damning statement because we don’t know what happened to the 43 students, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know who was responsible, we don’t know how they died. None of the most important questions have been answered. And if that’s what the most comprehensive investigation in the recent history of Mexico can produce, any rational observer should be extremely concerned about the state of criminal justice in Mexico.

As I write this at the end of 2017, most pundits say the families will never know what happened. While the mystery of the 43 missing is solved in fiction, I pray that it will some day be solved for real.

Click here to read Chapter 1 of 43 MISSING.

You may also like

43 missing


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


43 missing

What is Happening to Priests in Mexico?

What is Happening to Priests in Mexico?


Priests in Mexico appear to be wearing targets as well as their vestments.

Father Richard was the first

My pastor in Mexico City was an Oblate missionary, Father Ricard Junius, who was murdered in 2007. I wrote about his death in this blog post and his unsolved murder was the impetus for the Detective Emilia Cruz shot story, “The Angler,” which is part of the #free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.

Not to rehash Father Richard’s passing again, but the events surrounding his death were very suspicious and the reporting of it contradictory. Some called it death by misadventure–he was tied up and porn magazines found in his room in the rectory–but as far as I know, his death was murder.

The Daily Beast reported in October 2016 on the killings of three priests. I was struck by a certain sentence in the report that applies to Father Richard as well: “As happens often in Mexico, local authorities sowed confusion about the circumstances of the murder.” 80 percent of crimes against the clergy are never solved, according to

Ten Years Later

Earlier this month, Father Luis Lopez Villa, aged 71, was killed in his church in the municipality of Reyes La Paz on the outskirts of Mexico City. Like Father Richard, he was tied up in his own room in the rectory. He was stabbed to death.

Last year was the most deadly year on record for the Catholic Church in Mexico, probably since the Cristero War of the 1920’s. In fact, in 2016, Mexico was cited as the most dangerous country in the world for the clergy for the 8th time in a row!

Related: The Mexican martyr who inspired a mystery

Mexico’s Centro Catolico Multimedia documented crimes against clergy over the past 4 years:

  • 520 robberies
  • 17 murders
  • 25 survived attacks
  • 2 disappearances
  • 2 kidnappings

Sympton of Rising Crime or Something Else?

I’m not sure what percentage of the Mexican population is Catholic clergy, but it stands to reason that as violent crime rises in Mexico, it increasingtly affects all segments of the population. But priests are also in a uniquely tight spot, as I saw in the case of Father Richard.

Priests hold visible and respected positions in their communities. They may espouse unpopular stances to defend their parishoners and promote human rights. In Father Richard’s case, he spoke out against underage drinking at a specific neighborhood bar right before he was murdered and parisoners widely believed the timing was not a coincidence.

There’s another troubling issue: narco alms, or narcolimosnas. This is basically cartel drug money funneled to build churches, schools, clinics and other assets for Mexican communities. These projects allow drug kingpins to build support where civil infrastructure is shaky. Remember, the poor never turned Robin Hood over to the Sheriff of Nottingham.

If priests don’t cooperate or speak out against drug-related murders or help victims’ famiies find justice, retribution can be fierce and deadly.

It’s a no-win situation for Mexican priests. Either take the community asset built with the blood of cartel victims, or refuse and be marked for death.

Detective Emilia Cruz Investigates

In the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, Padre Ricardo (a tribute to Father Richard Junius) is Emilia’s sounding board. In PACIFIC REAPER, she takes refuge in the church after a series of events destroy her entire personal history.

But if anything should ever happen to him, like the robbery and murder of the priest in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, another true event taken from my experiences in Mexico City, Emilia will be on hand to investigate.

You may also like

priests in Mexico


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


priests in Mexico

Lost in Mexico has nothing to do with translation

Lost in Mexico has nothing to do with translation

In CLIFF DIVER, the first full-length book in my new mystery series, Acapulco police detective Emilia Cruz keeps a log of women who have gone missing. For her they are las perdidas, the lost ones, and sometimes it seems as if she’s the only who still cares.

I’d like to say that I made this up, that hey–the book is fiction, that there are no women missing in Mexico or anywhere else. But we’ve seen the news from Mexico over the past few years and know that the battles for money and power between rival drug cartels and between cartel interests and the rule of law have taken a heavy toll.

The conflict bleeds south through Central America and beyond; las perdidas aren’t confined to Mexico. Where I live in Central America, notices like the one above often appear in the newspapers. DISAPPEARED the headline cries. The ads are placed by the families and the size of the ad is usually an indicator of the family’s wealth. (Read my post about violence against women in Nicaragua here.)

How Many Are Missing

In Mexico, leaked government documents from late 2012 put the overall number of missing adults and children as 25,000 over the past five years. In the city of Cuidad Juárez alone, the number of “disappeared” women is hard to calculate. Most know a family with a missing female member. This riveting account from the New Statesman of what is happening to women there is well worth a read.

The Cost of Closure

Trying to find out what happened to your disappeared wife, daughter or mother in Mexico can be fruitless and expensive, according to this report from the Inter Press News Service. One source puts the cost at $23,000. FYI, the average annual salary in Mexico is just over $11,000, according to the OECD.

The dead are easier to count

According to The National Citizen Observatory on Femicides (OCNF) from January 2010 to June 2011, 1,235 women were killed in Mexico. Between 2005 and 2011, in the state of Mexico, adjacent to the capital city and notorious for violence against women, the OCNF recorded 922 victims of femicide. In the state of Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juárez, in 2010 alone there were 600 cases of femicide.

missing women in Mexico

photo courtesy of BBC News

So we’ll continue to see advertisements for the disappeared. Some places will be creative in the search for loved ones and justice, such as Chihuahua’s campaign to place notices for missing persons on tortilla wrappers the way faces and information are carried on milk cartons in the United States.  This photo accompanied this story by BBC News late last year.

I wish I’d made up Acapulco police detective Emilia Cruz’s las perdidas. I really do. But maybe fiction can generate some attention to this wrenching problem. Mexico is a country rich in resources, culture, and tradition. No one should be “lost” there.

You may also like

missing women in Mexico


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Pin It on Pinterest