The capture Tuesday of a fugitive Mexican mayor suspected of ordering the disappearance of 43 college students raises expectations of progress in the unsuccessful five-week-long search for the missing men.
But it also is probably making several politicians and other officials nervous, given their long-standing tolerance of — even support for — the mayor and his wife, despite her well-known connection to drug traffickers.
Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, were arrested by an elite unit of federal police before dawn in a modest neighborhood of Mexico City, police spokesman Jose Ramon Salinas said. Their detention came more than a month after the mayor took a leave of absence in the Guerrero city of Iguala and the couple went on the lam.
They were transported to installations of the federal attorney general’s office that specialize in organized-crime investigations, where they were being interrogated, authorities said.
In a brief appearance before journalists, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said investigators were able to pinpoint the couple’s whereabouts because they chose to hide in a house that appeared abandoned. A third person was arrested for helping them hide, Murillo said.
Monte Alejandro Rubido, the national security commissioner, said investigators traced the couple’s relatives and associates and narrowed the search to Mexico City and Monterrey.
Rogelio Ortega, the acting governor of Guerrero, predicted that the detention of Abarca would serve as a key piece to the puzzle of the missing students.
The capture “represents the possibility of finding substantive clues of what really happened … and [could allow] a more precise search,” Ortega told the Televisa television network.
He said the couple’s statements could also lead to the fall of other politicians.
Parents of the missing students welcomed the arrest of the man they blame for their children’s disappearance but said locating the students should remain the authorities’ priority.
“For us, this is news that will assure us that we will get our young people back; it was the piece that was missing,” Felipe de la Cruz, a father, told Milenio TV.
Searches thus far of miles of rural terrain, based in part on information from detained suspects, have turned up mass graves but not the students.
Abarca took a leave of absence after the students, last seen being led away by local police, went missing Sept. 26 and just before the discovery by federal authorities of about a dozen hidden graves on the outskirts of Iguala. He and his wife, the sister of two late lieutenants in the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, quickly vanished and had been sought by federal authorities since.
Atty. Gen. Murillo last month said the couple were believed to have ordered local police to intercept and do away with the students, from a rural college for the poor, who were en route to Iguala and might have planned to disrupt a party and speech by Pineda.
The case soon revealed the deep infiltration by drug gangs of police and City Hall in Iguala, about 80 miles south of Mexico City, and in other municipalities in Guerrero state. The governor, Angel Aguirre, was forced to resign amid the scandal, which has also handed President Enrique Peña Nieto his worst security crisis in nearly two years of government.
More than 50 people have been arrested in connection with the disappearances, the majority of them police officers or members of the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, all of whom authorities say were working in cahoots. Murillo said confessions from some of the detained revealed that Pineda was the “principal operator” of Guerreros Unidos in Iguala.
There was already bad blood between students from the college and the Iguala leadership. Students trashed City Hall last year after the slaying of a leftist social activist. His wife, Sofia Mendoza, a City Council member, blames Abarca for that killing.
Abarca and Aguirre are members of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, in opposition to Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party. Several top leaders of the left who had given Abarca their support have now distanced themselves from the tainted mayor.
The attorney general’s office presumably investigated and cleared Abarca when he ran for mayor in 2012. Lazaro Mazon, a former Guerrero health secretary often described as Abarca’s political godfather, has been nominated by a major leftist party to be a candidate for governor. And questions abound over who gave Abarca the heads-up that allowed him to leave Iguala ahead of federal authorities.
“The network of complicity is very extensive and must be investigated to the fullest,” said Guillermo Anaya, a federal congressman with the conservative National Action Party.
But many in Mexico say the Guerrero violence is only the latest, albeit an especially egregious, abuse by government security forces and other corrupt practices that the Peña Nieto administration has sought to downplay.
“The federal government maintains a strategy to avoid any kind of responsibility in this tragedy,” Vidal Llerenas, a PRD legislator for Mexico City, said in a debate sponsored by the Animal Politico news website.
“They pretend this is an exclusively local problem, product of an irresponsible governor and a left that doesn’t have control of its candidates,” he said.
The president, Llerenas said, “does not assume responsibility for the failure of federal security agencies nor does he propose reforms for citizens’ security.... It is a lack of leadership.”
Eluding a manhunt, Abarca and his wife had rented a home in the capital’s Iztapalapa district, and the owner may have turned them in, the newspaper El Universal reported. An elite unit of federal police arrested the pair without resistance, authorities said.
Iztapalapa, a densely populated working-class area, represented a surprising come-down for the high-living couple. Police found them in a shabby gray concrete home, a marked contrast to their fancy, well-guarded digs in Iguala.
Seven little dogs were inside, including one with a plastic cone around its head, a sign it had recently been attended at a veterinarian’s office.
The Mexican media dubbed them the Imperial Couple because of the heavy-handed and self-entitled way they ran Iguala, according to many locals. 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.
She already had been tapped by the party to run as the next mayor of Iguala.
Abarca also had fans, primarily those who shared in the couple’s lucrative business deals. He showered supporters with his largesse — paved streets, drainage pipes — using money whose source was a mystery. He started as a producer of straw hats and, more recently after his marriage to Pineda, became owner of fancy shopping galleries and jewelry stores and at least 37 homes and other properties, registered in the names of the couple’s children, authorities say.
About 36 bodies have been recovered from the hidden graves, but none so far have been identified as missing students, whose disappearance has galvanized a broad-based protest movement.
A huge march by 43 organizations from Iguala to Mexico City started Monday. Calling themselves 43 for 43, they planned to arrive in the capital within a week.
Follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter for news out of Mexico.