Mexico Captures Fugitive Police Official Allegedly Linked to Missing Students Case


The case of Mexico’s missing 43 students took another turn on Friday as authorities announced the capture of a local police official who was allegedly on the payroll of an organized crime group and helped orchestrate the forced disappearances of the students.

Francisco Salgado Valladares, the former deputy police chief in Iguala, the city in the state of Guerrero where the missing students were attacked and abducted, was arrested Thursday, according to a statement by Mexico’s interior secretary. Salgado had been on the lam since the teachers in training from the Ayotzinapa Normal School vanished last September.

The 41-year-old Salgado “is suspected of participating in the students’ arrest and handover to members of an organized-crime gang,” according to the interior secretary’s statement.

Salgado was reportedly hiding out with family members in Guerrero and the neighboring state of Morelos, and was nabbed by federal police officers and agents from Mexico’s Center for Investigation and National Security as he traveled to meet up with relatives in the city of Cuernavaca.

“Federal units detected a vehicle without plates near the [reunion] location, in which the suspect was traveling,” Mexico’s federal police said in a statement. “Once his presence was confirmed, his capture was initiated and completed without a single shot. When arrested, the [suspect] had in his possession cartridges for an AK-47 rifle.”

Mexican authorities claim Salgado received around 600,000 pesos ($39,600) per month to provide “institutional protection” to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang in Iguala. Salgado allegedly ordered the detention of two buses that were carrying the students through Iguala, and then handed over 13 of the missing 43 to members of the gang. How exactly that transfer unfolded — and how Salgado only bears responsibility for just a handful of the disappearances — remains unclear.

In addition to Salgado, around 100 other suspects have been arrested in connection with the case, including Iguala’s mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles de Pineda, who were also both allegedly linked to the Guerreros Unidos. Iguala’s police chief and several Guerrors Unidos leaders remain at large.

In a version of events that has been widely questioned by families of the victims and investigative media reports, Mexican officials maintain that the Iguala mayor colluded with corrupt police officials to kidnap the students and turn them over to members of the Guerrors Unidos. The gang members then allegedly murdered the students and burned their bodies in a nearby garbage dump. Several reports have accused Mexico’s military of being complicit in the kidnapping.

Six people — including three students — were killed on the night of September 26, 2014, when the students came under attack from police and unidentified gunmen after commandeering buses in Iguala on the way to a protest. The incinerated remains of only one other victim have been identified through forensic analysis, and the rest remain unaccounted for.

The case triggered international outcry, and large — and occasionally violent — demonstrations in Guerrero and Mexico City. While the missing students are presumed dead, their parents, who are mostly poor campesinos from rural areas of Guerrero, have continued to call for their sons to be returned alive. They have taken their case to the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and spent March and April traveling across the US calling for justice and accountability.

Why this particular group of students was targeted is unclear. One theory has it that Pineda was hosting a political event that night in Iguala and her husband the mayor ordered the students detained to prevent them from interrupting. Another is that the Guerreros Unidos believed that members of a rival gang called Los Rojos were traveling with or among the students.

What is clear is that the missing 43 have become emblematic of Mexico’s plague of forced disappearances. According to Amnesty International, the Mexican government has acknowledged that at least 22,611 people are missing as of August 2014, with almost 10,000 disappearing since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.