MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Gang suspects have confessed to killing 43 missing Mexican students, burning their bodies for 14 hours and tossing their charcoal-like remains in a river, authorities said, in a case causing national revulsion.
Facing angry protests in the biggest crisis of his administration, President Enrique Pena Nieto vowed to hunt down all those responsible for the "horrible crime."
Authorities have been searching for the aspiring teachers since gang-linked police attacked their buses in the southern city of Iguala on Sept 26, allegedly under orders of the mayor and his wife in a night of terror that left six people dead.
If the confessions are proven true, the mass murder would rank among the worst massacres in a drug war that has killed more than 80,000 people and left 22,000 others missing since 2006.
"To the parents of the missing young men and society as a whole, I assure you that we won't stop until justice is served," said Pena Nieto, who has shortened a trip to China and Australia starting on Sunday over a case that has undermined his assurances that national violence was down.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam stopped short of declaring the 43 dead and said an Austrian university would help identify the remains. He said authorities will continue to consider the students as missing until DNA tests confirm the identities.
But the chief prosecutor added that there was "a lot of evidence... that could indicate it was them."
- 14-hour inferno -
Three Guerreros Unidos gang members confessed to killing the male students after police handed them over between Iguala and the neighboring town of Cocula, Murillo Karam said, showing videos of the taped confessions.
The bodies were set on fire down a hill from a Cocula garbage dump with gasoline, tires, firewood and plastic, in a 14-hour-long inferno, he said.
"The fire lasted from midnight to 2.00 pm the next day. The criminals could not handle the bodies until 5:00 pm due to the heat," he said.
The suspects then crushed the remains, stuffed them in bags and threw some in a river. Suspects burned their own clothes to hide any evidence.
Murillo Karam showed videos of investigators combing through small pieces of charcoal-like remains that were found in black plastic bags. Some parts were found near the landfill.
The gang members were not sure how many students they received but one of them said there were more than 40.
Murillo Karam delivered the news to the relatives of the missing in an airport hangar in Chilpancingo, capital of the violence-plagued southern state of Guerrero. But the parents, who distrust the government, said they would not accept that their children are dead until they get a final ruling from independent Argentine forensic experts who are taking part in the investigation.
"As long as there is no proof, our sons are alive," Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the families, said at a news conference from the missing young men's teacher-training college near Chilpancingo. Last month, two hitmen had already confessed to killing 17 of the students and dumping them in a mass grave near Iguala. But authorities said tests showed none of them were among 28 bodies found in the pit.
- 'Warning signs' in corruption, violence -
Authorities have now detained 74 people, including several Guerreros Unidos members, 36 Iguala and Cocula police officers and Iguala's ousted mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda. The mayoral couple were detained in a gritty Mexico City district on Tuesday after more than a month on the run.
Authorities say Abarca ordered the officers to confront the students over fears that they would derail a speech by his wife, who headed the local child protection agency.
The missing young men said they went to Iguala to raise funds, though they hijacked four buses to move around, a common practice among students from the radical teachers college.
"The corruption and violence were warning signs for all to see for years and those who negligently ignored them are accomplices in this tragedy," said Amnesty International's Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas.