Mexico officials, without DNA confirmation, declare all 43 students dead

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A passerby carrying a garbage bag stops to look at posters depicting politicians including President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, along with the words in Spanish "State terrorist," during a protest marking four months since the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers' college, in Mexico City, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. Prosecutors have said police kidnapped the students on Sept. 26 in the southern state of Guerrero and handed them over to drug gang members, who killed them and burned the bodies. Protestors say the government has failed to provide sufficient proof to clear up doubts over the students' fate. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)


Relatives and protestors carry banners with pictures of some of the 43 missing students from a rural teachers college, as they march along a main boulevard in Mexico City, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. Protest marches were planned in cities around Mexico to mark the fourth month since the disappearance of the students in southern Guerrero state. The federal prosecutor has said the students were detained by local police and handed over to a drug gang, who killed them and burned their bodies. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)


MEXICO CITY — Investigators are now certain that 43 college students missing since September were killed and incinerated after they were seized by police in southern Guerrero state, the Mexican attorney general said Tuesday.

It was the first time Jesus Murillo Karam said definitely that all were dead, even though Mexican authorities have DNA identification for only one student and a declaration from a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria, that it appears impossible to identify the others.

The attorney general cited confessions and forensic evidence from an area near a garbage dump where the Sept. 26 crime occurred that showed the fuel and temperature of the fire were sufficient turn 43 bodies into ashes.

"The evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river," Murillo Karam said in a press conference that included a video reconstruction of the mass slaying and of the investigation into the case.

He added that "there is not a single shred of evidence that the army intervened ... not a single shred of evidence of the participation of the army," as relatives of the victims have claimed.

Murillo Karam's explanation seemed unlikely to quell the controversy and doubts about the case, in which the federal government has been criticized for acting slowly and callously. Thousands of people demonstrated in Mexico City Monday night, demanding the students be returned alive.

The attorney general has come under attack from many quarters, including the students' relatives and fire experts, who say the government's version of what happened is implausible. Family members are still searching in hopes of finding the students alive.

The Argentine Forensic Anthropologists, an independent team hired by parents to work with federal investigators, told The Associated Press on Sunday that there is still not "sufficient evidence" to link the charred remains found by authorities in a river in the town of Cocula to what happened at the garbage dump.

Valentin Cornelio Gonzalez, 30, brother-in-law of missing student Abel Garcia Hernandez, said the shifting theories of what happened to the students have left him and other family members not believing anything that officials say.

"On a personal level, it makes me mad because this is what they've always done," he said of Tuesday's announcement. "There's no chance that the parents are going to believe the PGR (saying) that they're dead. ... They are going to look for them alive."

Murillo Karam said the conclusion was made based on the testimony of a key suspect arrested two weeks ago, Felipe Rodriguez Salgado, who said he was called to get rid of the students. There are also 39 confessions. Based on samples of gasoline, diesel and steel from burned tires, he said, they concluded that the amount of heat from the fire and the location could have kept the blaze going for hours, and that the remains were crushed afterwards.

Authorities say they were burned the night of Sept. 26 and over the next day, and their incinerated remains were bagged up and thrown into a nearby river. The remains in the bags found in the river had traces of the garbage dump where the fire occurred, Murillo Karam added.

The scene of the crime was an 800-meter (yard) ravine that resembled a furnace, said criminal investigations chief Tomas Zeron.

Murillo Karam said the information was based as well on 386 declarations, 487 forensic tests, 16 raids and two reconstructions.

So far 99 people have been detained in connection with the crime, including the former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca.

Murillo Karam said the motive was that the members of a local gang, the Guerreros Unidos, believed the young men were rival gang members when they hijacked some public transit buses in Iguala. But many of the suspects testified that they knew the men were students. The students, known for commandeering buses and taking over toll booths to support their leftist causes, said they were taking the buses for transport to an upcoming demonstration in Mexico City.

"They thought they were infiltrated," Murillo Karam said at the press conference, adding that there is no indication that the students were part of any criminal group.

The case has sparked protests inside and outside Mexico over the four months since the students disappeared, and has forced the Mexican government to turn its attention from touting economic and education reforms to dealing with the country's crime and insecurity problems.

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