Iguala's fugitive mayor a symbol of Mexico's ills

Mexico's leftist party, PRD, distances itself from disgraced Iguala mayor

You can't sit down and talk with the mayor of Iguala these days. He's on the lam.

Implicated in the possible massacre of 43 college students, Jose Luis Abarca took a leave of absence as the atrocity came to light, walked out the back door of City Hall and hasn't been heard from since.

But the connections he apparently had to drug gangs who infiltrated the police and have been terrorizing this violent region of Guerrero state, just south of Mexico City, are increasingly clear. In fact, they were there to be seen for years, if anyone bothered to notice.

Abarca is the embodiment of so many things wrong in Mexico. He used his position of power to coddle the gangs, to enrich himself and to flout the law, according to prosecutors, political opponents and members of his political party, at least one of whom has publicly accused him of homicide.

His case shows a clear connection between politicians and drug gangs, investigators say, and also shows how unwilling higher levels of government are to delve into the festering levels of local corruption that infect much of the country, impede development and retard Mexico's aspirations to advance.

"It was an open secret. All of Iguala, all of the state of Guerrero, knew who Abarca was," said Iguala businessman Sergio Fajardo, owner of a radio station in this scruffy city of about 150,000, surrounded by forests.

It was just outside Iguala where mass graves yielding 28 bodies were located, with reports emerging late Thursday from the attorney general's office that new suspects who had been detained identified additional grave sites.

Yet, they elected Abarca two years ago as mayor. He showered supporters with his largesse — paved streets, drainage pipes and so forth — using money whose source was a mystery.

Abarca's wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, is said by many to have been the one calling the shots. She was forceful at City Council meetings, speaking out to defend her husband even though her only official position was as honorary head of a family welfare agency.

Three of Pineda's brothers were lieutenants in the notorious Beltran Leyva drug cartel, according to prosecutors and the family's own admissions.

Two have been killed, news reports say, while a third, Alberto "The Eraser" Pineda, is now head of Guerreros Unidos, the cartel attempting to take over Iguala. National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said the cartel, which has been implicated in the students' disappearance, specializes in the transport of marijuana and heroin to Chicago.

What is clear is that the Pineda brothers were on the federal attorney general's list of "most wanted," with rewards for their capture in millions of pesos. The connection did not stop Abarca's rise to power.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is coming under increasing criticism for failing to take action against Abarca, given his family links, and the corrupt networks running through Guerrero.

In a meeting with the international press, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam sought to dispel the idea that the federal government ignored the cartel domination of Guerrero. The mayor's in-laws did not incriminate the mayor, Murillo said.

"Look, you," he told one reporter, "if your cousin commits a crime, I can't investigate you.... It's all about evidence, not suspicions."

And the wife?

"The señora was not the mayor," Murillo said. (Never mind that Abarca's political party, before the current scandal, had nominated her as its candidate to be the next mayor of Iguala.)

But ignoring the suspicion in Iguala seems kind of tantamount to ignoring the elephant in the bodega. Murillo also dismissed a video in which the mayor's mother-in-law confirms that her sons worked for the Beltran Leyva gang and asserts that the mayor was providing protection for the fee of nearly $155,000 a month.

"She is lying," Murillo said.

The party to which Abarca and Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre belong, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, is quickly distancing itself from the disgraced mayor.

"I apologize to the people of Guerrero for allowing [Abarca] to be put here," PRD President Carlos Navarrete said during a visit to Iguala.

The students who went missing Sept. 26-27 attended a rural college in the town of Ayotzinapa that trains teachers and is known for radical left-wing political activity. They had apparently commandeered buses and gone to Iguala, where they were confronted by police, who opened fire. Six people were killed, including a 15-year-old soccer player who happened on the scene.

Iguala City Councilwoman Sofia Mendoza is convinced the mayor killed her husband, a leftist political activist kidnapped and slain last year with two associates. A witness who survived the abduction has given testimony to state judicial officials that he heard the mayor's voice and spied him through a blindfold as he shot Arturo Hernandez in the head.

For months, Mendoza sought justice, appealing repeatedly to state and federal officials. In the meantime, she had to work in the same city government with the man she believed to be her husband's killer.

"I tried not to look at him," she said.

Perhaps as punishment, Mendoza, 32, was not given an office and holds court at a folding table on the sidewalk outside City Hall.

Mendoza recalled her husband's contentious relationship with the mayor and his wife. Hernandez led a grass-roots faction within the leftist PRD, challenging the mayor's control over the party base. Abarca and Hernandez would end up in shouting matches and almost in fisticuffs in various town hall meetings throughout the first half of last year, Mendoza said.

Increasingly a thorn in Abarca's side, Hernandez and seven associates were kidnapped in May last year; Hernandez and two others were killed and five escaped.

Mendoza finally persuaded authorities to take her testimony and that of one of the survivors, Hernandez's former driver, who fingered the mayor. Yet nothing came of the case. Last month, she traveled to Washington and gave a statement to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Three days later, the students were abducted.

Murillo, the attorney general, said that he had heard of Hernandez's slaying, but that it was a local matter and not his responsibility.

While no one knows, or elaborates on, the motive behind the disappearance and possible massacre of the students, Mendoza is among those who believe their long-standing political feud with the mayor and his police — in cahoots with drug traffickers, whom the students often challenged — is the root cause.

"If [authorities] had paid attention to me and what happened to my husband," she said, "what happened to the [students] could have been avoided."

Jose Luis Abarca began his rise to economic fortune as a seller of quinceañera dresses and straw hats. He soon evolved into a buyer and seller of gold, owning stalls in the principal jewelry mall in Iguala. Once he became part of the Pineda family, he became the owner of the largest commercial center in Iguala.

At the jewelry mall, his fans have calendars with his picture on their walls. Numerous videos have emerged of him dancing happily with residents. In fact, his initial explanation for why he was unaware of the apparent massacre was that he was at a party, dancing.

But testimony from detained suspects suggests that he ordered his staff to "take care" of the students, believing they may have been coming to Iguala to cause trouble. Exactly how that order was translated and carried out may prove to be the core of the final conclusions of the investigation. His ferocious reputation may have left little room for doubt about what should have been done.

In what was probably his final interview before he became a fugitive, Abarca repeatedly disavowed responsibility for or knowledge of what had happened the night of Sept. 26.

"Believe me, I am very sorry," he told a radio interviewer. "And with all the truth I say I don't know" what happened, he said.

Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with reports late Thursday of additional graves being identified.

The story was originally published at 3:09 p.m.

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