More than a month after 43 college students were led away by police and never seen again, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday met with relatives of the missing men in a bid to shore up flagging public faith in the search.
But the families apparently turned the tables on the normally well-choreographed president, rejecting his proposed approach and refusing to leave his headquarters in Mexico City for more than six hours.
Peña Nieto went on TV to promise a 10-point plan to find the students and address other grievances, while the families angrily denounced what they saw as official negligence. “All the powers of state, and they cannot find our children,” a father said at a chaotic news conference after the meeting.
Here in the region where the students vanished after a deadly clash Sept. 26 with police in Iguala, in Guerrero state, there were few words of optimism. Many dismissed the government’s efforts as halfhearted at best.
With pressure mounting on authorities to produce the students -- or, more likely, their bodies -- and bring to justice a web of potential culprits including police and politicians, the government’s investigation has shown itself sluggish, misdirected and often bungled, critics say.
Families of those detained as suspects, on whom authorities have relied for clues in the search, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that their relatives were tortured by police to extract confessions and other information.
The students attended a rural college steeped in revolutionary rhetoric that gave opportunity to the disadvantaged.
Peña Nieto's meeting Wednesday with the relatives “is a weak gesture to try to calm people down,” said Feliciano Rosas, 70, one of the hundreds of villagers who have gathered daily in downtown Iguala to support the students’ families.
Many are members of community police forces and have led or joined searches of the mountainous countryside for mass graves. Many burial sites have been found, they say, but none producing the students.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam raised expectations this week that the students had been located in a trash dump outside Cocula, which is next to Iguala. Hundreds of federal investigators descended on the site, and Murillo invited journalists to observe.
But 48 hours later, no bodies had been found in the dump, and the search shifted to the nearby Cocula River, where soldiers were seen cordoning off the area with yellow tape.
Murillo said the information that led his investigators to Cocula came from detained suspects, but relatives told The Times that the suspects were tortured into making the statements. In one case, suspects were captured at a roadblock near Cocula; in others, detainees were picked up arbitrarily, the relatives said.
“He didn’t want to say he was tortured -- I saw it,” teacher and lawyer Melina Canto said, describing her brother's broken nose and bruised face.
The community police officers who have sought to aid in the search say a generalized fear in the city, where local drug gangs in recent years have taken control -- in complicity with the mayor, some allege -- has left citizens reluctant to speak about what is happening.
“There is a very grave problem here -- I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes -- where the people live in fear, controlled by their terror,” said Napoleon Hernandez, a member of the group. “They listen, fall quiet and return home. In the middle of the 21st century, you cannot believe such behavior by people … a collective psychosis.”
Peña Nieto, in his televised comments after the meeting, said he shared the “indignation and great impatience” of the relatives of the missing students.