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E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s most-wanted couple, accused of running their town as a drug fiefdom and ordering an attack that killed six and left 43 college students missing, were caught Tuesday in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Mexico City where they were hiding.
Federal police seized Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, in a raid before dawn in Iztapalapa, a working-class neighborhood of the capital. It was a far fall from their reign of wealth and power as the mayor and first lady of Iguala, a town in southern Guerrero state where the students from a teachers’ college went missing Sept. 26, allegedly at the hands of police and a drug cartel.
Even as they were hauled off to the Attorney General’s organized crime unit to give their statements, the capture did nothing to answer the biggest mystery: Where are the students? Their disappearance, and the failure to make progress in the case, has ignited protests across the country and broadsided President Enrique Pena Nieto’s efforts to paint violence in Mexico as a thing of the past.
“News like this just makes you angrier,” said Mario Cesar Gonzalez, whose son, Cesar Manuel Gonzalez, is among the missing students. “I wish they would put the same intelligence services and effort into finding the students. The ineptitude is staggering.”
Authorities have uncovered mass graves and the remains of 38 people, but none has been identified as the missing students. Besides Tuesday’s arrests, at least 56 other people have been taken into custody, and the Iguala police chief is also being sought.
Some hoped the couple’s detention would provide new leads.
“This was the missing piece. This arrest will help us find our kids,” Felipe de la Cruz, the father of one of the missing students, told Milenio television. “It was the government who took our kids.”
No shots were fired in Tuesday’s raid on three houses, including the one in which the couple was hiding, according to a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
One of the houses was a run-down stucco structure with cracked and stained walls and men’s jeans hanging out to dry.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said 60 federal agents had staked out the three houses, and were tipped off to the couple’s presence by a female associate, Noemi Berumen, who apparently accompanied the couple or aided them in their flight from justice. Berumen was also detained in the Tuesday raids.
“The house they were found in looked as it were abandoned,” Murillo Karam said. “The reason we started to suspect this person (Berumen) was that she appeared to be entering an abandoned house. ”
Before they fled last month, the couple ran Iguala like a fiefdom in cooperation with the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. Abarca received up to $220,000 every few weeks as bribe money and to pay off his corrupt police force, according to Attorney General Jose Murillo Karam, who gave a detailed account last month of the couple’s alleged collusion with organized crime.
The mayor’s wife was a major operator in the cartel, an offshoot of the Beltran Leyva gang, Murillo Karam said. Two of her brothers were on former President Felipe Calderon’s most-wanted drug trafficker list until they were killed in 2009. A third brother, Salomon Pineda, was believed to run the territory in northern Guerrero state for the cartel.
Guerreros Unidos has increasingly turned to the lucrative practice of growing opium poppies and sending opium paste to be refined for heroin destined for the U.S. market, according to a federal official.
The students attended a radical rural teachers college with a history of carrying out protests. They had gained the enmity of Abarca because of a previous demonstration in the town, Murillo Karam said. Abarca believed they planned to disrupt a speech by his wife, who aspired to succeed him as mayor, and ordered police to detain the students after they hijacked four buses to provide transportation to a coming protest.
Three students were shot dead in the confrontation and later three bystanders were killed in a separate attack.
Police then picked up the other students and took them to the nearby town of Cocula, Murillo Karam said. At some point they were loaded aboard a dump truck and taken — apparently still alive — to an area on the outskirts of Iguala where some mass graves have been found, he said.
In statements to the media soon after the disappearance, Abarca maintained that he spent the evening of Sept. 26 dining out, and that he ordered police to leave the students alone.
Detained gang leader Sidronio Casarrubias told authorities one of his lieutenants told him the students were sympathizers of a rival gang, the attorney general said.
The search for the students has taken authorities to the hills above Iguala and to a gully near a trash dump in the neighboring city of Cocula, but still no remains have been identified.
Abarca and his wife amassed jewelry stores and other properties believed bought with illicit funds, including a shopping mall that was vandalized in one of the many protests against the failure to solve the students’ disappearance. Authorities said they ruled with fear. Pineda was overheard telling one of Abarca’s political rivals, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” Days later he turned up dead. Witnesses said Abarca himself did the killing.
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