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Burned Remains Could Be Those Of 43 Missing Mexican Students

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Mexico, authorities say they have a break in the case of 43 missing students. They disappeared after allegedly being attacked and abducted by corrupt police nearly six weeks ago. Yesterday, Mexico's attorney general told reporters that three new suspects confessed to killing the students, dumping their bodies in a trash pit and burning them. Investigators say the three then tossed the burnt remains in a nearby river. Mexican authorities are now asking for help from Europe to confirm the identities of the remains. We are joined by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So do they know for sure these are the remains of the students?

KAHN: The short answer, Linda, is no. They, as you said, they're badly burned, small fragments of bones. The attorney general even described that the investigators would pick up small teeth and they would disintegrate upon touch so they don't know. What they're telling us is what they have heard from these three suspects that they apprehended. They took them to the site, they reenacted the crime, they explained, in great detail, how they had taken the students to this municipal dump, how they had burned them with wood, with diesel, how the fire had burned for more than 12 hours and then how they waited for the ashes to cool. They picked up the remains, put them in bags and then threw them in a local river. The authorities say they recovered the bags in the rivers and that there were some bone fragments. So that from the confessions and the reenactment of the crime they believe that they do have the remains of the students that had disappeared back in September.

WERTHEIMER: How is it possible that a fire like that could go on for 12 hours - no one smelled something, no one saw it? Why did it take six weeks to discover how this happened?

KAHN: Those are all great questions and all the questions that Mexicans are asking, just shaking their heads, not believing a lot of what they heard yesterday. But I've been to the area there in Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero and Cocula where this municipal dump was - it is in a very isolated area in the hills of this southern, remote part of the state. And the dump and the place - the ravine - where they tossed the bodies, and they said they burned the bodies so you could understand how a fire could burn there. It's a municipal dump. And in Mexico, they burn trash so it is plausible. But you have to remember that this is a country where coerced confessions and staged arrests are the norm. And so it is very difficult for people to believe some of the evidence that the attorney general presented yesterday.

WERTHEIMER: Has there been an outcry in Mexico?

KAHN: Oh, great outcry - this case has reverberated all throughout the country. There have been near daily protests, many violent, a lot of them in Guerrero, many here in the state capital. What's most impressive about the protests is that they are young students. These are not political parties that are controlling these massive protests. This is an outcry of just outrage at indignation on the part of the citizenry. And in a country that has seen so much violence over the years from the drug war - 80,000 people killed, more than 20,000 disappeared and not known where they are - this case in particular has struck a nerve with the country. Remember, authorities have implicated the mayor of the town of Iguala with ordering the original attack on the students that left six people dead. His wife, also a city official, has been accused of being a principle operator in the local drug gang. The entire police force of Iguala and the nearby town of Cocula have been implicated in the student's disappearance and they've all been arrested. And the governor of the state of Guerrero, where all this took place, was forced to resign.

WERTHEIMER: What have their parents had to say?

KAHN: The parents held a press conference last night and they refuse to accept the evidence that the attorney general has presented. They said that until they have actual proof that these are their loved ones, their sons - they're all boys - that they will not accept it. One parent even said that this is more torture that the government is placing on these parents who have grieved and who have waited six weeks for some sort of answer from the government about what happened to their sons.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from Mexico City. Carrie, thank you very much.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.