Major step in missing students case: Mexico detains fugitive mayor and wife

Former Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife, suspected of being masterminds in the disappearance of 43 college students, were taken into federal custody this morning. The unsolved case has attracted global attention.

Alejandrino Gonzalez/AP
The mayor of the city of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca (r.) and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa meet with state government officials in Chilpancingo, Mexico, May 8, 2014.

The Mexican government’s capture of the former mayor of Iguala and his wife – suspected of being the masterminds behind the late September kidnapping of 43 college students – is being seen as a crucial step in showing citizens and the international community that Mexico is taking this case seriously.

Former Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were taken into federal custody in an early morning operation. No shots were fired. They were found at a home they were renting in the working-class Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa, El Universal reports. 

The federal police spokesman, José Ramón Salinas, confirmed their capture on Twitter.

"The detention of the ex mayor of Iguala and his wife is a crucial advance in the search for our young [students]," recently appointed Guerrero Mayor Rogelio Ortega Martínez wrote on Twitter.

The government is under increasing pressure to find the students: Sometimes-violent protests have spread across Mexico and to cities around the world, and a week-long march from Iguala to Mexico City is under way. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the disappearances and called on the government to find the students and protect their families. Some have questioned whether the international body should take over the investigation.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized for his delayed response and his focus on trumpeting Mexico’s positive economic message at the expense of tackling issues of violence and crime. The case has exposed the nexus of organized crime, local officials, and the police.

“If a government’s response is ‘I’ll look away and hope this resolves itself,’ that doesn’t give much confidence,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas in Washington, D.C., told The Christian Science Monitor last week. The government has let this case “spin out of control and has not gotten on top of it in an effective way,” Mr. Farnsworth says.

On Sept. 26, a group of students from a radical, rural teachers college, the Raul Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, commandeered several buses to take them home from Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero. Mr. Abarca and Ms. Pineda apparently believed the students were headed to disrupt a public presentation they’d organized, and sent in the police to stop them.

Six people, including three students, were killed when the police shot at the students, and witnesses saw the others taken into custody. The students haven’t been seen since, and Abarca and Pineda went missing soon after the reported abduction.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said late last month that Pineda was “the main operator of criminal activities” in Iguala, and that her family had ties to local organized crime group the Guerreros Unidos.

Forensic teams have uncovered multiple clandestine graves and the government has put nearly 60 people in custody related to the disappearance. There is still no trace of the students, who many presume dead, despite public proclamations of hope from the families of the disappeared. 

Iguala's ex-police chief, Felipe Flores Velázquez, who is also implicated in the mass abduction, is still a fugitive. 

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