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Desperate search for 43 Mexican students shakes up small town of Iguala

“They were taken alive and we want them back alive!” the crowd chanted as they marched through the town of Iguala, about 81 miles south of Mexico City, where the search for 43 college students missing since Sept. 26 has triggered massive outrage and disbelief.

As several thousand protesters marched toward the center of Iguala, which belongs to the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, some spray-painted on signs and walls messages such as “Murderers of students,” “Cowards,” and “The death of the students is a state crime.”

On a loudspeaker a man yelled out once and again, “We have to put an end to this narco-government!” and also, “This is a peaceful movement!” even when many of the men were wearing hooded sweatshirts and ski masks.

This was the Oct. 22 protest, one of several that are increasingly throwing this small city into turmoil over the weekly discovery of new clandestine burial sites – yet no trace of the 43 students so far.

Right now the Federal Police are here but in two months they’ll be gone and los malos [the bad guys] will chop us up into taco meat.

- Pedro, an Iguala resident

As the procession passed over a bridge and approached the mayor’s office, protesters scaled utility poles, tearing down political posters.

A group of the masked men, several of whom carried flags bearing the logo CETEG from Guerrero’s teacher’s union, charged the city hall building, smashing the windows with stones, pipes, and heavy pieces of wood. They broke down the main door and once inside smashed destroyed computer monitors and furniture.

There were around two dozen protesters attacking the building and two times as many journalists, some of whom wore skateboarding helmets, running to film and photograph the destruction.

No police intervened in the protest, and when Fox News Latino visited the Iguala Federal Police headquarters during the morning of Oct. 22, they were monitoring the protest but not sending patrols to confront the vandals.

On a side street, a diminutive 70-year-old man with wide eyes and grey, stubble beard watched as a plume of black, acrid smoke rose from the building. He shook his head, “This is wrong. They shouldn’t do this. It won’t help bring the young men back,” he said, in soft, thickly accented Spanish.

From a safe distance, around the corner from the church on the other side of the plaza, Carlos, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher who works in the nearby city of Chilpancingo, watched the black smoke billow up, staining the Mexican flag painted on the side of the building.  “This is the only way to get the government’s attention,” he explained.

Carlos, who wore a blue hooded sweatshirt, a low-brimmed hat, mirrored sunglasses, and a rooster print bandana covering his face, explained that he and co-workers joined the protest because “we’re tired that the government doesn’t do anything … we want a change, we want peace.”

The events in Iguala have made longstanding security problems in Guerrero a major and embarrassing focus for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government.

“The federal government wants to say that it’s the mayor who called the shots, but it’s unclear who is giving the orders to whom,” Mexico City-based security analyst Brian Phillips told FNL. “Was the mayor in charge or was he the agent of organized crime? We’ve seen many cases of mayors killed if they don’t cooperate [with criminals],” he added.

Guerrero is Mexico’s second poorest state and most small-town governments have limited resources. Eight out of ten residents work in informal jobs washing car windows, selling tacos in the street, or working in subsistence agriculture. Most don’t pay taxes and they expect to receive little in terms of government services.

But the “normalistas” students, among them the 43 missing, do expect more and they use militant tactics such as hijacking trucks, taking over toll booths, commandeering buses, and blocking roads to draw attention to what they see as the underfunding of Guerrero’s rural schools.

For now, the heavy presence of federal police in Guerrero may prevent local criminals from taking further reprisal attacks against disgruntled students, but it’s unclear what will happen when they leave. As is the case in other problematic areas of Mexico, serious questions remain about what President Peña Nieto can do to improve security and provide law and order at the local level.

As he watched a caravan of navy blue federal police trucks pass by on a road on the outskirts of the city, Pedro, a middle-aged hunter who lives in Iguala said, “Right now the Federal Police are here but in two months they’ll be gone and los malos [the bad guys] will chop us up into taco meat.”

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Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @NathanielParish and Instagram: @nathanielparish.

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