Abduction, dirty cops are open secret in Mexico

TELOLOAPAN, Mexico - Two years ago, Manuel was kidnapped by a drug gang in southern Mexico and held and beaten for eight weeks before reappearing in another city, his clothes torn to rags.

He is one of the few survivors of the disappearances that have become almost commonplace in the state of Guerrero but are under increased scrutiny since 43 students went missing from the city of Iguala on September 26.

Mexican authorities say police shot at the students' buses before detaining them and handing them over to a drug gang, a tale of violence and corruption that has outraged the country and sparked fiery protests.

But in Guerrero, which has the highest homicide rate in Mexico - 63 per 100,000 residents last year - such stories have long been an open secret.

Manuel was kidnapped by drug traffickers who thought he was an informant for a rival gang.

Abducted with 15 others, he was held blindfolded with his hands tied and forced to sleep outside in the rain.

"The first week they beat us every day until we lost consciousness," said Manuel, a solidly built middle-aged man whose name has been changed to protect him.

He told AFP he was set finally set free when his captors, satisfied that he was not an informant, saw his health was failing.

That was a stroke of rare good luck in Guerrero, where scores of people are officially missing and more than 80 bodies have been found so far this year.

"I don't understand why the government is suddenly afraid now with the case of the students. We've already lived through a nightmare here," said Manuel, who is still reluctant to go out in the street.

Maria Guadalupe Orosco's son was less fortunate than Manuel.

He was 32 years old when he and five friends disappeared after a party in 2010.

According to Orosco, witnesses say the army kidnapped the six victims.

She has been demanding the authorities act ever since.

"Is the pain supposed to stop just because it's been a long time since they disappeared?" she asked tearfully.

She grew angry when she spoke about the government's recent handling of a mass grave with 28 bodies initially thought to be those of the missing students.

After DNA tests were carried out, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said last week that there was no match with the students - but gave no further information on those buried.

"Those people had names and families, too," Orosco said bitterly.

Life in 'hell' 

Since Mexico launched a military crackdown on drug trafficking in 2006, 22,322 people have officially gone missing.

The real figure may be higher, since stories of police colluding with drug gangs deter some victims' families from speaking out.

Their fears are not unfounded.

Since the students went missing, the federal government has stripped local police in Iguala and 14 nearby towns of their guns and taken them in for questioning over suspected links to organised crime.

Thirty-six officers have been arrested, and federal security forces sent in to take over policing.

In Cocula, a small town whose streets are empty by 8:00 pm, residents tell horror stories of struggling to come up with ransoms of up to $15,000 to free their loved ones.

"Whose hands are we in?" asked a man whose niece was kidnapped - a crime that was never reported.

Residents welcomed the federal police takeover but said the move came too late.

"They should have acted here years ago so we wouldn't be mourning today," said Cocula Mayor Cesar Penaloza, who survived an assassination attempt last year.

Just up the road in Teloloapan, Mayor Ignacio Valladares said much the same.

"It's great that they're here and terrible that it's because of these deplorable events in Iguala," said Valladares, who has 11 bodyguards around the clock.

More than 10 murders have been reported in the past 15 days in the city of 50,000 people, some of whose inhabitants have nicknamed it "Hell."