Mexicans got a rare glimpse into the rough-and-tumble student organizations at many of Mexico's universities Thursday, after five bodies were found buried at one group's headquarters in the western city of Guadalajara.
Jalisco state 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 complained that the student group was demanding protection money to sell snacks outside a campus.
Police uncovered three bodies in a pit late Wednesday and two more in another pit late 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 last Friday 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 state 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, semiformal and often violent groups are commonplace at Mexican universities. It is a phenomenon that dates back at least to the 1950s, but swelled during student radicalization in the 1960s.
The organizations have become less ideological over the years, however, 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, may 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 by its Spanish initials 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 wasn't authorized to speak about it.
The FEG has a website in which it describes itself as "a student political organization ... teaching the promotion of Democracy and Tolerance." It lists no phone number or email 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 state, but were not at all surprised students had hijacked buses, used them to block the toll highway leading to the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco and threw stones when police tried to clear the road.
The Guerrero state prosecutors office said students from the teachers college regularly block highways or take over toll booths to raise funds, but had acted with unusual violence in Monday's protest, which was called to demand more funding for the college.
Police called in to clear the blockade apparently opened fire on the students. Federal police have said it was state police who fired the fatal shots, while Guerrero officials released video of federal officers kicking and beating detained protesters.
Lawyers for the students and rights groups, meanwhile, are accusing authorities of planting grenades at the scene and an assault rifle on one student to try to justify the shootings.
Ackerman, at the national university, said he considered the shootings unjustified. But he added there were indications that "outside forces," perhaps directed by a former governor, may have infiltrated the protest in an attempt to create a politically embarrassing situation for current Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre.
"The long-standing tradition of using student 'golpeadores' (street fighters) to implement a strategy that authorities can't carry out themselves is alive and well in Mexico," Ackerman said.