Fears over fate of 43 missing Mexican students

The fate of 43 missing Mexican students remains a mystery days after they vanished amid a police shooting: A survivor saw dozens bundled into patrol cars but authorities say they may be hiding.

The teachers-in-training disappeared after a weekend of violence that left six people dead and 25 wounded in Iguala, a town surrounded by thick forests in the crime-plagued southern state of Guerrero.

State prosecutors detained 22 municipal officers over charges that they fired on three buses carrying the students, killing three of them.

Officers are also accused of shooting at a bus carrying a third-division football club and a taxi on the outskirts of Iguala, killing three people. Authorities say a gang may also have been involved.

The police officers are under suspicion of whisking away dozens of survivors and having links to organized crime, raising fears the gang may be holding the 43 in a country where 80,000 people have died in drug violence since 2006.

But 14 others who had been missing were reported alive Tuesday at their homes or school, giving hope that the others also went into hiding, officials said.

“I have much confidence… that we can find the rest alive,” Governor Angel Aguirre said as soldiers and relatives of the missing combed the area.

– Police took away students –

The students, from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college near the state capital Chilpancingo, say they went to Iguala on Friday to raise funds for their studies.

While Guerrero’s radical teachers-in-training have held protests against reforms and work conditions in the past, they denied they demonstrated in Iguala.

They admit seizing buses to return home, a common practice among the students, who say they have no choice because of a lack of government aid.

Moments after heading out, police cruisers chased three buses in the northern part of the town and a fourth one in the south, witnesses said.

The shootings sparked a cat-and-mouse game throughout Iguala, with students saying they hid in the hills, empty houses or the homes of friends until sunrise.

Francisco Ochoa, 18, told AFP he saw 30 to 40 of his friends being hauled into a dozen police cruisers in the early hours of Saturday.

Ochoa was among a group of 14 students whose bus was stopped by police in the southern part of town.

When they got out of the vehicles, the officers shouted at them and began to shoot in the air, prompting the students to run and hide in an abandoned building, he said.

Later, Ochoa’s group found fellow students in a marketplace when a dozen police cars surrounded them.

“I saw with my own eyes how they took away my comrades,” he said at a wake for a fallen student attended by hundreds of people at the school in Tixtla late Tuesday.

Prosecutors say street surveillance cameras showed patrol cars carrying civilians.

Survivors say the police launched two attacks, firing during a chase across town and opening fire again after the buses stopped on a ring road.

A 29-year-old special education teacher who lay in the town’s general hospital with bullet wounds in her right foot and left shoulder said she was hit after arriving at the scene of the second shooting.

The second salvo came after midnight as she was cleaning a man’s chest wound inside a car.

“The muchacho raised his head and he saw that it was the police,” she said.

“I was terrified,” she said, as state police officers armed with assault rifles guarded the hospital.

– ‘We want them back alive’ –

Ulises Martinez Juarez, 20, was in Tixtla when he first heard of the shootings and decided to drive up to Iguala with 20 friends to help their comrades.

On the way there, a sport-utility vehicle packed with gunmen stopped them but they were able to flee and later arrived at the scene of the second shooting, he said.

“I had finished taking a picture of a pool of blood when I heard shots,” he said.

His group fled but one friend was hit in the face and it took them hours to get him to a hospital.

“We are now looking for our 43 comrades. We want them back alive,” he said. “We think an organized crime group has them.”

Anayeli Guerrero de la Cruz, 33, said she and her parents have been searching for her 19-year-old brother Jhosivani since Saturday, looking at two bodies in morgues that turned out to be other students.

“We don’t know if he’s hiding somewhere in the fields, or what they’ve done with him,” she said.