On Sunday night, the rapper QBA was due to headline a rap festival in Tijuana, northern Mexico. Instead he is behind bars in the western city of Guadalajara, accused of dissolving the dead bodies of three film students in sulfuric acid.
The shocking crime has offered a powerful reminder that young people bear the brunt of the violence plaguing the country and have become so disillusioned with their own government that they feel unable to take its word.
Film students Javier Salomon Aceves, 25, Daniel Diaz, and Marco Avalos, both 20, were abducted on March 19. According to authorities, armed men dressed as police officers seized the trio as they were returning by car from filming for a project in a house located in a suburb of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco.
Authorities said the Jalisco New Generation Cartel—Mexico’s deadliest criminal organization—was behind the killings.
The state attorney general’s office said the property where the students had been filming was also used as a safe house for a rival cartel. According to prosecutors, lookouts who were watching the house may have mistaken the students for members of an opposing gang.
Authorities said the criminals tortured and killed the group, before dissolving their bodies in acid in an effort to eliminate evidence. The rapper QBA—whose real name is Christian Palma Gutiérrez—allegedly confessed to his role in the crime.
The chilling news has horrified residents of Mexico’s second-largest city and triggered nationwide outrage. But some activists and relatives have expressed disbelief in the version of events offered by the Jalisco government and demanded proof that the students were really dissolved in acid.
The civil society organization Cauce Ciudadano has expressed doubts about the case on Twitter. “The only certainty we have for the moment, is that people disappear in Mexico and young people are killed.”
Darwin Franco, a journalist who has spent years investigating disappearances in Jalisco, also tweeted his concerns:
“The investigator in charge of the case of the disappeared young people from the University of Audiovisual Media said: ‘Our findings have led us to logically conclude that this is what happened.’ And the scientific evidence for these conclusions? ‘We will continue investigating,’ she said. But they have already said ‘truth.’”
Public skepticism around the case has roots in the government’s mishandling of a similar investigation in 2014.
The mass kidnapping of 43 young people from Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College in the southern state of Guerrero sparked a wave of demonstrations and permanently tarnished Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s reputation. Last month, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared it had strong grounds to believe the criminal investigation into the attack was tarnished by acts of torture and cover-ups.
The parallel between the Ayotzinapa case and that of the film students has not gone unnoticed. In both cases, authorities said the students were attacked by gangsters who mistook them for rivals. The bodies of the Ayotzinapa students were also never recovered, because the government said they were incinerated at a garbage dump, a claim that some analysts concluded was scientifically impossible.
Wary of public outrage, Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval has accepted his “part of the responsibility” for the crime and invited national and international organizations to corroborate the findings of the investigation.
Just as with the Ayotzinapa tragedy in 2014, the Guadalajara case has sparked waves of protest.
“It is just not our classmates, this is happening all the time,” said one film student on a protest march who declined to give his name. “It has become crystal clear that this is a problem for all of us.”
The evidence clearly indicates that Mexico is failing its youth. Interpersonal violence has become the main killer of men between the ages of 15 and 29 and the second main killer of women. Forty percent of the country’s more than 34,000 disappeared people were aged between 15 and 29 at the time they vanished, according to official figures.
Nearing the end of his term, Governor Sandoval recently admitted that the state was facing a growing security crisis.
“Complicated days are coming, I’m not going to lie to you, the wave of violence is not going to end,” the governor said on March 7.
The security situation in the state has deteriorated rapidly this year. According to the Jalisco Institute of Forensic Sciences there have already been 668 murders in 2018, up 50 percent from the same period in 2017.
Earlier this year, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel kidnapped and murdered two Mexican federal agents in the coastal city of Puerto Vallarta. The organization was also reportedly behind the disappearance of three Italians in southern Jalisco.
Last month, eight hacked-up bodies were discovered in a pickup truck in Guadalajara—the worst massacre in the city since 23 bodies were found in 2011.
All of this is deeply embarrassing for authorities in a state that was once seen as a safe haven from the violence that plagued other parts of the country.
A few years ago, Guadalajara was keen to attract major film studios as part of its development scheme Creative Digital City, which aimed to create a space where “talent and creativity breed knowledge.”
Yet it seems unlikely that movie companies will be rushing to relocate to the destination given the fate of the three film students.
The filmmaker Everardo González recently explored Mexico’s breathtaking problem of violence in Devil’s Freedom, a terrifying documentary on forced disappearances.
Through a series of interviews with victims and criminals—who all wear unsightly, flesh-colored masks—the film explores the psychological impact of crime on both sets of subjects.
“In parts of Mexico we see everyday life as if it were a tragedy,” the director told The Daily Beast. “When we see an abandoned truck on the highway, we don’t imagine that someone’s car has broken down but that something terrible has happened.”
González has been haunted by the news about the three passionate young filmmakers.
“For me personally, what happened to the three students brought home that nobody is completely safe.”
His film also invites viewers to consider the perpetrators of violence and the social conditions that provide gangs with their steady supply of recruits.
“We need to understand the root cause of this plague. Criminals use Mexican young people as a disposable quantity. I think this is a good moment to listen to them.”