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Drug gang confesses to killing 43 students: Is this 'Mexico's Moment'? (+video)

Drug gang members in police custody led investigators to the San Juan River in Guerrero state, where they say they burned and dumped the bodies of 43 students missing since September. Mexico's attorney general stopped short of saying the case was resolved. 

Mexico announced it believes charred remains found in a river and on its banks in Guerrero state belong to 43 students from a teachers college, missing for more than a month. The attorney general said drug gang members in custody described taking the students from local police officers in September and burning their bodies for nearly 15 hours.

The remains are so badly pulverized it will be difficult for the state to say definitively whether or not they belong to the students, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said Friday. Mexico has enlisted a specialized lab in Austria for help.

"I know the huge pain this information gives the families, a pain that we all share in solidarity," Mr. Murillo Karam said.

It's a tragic development in a case that has struck a national nerve in Mexico. The mass kidnapping wasn't the biggest or the bloodiest crime in Mexico's recent history, but it exposed alleged connections between local officials, police, and organized crime. Many hope it can be a turning point for Mexico, which has struggled to address the corruption and impunity that grip the nation, even as President Enrique Peña Nieto tries to highlight its economic promise. 

Since he took office, the international conversation about Mexico has changed markedly. From the start, Mr. Peña Nieto rallied politicians from rival parties to join a “Pact for Mexico,” enabling passage of landmark reforms including energy, education, and telecommunications. Homicides have fallen by 29 percent since 2012 according to government statistics, and after six years of headlines focused on beheadings and mass graves, suddenly the international media were heralding “Mexico’s Moment” for development and economic growth.

But the students’ abduction in Iguala, about 120 miles south of Mexico City, after a run-in with local police, has drawn back the curtain once again, exposing the continuing grip of corruption and insecurity. Politicians have started talking about the need for a renewed “Pact for Mexico” that focuses on security, and protests have taken place nationally over the past month. The demonstrations are bigger, broader-based, and more enduring than Mexico has seen in recent years, says Lorenzo Meyer, a political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

There’s almost a sense of hope that this could lead to a real shift, says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who chairs the government department at the University of Texas Brownsville and focuses on organized crime. “Could it actually be that this is Mexico’s moment?”

'The hope of Latin America'

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters marched down Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard, banging empty plastic jugs, counting from 1 to 43 in unison, and chanting calls and responses, including one led by students asking, “why do you assault us? We’re the hope of Latin America.”

What is emerging, argues John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is an “explosive synthesis” of three previous social movements that were each "important but were left only partially resolved and still bubbling under the surface.” Victims of the drug war, a student movement that emerged during the 2012 presidential election, and opponents of Peña Nieto’s energy and education reforms have together rallied behind the mass disappearance. It is a “true bottom-up affair,” he says, that could “lead to long term social and political change.”

The missing students were stopped by police on the night of Sept. 26, and allegedly handed off to the criminal group, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of Iguala and his wife – who the attorney general says ordered the abduction – were detained by federal officers Tuesday after weeks as fugitives. After Murillo Karam announced the latest development in the case Friday, the families of the students say they refuse to believe the bodies belong to their kids until there is scientific proof.

"As long as there are no results, our sons are alive," Felipe de la Cruz, the father of one of the disappeared, told the Associated Press. "Today they're trying to close the case this way ... a blatant way to further our torture by the federal government." 

Peña Nieto has been criticized for his slow response to the case, and his decision to go to Beijing next week for the Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation meeting in the midst of a national crisis. Politicians are bickering over who should take the fall for the thriving links between crime and government that the kidnapping exposes: The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), to which the local mayor and governor belonged. Given that public security in Guerrero has been under federal control for years, says Mr. Ackerman, “it’s impossible for the federal government to avoid being called to account."

But some politicians are pressing for their peers to move beyond finger-pointing, with one congressman from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), José González Morfín, writing in El Universal this week that politicians and society need to band together to take action

There’s no room for haggling. If we really want to live in peace and liberty, if we want to erase injustice, and if we want to progress toward a more secure reality, its time to call everyone out of the trenches to fight for justice.

Mexico 'can handle a lot'

Back at the protest on Reforma Wednesday, a woman carries a sign that simply reads, “Because I have children.”

“I’ve tried to tell my kids in language they will understand that we’re living in a country where the government can be repressive,” says Marie Elena Ibarra, a mother of three. “You have to be careful. The authorities who are supposed to protect you – they can hurt you.”

Nearby, three young men hover over poster board, writing out their slogans for the night. Classes across the country have been suspended for between 24 and 72 hours this week, due to protests. 

Emilio Guerrero, who studies science at the University of the City, says he's protesting for justice, and because he often feels targeted as a student: “I don’t want to be afraid to go out; to study. But oftentimes I am.” 

Mr. Meyer says he sees "so much energy" coming out of the protests. But he is not optimistic. “I fear that there isn’t the structure or the institutions needed to fix these problems," he says. "There’s no clear path to seek change in the political class.”

Others share his skepticism. As demonstrators marched toward the city center on Wednesday, Roberto Morales, a trash collector from the state of Mexico, sat on a bench munching potato chips. He and his colleagues talk about the missing students frequently – he has four children around the same age, so it's been on his mind ­– but the politicians are corrupt and they stick together, he says. “My commentary won’t change anything.”

No matter one's stance on the probability of change, if Mexico returns to business as usual, it would be "disastrous," says Ackerman, the law professor. It would mean the implicit approval "of the most extreme form of impunity, which would send a message that absolutely anything goes." 

“Mexican society has proven it can handle a lot; it’s resilient,” says Ms. Correa-Cabrera. “It’s not just the recent violence, but decades of one-party rule. Several of the events that took place over the past eight years, I would have thought that that was enough,” she says.

“But, when is enough enough?”

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