Mexicans got a rare glimpse into the rough-and-tumble student organizations at many Mexican universities on Thursday, after five bodies were found buried at one group’s headquarters in the western city of Guadalajara.
Jalisco Attorney-General Tomas Coronado said relatives had identified three of the dead as high-school students who were reported missing along with two other people last week after they said the student group was demanding protection money to sell snacks outside a campus.
Police uncovered three bodies in a pit late on Wednesday and two more in another pit late on Thursday. Investigators were trying to determine if the latest two were a fried-dough vendor and his son who went missing with the three teenagers, Coronado said.
The vendor, Armando Gomez, his son and three of his high-school friends disappeared on Dec. 9 after going to the Federation of Guadalajara Students’ headquarters, where the bodies were found. They went to complain that the student group was demanding too much protection money for allowing him to sell snacks outside a high school campus.
The first three bodies were found two days after two college students in nearby Guerrero were killed in a clash with police after student protesters hijacked buses, used them to block a highway and fought officers with rocks and sticks.
Highly organized, semi-formal and often violent groups are common at Mexican universities. It is a phenomenon that dates back at least to the 1950s, but swelled during student radicalization in the 1960s.
However, the organizations have become less ideological over the years and are now often linked to, or protected by, political bosses known in Mexico as caciques, or chieftains. The groups sometimes act as enforcers to strong arm a politician’s rivals or freelance in extortion or petty robbery.
Political analyst John Ackerman said Mexico’s current political atmosphere, with tension heating up before the July presidential election and a lame duck central government distracted by the fight against drug cartels, might have emboldened such local groups.
“Cacique power is alive and well in Mexico,” said Ackerman, of the legal research institute at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “This is another aspect in which democracy is still incomplete in Mexico.”
The Federation of Guadalajara Students, known as FEG, no longer has any formal ties to the university, but it operates at high schools affiliated with the university.
The FEG specialized in charging food and soft drink vendors to operate around the high schools, according to one university official familiar with the group. While the group was once leftist, the FEG switched decades ago to supporting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before losing the presidency in 2000, said the official, who agreed to discuss the group only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak about it.
The FEG has a Web site in which it describes itself as “a student political organization ... teaching the promotion of Democracy and Tolerance.”
It lists no telephone number or e-mail contact.
On Monday, many Mexicans were shocked by the shooting deaths of two protesters at a demonstration by students from a rural teachers college in Guerrero, but were not at all surprised students had hijacked buses, used them to block the toll highway leading to the Pacific Ocean coastal resort of Acapulco and threw stones when police tried to clear the road.