AYOTZINAPA, Mexico - Quickly fading hopes of finding any survivors among the 43 missing students from a rural teachers college in southern Mexico were further snuffed on Thursday when authorities announced the discovery of another mass grave nearby.
This is the second mass grave site that authorities think is linked to the missing students, who disappeared after they were attacked by local police on Sept. 26. Six graves containing a total of 28 bodies were unearthed on Saturday.
The second site — four muddy graves hidden amid the rugged landscape of Guerrero state — were found yesterday after investigators were tipped off by jailhouse confessions by four men arrested for their alleged involvement in the students' disappearance, according to Attorney General's Office.
The bodies found in both sites were badly burnt. DNA tests to confirm their identities could take anywhere from two weeks to two months, authorities said. But student leaders say they don't trust the government and want independent confirmation.
"We don’t trust any organization or institution of the state, since it is the same state that attacked us on Sept. 26," student leader Angel Nery, of the Ayotzinapa Teachers' College, told Fusion under the condition that we blur his face and not publish his full name for fear of retaliation. "How do they expect us to trust them when it was them that were directly responsible for the killing of our comrades?"
A clandestine grave is seen in Iguala, Mexico, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. (AP Photo)
Nery was there on the night of Sept. 26, when a group of college students called "Normalistas," known for their radical leftist politics, hijacked two buses in the city of Iguala during a protest. They were on their way back to campus when local police caught up with them, and started shooting. Four students died in the initial attack; three more people died in two subsequent shootings later that night. Witnesses said some of the missing 43 students were hauled away in police cars. A few, including Nery, managed to escape.
Investigators have since said they believe the local cops then handed over the students to a drug gang, the Guerreros Unidos. Two alleged members of the gang later confessed to killing 17 of the students, and gave federal authorities information that lead to the discovery of the first mass grave last weekend.
Twenty-two police officers in Iguala have been arrested, and 34 people in total. Other suspects, including the mayor, his wife, and the local police chief, are all on the run. The incident has pulled back the curtain on the institutional corruption and systemic violence that the drug war has had on places like Guerrero, where the discovery of mass graves is not entirely uncommon.
"Here in Guerrero, clandestine graves appear regularly, because here there has been a narco-government in this state," Nery said. "Since (former Mexican President Felipe Calderon) began his war against drug trafficking, things have gotten worse in Guerrero. There have been hundreds of massacres."
The students of Ayotzinapa are putting their trust in the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, an NGO that specializes in identifying bodies of disappeared people. The group has a long history of involvement in human rights cases in Latin America. Nine members of the team are now working with Mexican investigators to identify the bodies found near Iguala.
"They don’t belong to any institution here in Mexico and because of their history, we put all our trust in them," Nery said.
Mexican navy marines and officers belonging to the Attorney General's Office guard the area where new clandestine mass graves were found near the town of La Joya, on the outsksrts of Iguala, Mexico, Thursday Oct. 9, (AP Photo)
Thousands of people protested in cities across Mexico on Wednesday demanding justice for the missing students. Protests were also held internationally, including in Norway, Germany and Argentina. In the U.S., supporters gathered outside some of Mexico’s major consulates.
The students are asking people around the world to continue supporting their cause.
“Speak, get the word out, on social media, wherever you can, wherever people will listen… tell the world Ayotzinapa isn’t alone. It doesn’t matter what ways you use, if you protest in the streets or social media — whatever support we get is well received."
Nery said that, whatever the risk, the students will continue protesting to draw attention to the case.
"We will stay here until our colleagues are found and justice is done," he said.
@JaredGoyette is a digital news editor at Fusion.
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.