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Relatives Fear Mexican Students Are Among Dead In Mass Graves

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Relatives of 43 missing Mexican college students are gathered at their college in southern Mexico. They want information about mass graves that were found over the weekend, and they fear that the missing students are buried there. The Mexican president promised today to punish whoever is responsible. We are joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico. And, Carrie, tell us about where you are and what's been going on there today.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I'm in a very rural small town called Ayotzinapa, and it's outside the capital of the state of Guerrero. And like you said, I'm inside the teacher's college here. And this is the school where the 43 students attended. It's a poor school. It's for peasant families who can't afford tuition.

The relatives of the missing students just finished giving, a lengthy press conference and as you can imagine, they are distraught. One mother I was speaking with just completely broke down. She said, her son had just started the school four months ago and travels seven hours to get here from their home town in the neighboring state. She said he just wanted to get a profession so he could help the family, not be a poor farmer anymore.

SIEGEL: When did the students go missing, Carrie?

KAHN: It was on September 26. And the students had gone to a nearby town called Iguala, and they were trying to raise money for the school. And I have to say that the methods that they do this are quite radical. They usually commandeer buses for transportation or go to federal toll booths on highways and take the money from passersby. And they had just commandeered three buses, and they were stopped by local police there. And the police just started firing on the buses. This is not in dispute - what happened.

During that confrontation and another with these local police, six students were killed, and about two dozen were injured. And the 43 were taken away. The state attorney general here told reporters that there is evidence that the local police were working together in collusion with the local drug gang and that there's evidence that they took the students. As you said, the mass grave on the outskirts of Iguala was found over the weekend. And to date, a couple dozen bodies have been recovered. And the officials describe a gruesome sight at the graves - some of the bodies charred beyond recognition, and others in pieces.

SIEGEL: But at this point, no clear evidence linking these missing students to the - to the graves. We don't have that yet.

KAHN: Well, there is evidence that the police took them away. They arrested 22 police officers, and they say two of the others that were arrested - two people that were arrested there have admitted to killing the students. And so that's the evidence that they have. And also, they said, it would take about two weeks for conclusive DNA evidence to be processed.

SIEGEL: President of Mexico talked about this case today - I gather, a case that's being followed very closely throughout Mexico. What did he say?

KAHN: He did speak to the nation for four minutes this morning. He promised to find out what happened to the students and to bring those responsible to justice. And that is just unprecedented for the president to come on and speak about violence in the country.

Pena Nieto's been in office for two years now. And he has vowed to stop the drug violence, but he really doesn't speak much about crime in the country. And he prefers to work on portraying the image of Mexico as a safe place for foreign investment and has spent much of his time instituting new reforms, including education reform, during his years in office.

SIEGEL: Well, do people believe him when he says that they'll pursue whoever did this?

KAHN: Well, the family members here do not believe anything the government said. They say that their students - that their family members were taken alive. They expect the government to do something to bring them back alive. They believe that the government is hiding the students, and that there is hope that they will come back alive. But there's a lot of skepticism and no belief that the government is working hard to really find out what happened to these students here in Guerrero.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Guerrero State in southern Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.