Police working with a local drug gang in the southwestern city of Iguala abducted the students after clashes there on the night of Sept. 26, seriously undermining President Enrique Pena Nieto’s claims that Mexico has become safer on his watch.
Jose Luis Abarca, who at the time was mayor of Iguala, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, were captured by federal police in a house in Mexico City early Tuesday and were being questioned by prosecutors, a government official said.
The run-down concrete house, its windows blacked out with cardboard, was in the eastern district of Iztapalapa, one of the most crime-ridden parts of the capital, and a far cry from the comfortable lifestyle they had led before.
Housewife Elia, 46, who lives opposite the building and declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, said she was glad the couple had been captured.
“I have children who are students and I just think of the parents (of the missing students) and what they must be feeling,” she said. “They have to say where they have them and if they’re still alive.”
Mexican media said the couple had been hiding out in Iztapalapa for several weeks.
“I hope this arrest makes a decisive contribution to clearing things up,” said Pena Nieto in a speech.
A spokesman for Attorney General Jesus Murillo said more details would be released later on Tuesday.
The Mexican government is still searching for the students, whose disappearance shocked the country.
The government said last month that Abarca and his wife had ordered local police to stop a group of about 80 students from disrupting a political event on the night of Sept. 26.
Six people, including three students, died in the ensuing clashes in the violent state of Guerrero. Three days later, the mayor and his wife Pineda went underground. The government says Pineda comes from a family of high-profile drug traffickers.
Pineda was the boss of Guerreros Unidos, a local drug gang, within the Iguala government, according to evidence from a suspect arrested in the case that was made public by the attorney general’s office.
Investigators in Iguala said the police handed over the students to Guerreros Unidos. According to testimony from captured gang members, the gang killed the youths, then buried them in mass graves.
But despite dozens of arrests and the discovery of the remains of at least 38 bodies buried in the hills around Iguala, none have yet been identified as those of the students, who belonged to a leftist all-male college in Guerrero.
The case has sparked mass street protests, civil unrest in Guerrero and anger over the government’s failure to crack down on links between politicians and organized crime.
It has also derailed Pena Nieto’s efforts to turn public attention to his efforts to revive Mexico’s misfiring economy and attract investment after years of gang violence that has claimed about 100,000 lives since the start of 2007.
Parents of the missing students have attacked the government for failing to find them. One of them, Epifanio Alvarez, said their patience was running out.
“We’ve reached the limit,” Alvarez told Mexican television following news of the capture of the mayor and his wife. “We want answers, otherwise we will take action ourselves.”
(Editing by Simon Gardner, Jeffrey Benkoe and Andrew Hay)