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Mexico: Bodies of missing students likely burned, ashes tossed in river

Mexico’s attorney general on Friday offered a morbid account of what likely happened to 43 students who went missing in Guerrero state six weeks ago, saying members of a criminal gang have confessed to burning dozens of bodies in a massive fire that lasted more than half a day.

Once the fire cooled, the criminals smashed the severely charred bones, collected the ashes and bone fragments in garbage bags and tossed them in the San Juan River near the town of Cocula, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said.

Murillo Karam stopped short of saying that the ashes and bones found at the scene of the fire and in the river belonged to the students, whose disappearance has horrified Mexican society.

“Until the investigation is over, the students will continue to be listed as disappeared,” Murillo Karam said.

But in a somber news conference, Murillo Karam left little doubt that authorities believe the ashes belong to the students who went missing Sept 26. He played a video in which three purported members of the United Warriors gang confessed to what occurred in the hours after city police in Iguala rounded up students that night.

Many young people, perhaps numbering more than 40, were crushed into the bed of a 3.5-ton truck and a pickup truck and taken from Iguala, 120 miles south of Mexico City, to a hillside dump near Cocula, a smaller community, he said.

Some of the victims had died of suffocation by the time the trucks arrived, according to video testimony of one of the detainees.

“They threw (the victims) to the bottom of the dump, and burned the bodies. They took turns to make sure the fire lasted for many hours,” Murillo Karam said, “tossing on diesel, gasoline, tires, wood, plastic, among other things.”

“It lasted from midnight until two in the afternoon of the next day, according to one of the detainees,” he added.

The embers of the fire were so hot that the gang members had to wait hours more before wading into the fire pit to break apart and smash bones, he said.

The remains were then packed into garbage bags and tossed into the San Juan River, a muddy waterway on the outskirts of Cocula, an agricultural community in a large fertile plain in an area that is often referred to as “untamed Guerrero,” because of the presence of criminal gangs.

Murillo Karam said divers and rescue workers recovered only one unbroken bag of ashes and human remains in the river. The other bags had shredded in the current.

Following Murillo Karam’s lengthy news conference, relatives gathered at the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in Guerrero state where the students had gone to school. In a live-streamed news conference, relatives voiced dissatisfaction with Murillo Karam’s explanation.

“They’ve killed off these student teachers many times, but what we want is proof,” one unidentified parent said.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government has been rocked by mounting street protests over the missing students, tried Friday to reverse widespread belief that he hasn’t shown enough concern about the case.

“The events of Iguala have outraged and moved us all,” he said Friday afternoon. “All of those found guilty will be punished to the full extent of the law.”

Federal police arrested the fugitive mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, on Tuesday in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City. The attorney general said Abarca was charged with murder and belonging to an organized crime group for having ordered police to round up the students, who arrived in Iguala aboard commandeered buses, then turning them over to members of United Warriors.

Ashes and bone fragments from the scenes near Cocula are being sent to a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria, where they’ll be subjected to what Murillo Karam called advanced mitochondrial DNA testing that is more accurate than anything available in Mexico.

Looking haggard after nearly an hour of taking questions from reporters, Murillo Karam said: “Now, I am tired,” and he abruptly left a briefing room.

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