ARUN RATH, HOST:
Turning now to Mexico, we still don't know what happened to the 43 students who went missing after a police attack in Iguala in September, but it's likely the students were killed. Three members of a violent drug gang, the United Warriors, have confessed, but many believe the state police were behind the massacre. Since the attack, reporter John Gibler has interviewed more than a dozen survivors and witnesses. He's pieced together the most detailed account yet of what happened that night. He says the day began when the student activists, headed for a protest rally in the capital the next day, commandeered buses bound for the nearby city of Iguala.
JOHN GIBLER: There's no real direct English translation or even equivalent for this practice of commandeering buses. It's not stealing. They give them back. It's also not entirely - it's not the same as going to a company and giving your credit card information and renting a bus, right? It's something in between. Most accounts agree that at some point, the bus drivers are compensated monetarily. They're paid. And it's a practice that - it's become integrated into the basic, everyday functioning of the school.
RATH: And so the students commandeer these buses. And meanwhile, in the area where they are, there's a big party happening in the city - a rally of sorts for the city's mayor. There are police and military there. And the buses the students have commandeered are stopped by a police truck. According to the survivors you spoke to, what happened next?
GIBLER: The police arrive shooting - initially, shooting in the air - and the students jump off the buses. This might seem, you know, incredible to many, but these are students who are used to clashing with the police. And it seemed like there were certain rules to those clashes. You throw rocks. You fight. If you get captured, you're going to be beaten, and you'll be arrested. And so they jumped off their buses and started pelting the first police truck that cut them off with rocks.
RATH: And how did things - you know, based on the accounts of the survivors that you talked with - how did things then unravel from their?
GIBLER: From there, the buses were chased 15 blocks. Another police truck shut them off. Police arrive from the side and opened fire on them with machine guns. One student was shot in the head. And at that point, a large number of police trucks congregated after the third of the three buses. And that's the bus from which all students were removed. Numerous student survivors saw police take the students off the bus, force them down onto the street face down, hands behind their heads, and then started throwing them - literally picking them up and throwing them into the backs of pickup trucks. And they were driven off and have never been seen again.
The students the next day identified 22 police officers who participated in the attacks against them. Those 22 police officers were arrested. The federal government has not released a single piece of information based on testimony of those 22 police officers. Their entire case has been hung on three supposed confessions of people we've never heard of before, we've never seen before and who claim to be members of this United Warriors drug gang.
RATH: John, you've reported from Mexico for years. This is, sad to say, not the first mass killing. Why do you think the reaction to this massacre has been so strong?
GIBLER: I think it's a combination of factors. One is the accumulation of the trauma and the accumulation of bearing the impunity for all of the silence. Another is the fact that, you know, there's this myth that there's a clear distinction between the law and the criminals. And here this obliterates any theater of that distinction. It was the uniformed municipal police en masse - not one or two, not one or two corrupt officers - the entire night shift of the Iguala municipal police force engaged in a coordinated military-style strike. And then the continued scale of complicity - the army base is less than two miles away. There's also a federal police base a few miles away. All of these factors combined, I think, to produce some kind of a moral tipping point.
RATH: You can read John Gibler's incredible account of the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala, Mexico, in the current issue of California Sunday magazine. John, thank you.
GIBLER: Thank you so much, Arun.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.