As of December 7, there are now 42 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School missing after police in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, opened fire on their buses and kidnapped a group of 43 of them, in a case that has gripped the country and sparked protests globally.
To help readers who might be unfamiliar with this story, here is a timeline of key events to understand the ongoing case.
Parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students hold a demonstration in Chilpancingo calling for the students to be returned. (Photo by Lenin Ocampo)
September 26: A group of roughly 100 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School near Tixtla, Guerrero, enter the city of Iguala to protest education reforms and raise money to attend an upcoming demonstration in Mexico City. They eventually commandeer, or “borrow,” three coaches from a bus station. Mayor Jose Luis Abarca allegedly orders the Iguala police to stop and detain the students after they attempt to disrupt a public reception being held that evening to bolster his wife’s political ambitions.
At about 9 pm, Iguala municipal police and other armed men surround and ambush the three buses carrying the students. As dozens of them disperse and escape into neighboring streets, dozens of others are grabbed and loaded onto police vehicles.
At about midnight, as other officials and news reporters gather at the scene, another convoy of armed men begin firing at the buses. Two students are killed that night, as well as three bystanders: a bus driver, a woman in a taxi, and a 15-year-old soccer player.
September 27: The body of a fourth student, the sixth confirmed victim of the attack, is discovered. Julio Cesar Mondragon, a 22-year-old father from Mexico City, is found with his facial skin and eyes removed — a cartel-style execution. Survivors of the attacks and others attempt to locate the students who were taken away at jails and police stations, but they are nowhere to be found.
The 43 normalistas that are unaccounted for, all young men early into their college careers, are declared missing by their classmates and parents.
September 28: Authorities arrest 22 Iguala municipal police officers for their involvement in the attacks, allegedly carried out with the Guerreros Unidos cartel. The officers’ weapons show signs of being recently used, and 19 of the officers test positive for gunpowder residue.
A radio interview given by Mayor Jose Luis Abarca of Iguala, Guerrero.
September 29: In a radio interview, Abarca declares that he has no information about the case and denies that he ordered police to attack the buses. He says he had initially heard that masked young men were disturbing the peace in downtown Iguala. “These young men always provoke the authorities,” he says.
“I was dancing,” he notoriously remarks elsewhere.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto cancels a scheduled trip to Guerrero state, in the first signal of a federal-level response to the severity of the incident.
September 30: Mayor Abarca requests a 30-day leave of absence, theoretically to avoid compromising the investigation into the police attack. During his statements, he says that he will support every effort to locate and prosecute those responsible, “whomever they may be.”
A Mexican news report showing footage of the mayor and his wife on the night of the attacks.
October 1: Governor Angel Aguirre orders Jose Luis Abarca to “present” himself to authorities, but he is nowhere to be found.
October 4: Forensics teams locate four mass graves that could potentially hold the remains of the missing students. Authorities initially declare that 28 bodies are found there. The federal attorney general takes over the investigation of the mass disappearance, which was until now under the jurisdiction of the Guerrero state attorney general, focusing on possible organized crime links to the incident.
October 5: The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, or EAAF, is named an independent forensic investigator on the case after a petition is made by the parents of the disappeared students. The EAAF says it will observe the investigation parallel to the federal attorney general’s command.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers remarks about the case of the missing students.
October 6: In a VICE News report, Ayotzinapa students describe the attack of September 26, and explain how customary the practice of hijacking commercial buses has become for them, as normal schools are notoriously neglected by the Mexican education ministry.
For the first time, Peña Nieto directly addresses the Ayotzinapa crisis, in a nationally televised speech. “Mexican society, and the families of the young students who are sadly missing, rightly demand clarification of the facts and that justice is done,” Peña Nieto says.
October 8: The first large-scale demonstration against the Iguala attacks and the students’ disappearances occurs in Mexico City. Ayotzinapa students lead the march.
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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, seated left, holds a meeting with his security council over the Iguala attacks. (Photo via Presidencia de México)
October 10: The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rightsreleases a statement calling the Iguala attacks a “crucial test” for Mexico’s government as it confronts mounting evidence of human-rights failures and abuses in the aftermath of the September 26 shootings.
“What happened in Guerrero is absolutely reprehensible and unacceptable,” the statement says. “It is not tolerable that these kind of events happen, and even less so in a state respectful of the rule of law.”
October 11: Gov. Aguirre announces that some of the bodies discovered in the first set of mass graves do not belong to the missing students, alarming the public to the possibility that clandestine burial sites linked to drug-war violence can be found throughout Guerrero.
October 12: A survivor of the police attack tells VICE News that the armed men who shot upon the students “looked like state police, because of how they were equipped, and they told us, ‘Sons of bitches, you’re getting the fuck out of here! Get on your buses and get the hell out, you’re not welcome in this city!’ ”
October 13: Dissident teachers, normalistas, and other masked individuals storm the statehouse in Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo, holding hundreds of state employees and civilians hostage inside the building for hours. Shortly after releasing those inside the complex, the protesters set the facade of the building on fire.
Demonstrators also take over a bread truck, flip it over and set it on fire.
October 14: A presumed leader of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang allegedly commits suicide during a federal operation aimed at capturing him, in the neighboring state of Morelos, the attorney general’s office says in a statement. Fugitive Benjamin Mondragon is said to have taken his own life during the shootout.
“He looked out [a window], simply made an expression, and then shot himself in the head,” one official says.
October 16: Peña Nieto again addresses the Ayotzinapa case in public. He says that solving the case is a “priority” of the Mexican state. Students at colleges and universities across Mexico City and the country declare a two-day strike in support of the Ayotzinapa school.
Mothers of the missing place candles at an altar for the missing Ayotzinapa students at the normal school campus. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
October 17: Mexican attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam announces the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, the alleged leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. Casarrubias reportedly tells authorities that the confrontation with the Ayotzinapa Normal School students was “a casual situation.”
October 19: In a VICE News report, a volunteer community police force describes lackluster search efforts on the part of government officials, as volunteers comb the hillsides around Iguala for signs of the missing.
Federal officials announce the take-over of 13 municipalities in Guerrero and neighboring states, relieving local police forces of responsibility for public security.
In Iguala, Ayotzinapa students return to the scene of the attacks for the first time, along with parents of the missing and various supporters. After occupying teachers leave, other masked individuals arrive and loot Iguala city hall. These attackers also later move to ransack a mall that is linked to the fugitive mayor.
Demonstrators hurl stones at Casa Guerrero, the governor’s residence in Chilpancingo. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
October 23: The governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre, resigns under growing pressure from demonstrations in his state and around Mexico. “Thank you to all of Guerrerenses who accompanied me, those who gave me their confidence, and support,” Aguirre tweets.
October 29: Dozens of parents and family members pile into buses to travel from Ayotzinapa to the presidential residence Los Pinos in Mexico City to meet president Peña Nieto. The meeting lasts five hours and ends inconclusively for the parents, who declare that they remain frustrated and disappointed after the meeting.
Authorities say little about the arrest in a subsequent press conference, but a video that is later made public shows Abarca and his wife being shuffled out the house by federal police officers at around 2:30 am that morning. “Don’t touch me, who do you think you are?” Pineda reportedly snaps at an officer who attempts to lead her away by the arm.
A YouTube clip showing Abarca and Pineda being arrested by federal police.
November 5: Another massive demonstration for the Ayotzinapa students takes place on Paseo de la Reforma and on the Zocalo main square in Mexico City. Scores of demonstrators call for the resignation of Peña Nieto and repeat the call for the return of the missing students.
November 6: In a press conference in Mexico City, top representatives of Human Rights Watch call the Ayotzinapa case the worst human-rights crisis facing Mexico since the 1968 massacre of unarmed students at Tlatelolco.
“Impunity in Mexico is the rule, not the exception,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the organization’s Americas division.
Protesters speak up at a march in Mexico City on November 5.
November 7: Officials announce that the missing students were likely killed by drug cartel executioners and incinerated in a remote dump in the neighboring town of Cocula, the same night that they went missing.
In taped testimonies, three men identified as the killers said they took a group of “43 or 44” young students to the dump and used diesel, gasoline, and tires to burn the students in a fire that lasted from midnight, September 26, until at least 2 pm the next day.
November 8: Ayotzinapa students respond to the attorney general’s press conference, saying the authority’s investigations does not fulfill their expectations and that their protests will continue. A group of normalistas once again burn cars and trucks outside the Guerrero state government headquarters.
In Mexico City, protests over the missing students turn violent for the first time. Masked individuals set fire to the 150-year-old door of the National Palace. Mexcio City police arrest people at random, witnesses said, including a child and a bar hostess.
Demonstrators taunt riot police guarding the National Palace door in Mexico City, November 20. (Photo by Daniel Villa)
November 12: Members of the Guerrero state teachers union set fire to the state congress assembly chambers. They warn that they will burn 43 buildings, referring to the number of disappeared students, in protest.
November 19: A VICE News report details instances of alleged forced disappearances in Iguala, Guerrero, at the hands of Mexican soldiers stationed in the city. A survivor of the September 26 attacks says he and other Ayotzinapa students were treated harshly by a group of soldiers who interrogated them after the police attacks.
November 20: Ten of thousands of people march from three different points in Mexico City to the Zocalo central plaza. VICE News carries live streaming coverage of the demonstration. At the end of the peaceful marches, a small group of protestersthrow firecrackers and Molotov cocktails once more at the National Palace.
Charging through the crowds, Mexico City police clear the Zocalo square, detaining 32 people who were allegedly nabbed at random. Days later, all of those detained are released without facing charges. Some detainees said police threatened to “Ayotzinapa” them like the 43 students.
November 27: President Peña Nieto delivers a national address in which he promises an initial ten-step plan aimed at police and judicial reform in the country. “We are all Ayotzinapa,” the president says, but critics complain the plan is too vague and that independent anti-crime groups were not consulted about it.
December 1: Another major protest takes places in Mexico City for the missing students. Videos later circulate showing riot police pummeling demonstrators brutally, and at least one plainclothes police officer participating in rioting along Paseo de la Reforma.
December 5: Mexico City police chief Jesus Rodriguez Almeida resigns.
December 6: In the first hours of the day, EAAF representatives meet privately with parents of the disappeared students to tell them that a bone fragment they studied corresponds to Alexander Mora, 19, one of the 43 missing students, confirming his death. The parents rally in Mexico City and vow to keep protesting until the remaining 42 students are found.
December 7: Murillo Karam announces the first results from the University of Innsbruck, where 17 remains found in Cocula were sent for examination. Mora’s death is confirmed. The attorney general says the new evidence backs the line of investigation he offered one month ago. Murillo Karam announces that ex Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife will faces charges of forced disappearance related to the Ayotzinapa missing.
The EAAF releases a statement validating Murillo Karam’s statements on Alexander Mora’s fate, but raising doubts about the authorities’ investigation. While they call for the investigations to continue, they said that there is no physical evidence that can sustain that the remains found in Cocula’s river were originally burned in the Cocula dumpyard, a hypothesis based on accounts gathered by the attorney general’s detainees.
December 8: Murillo Karam says in a radio interview that authorities perhaps will “never” know for sure how many people were incinerated at the Cocula dump.