Mexican authorities have discovered six hidden graves that may contain the bodies of more than 40 university students who went missing a week ago after clashing with local police in the violent state of Guerrero.
The semiofficial National Human Rights Commission said Sunday that experts will conduct DNA tests in an attempt to identify bodies found in the graves. It was not yet clear how many bodies were present.
Guerrero state Health Minister Lazaro Mazon said nine bodies, burned beyond recognition, were recovered from the muddy pits in the first series of exhumations. He said it could take two weeks before identifications are made. Later, state prosecutor Inaky Blanco said 28 bodies had been recovered, in various conditions.
Frantic parents who have been demanding the return of their children attempted to reach the site of the makeshift graves, near a slum on the outskirts of the city of Iguala, about 80 miles south of Mexico City. They and supporters blocked major highways in the area for several hours.
"You took them alive, we want them returned alive," read a huge banner unfurled across the highway that leads from Mexico City to Acapulco.
On Sept. 26-27, Iguala city police attacked a group of students rallying against government policies. Six people were killed, more than two dozen injured and more than 50 students vanished. About 15 students eventually were found hiding in their homes, but 43 remained missing. Within days, 22 police officers were arrested for what prosecutors said was use of excessive force.
Parents and surviving students have said they last saw some of the missing being taken away by police. Several parents offered up license plates of the police vehicles that took away their children.
Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre said the local police corps was thoroughly penetrated by criminal organizations, at whose behest the police may have been acting. He said that after the discovery of the graves, an additional eight people were arrested. He did not identify them.
If the graves turn out to contain the students, it will suggest that they were summarily executed by their captors, be they police or cartel criminals. And if that proves true, it would constitute the most egregious human rights atrocity in the 2-year-old government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and one of the worst in recent years.
The students were from a special kind of rural university in the town of Ayotzinapa, near Iguala. They had a contentious relationship with authorities and often spearheaded demonstrations.
After they went missing late last month, the federal government dispatched army, navy and national police to take over the search. The federal prosecutor's office took charge of the case as soon as the graves were discovered late Saturday.
“Mexico cannot let such a serious incident go unpunished,” Tomas Zeron, head of investigations from the federal attorney general’s office, said.
More than 20,000 people are registered as having disappeared in Mexico in the last eight years, giving rise to an intense citizens' movement to find them. Most never reappear.