Some of the Mexican college students who went missing last week after clashing with police in the city of Iguala might have been executed by drug traffickers who enlisted the help of police, a government official said.

Inaki Blanco, attorney general for Mexico’s Guerrero state, told reporters on Sunday that two men arrested by police have confessed to murdering 17 of the 44 students who went missing on Sept. 27 after a group of students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college hijacked three buses during a protest and were shot at by police.

Blanco said the two men worked as hitmen and drug dealers for Guerreros Unidos, a cartel that dominates large swathes of Guerrero. He identified the men as Martin Alejandro Macedo and Marco Antonio Rios.

According to Blanco, Rios and Macedo told detectives that, with the help of municipal police officers, they took students who were hiding in the buses and transported them to a nearby hill covered in a dense tropical forest.

There, the captured students were told to dig a mass grave, according to Rios and Macedo. The students were shot, their bodies covered with foliage and then burned.

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Blanco said information provided by the cartel hitmen and a policeman who participated in the incident led investigators over the weekend to a mass grave which contained 27 bodies. The bodies were burned beyond recognition and will undergo DNA testing to determine if they belong to any of the missing students.

Blanco said initial evidence suggests police in Iguala arrested the students and then handed them over to drug traffickers.

“What we have determined so far is that the director of municipal security in Iguala ordered police to detain the students,” Blanco said. “Then a subject known as El Chucky, who is part of the criminal structure of Guerreros Unidos, ordered their execution.”

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The motives for the crime are still unclear. But one hypothesis put forward by analysts following the case is that the students may have been targeted because of their radical leftist politics. Students at Ayotzinapa often block roads and hijack trucks during protests in which they demand improved conditions at their school and rally against Mexico’s education policies.

“Acts of political repression have been endemic to Guerrero for the past 40 years,” Javier Osorio, a criminologist at the City University of New York who specializes in violence in Mexico, told Fusion.

Osorio said that farmers’ groups, indigenous groups and other dissident organizations have been targeted by municipal and state officials and are frequently subjected to arbitrary arrests and monitoring.

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The violence has occurred within a context of political instability in Guerrero, a southern state that has been home to three small guerrilla movements since the 1970s.

Two students from Ayotzinapa were killed in clashes with police in the city of Chilpancingo in 2011 after they blocked a highway that links Guerrero to Mexico City. At the time, the students were demanding that food subsidies be restored.

Osorio said the disappearance of the 44 students is one of the most dramatic acts of violence in that state’s recent history and the most violent act against students in Mexico since the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre.

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“It could serve as a warning to other groups, who oppose the status quo,” Osorio said.   “Almost any political organization is subject to acts of repression in Guerrero.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.