MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Three people were given sentences of 520 years in prison each for their roles in the kidnapping and murder of 13 young people, the deadliest-ever massacre in the Mexican capital, but the cause of the violence remains a mystery as police say dozens are still being investigated.

Photo: Cuartoscuro
Photo: Cuartoscuro

Still facing a case full of black holes, illicit police involvement and an absence of an official explanation of events and why they took place, a judge of the 25th Criminal Court has sentenced the three individuals for their roles in the case.

On the early morning of Sunday, May 26 of 2013, 13 young people were in the Heaven bar in the Zona Rosa, a district of Mexico City just minutes away from the urban and financial center of the capital. The bar was also just meters away from a police station.

The rudimentary account recalls that the 13 individuals were inside afterhours as the bar had closed before. At some point in the early morning hours, they were then kidnapped from the bar and, as it was determined three months later, they were tortured, murdered and buried together in a cement-covered mud pit behind a ranch in Tlalmanalco, a far-flung suburb approximately 55 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Mexico City.

At least 25 people have been arrested in connection with the case but the three individuals that were sentenced were the first to officially receive their punishment for their roles in the crime, according to the Attorney General of the Federal District.

Ernesto Espinosa Lobo and José de Jesús Carmona Aiza, both part-owners of Heaven, and a presumed hitman in the case, Victor Manuel Torres García, were charged and convicted for their roles in the illegal deprivation of liberty with the intent of causing damage to the deprived, and the charge was upgraded to “aggrevated” because the crimes were committed against groups of people and with violence, along with minor-related charges as several of the victims were under 18 years of age.

All three men were sentenced to prison sentences of 520 years each (although the maximum that can be served by Mexican law is 50 years) and must pay fines of up to $300,000 each that will be divided between the family members of the victims.

The Attorney General made it clear in their press release, however, that the criminal case “remains open as there are many others involved in the case at different parts of their judicial processes” and several other suspects are still wanted fugitives.

The families of the victims did not seem satisfied with the news of the court’s ruling as the sentencing produced no new details in a case that remains mysterious well over two years after the crime occurred. The sentenced, indeed, were not charged with links to organized crime, forced disappearance or murder, which still leaves the case with most of its storylines unsolved.

As part of the case, at least four police officers have also been detained for their links in the crime (two of whom have been released since), along with Heaven employees and many other individuals. A third part-owner of the bar was being sought, like the now-sentenced Espinosa Lobo and Carmona Aiza, when his badly burned corpse was found in July of 2013.

Two of the police officers arrested have direct links to the area where the youths disappeared as their patrol zone includes the Zona Rosa district of Mexico City, the area where Heaven was located.

The Zona Rosa, a former nightlife district that is now coming back to life after decades of neglect and declay, is located less than five kilometers from Tepito, the neighborhood where the victims came from. Tepito is an urban, densely populated area just north of the historic city center and is known as a hardscrabble, working-class section.

Filled with industrial buildings and overflowing with tianguis, or traditional open-air markets, the Tepito neighborhood is known as the main marketplace in Mexico City for stolen and counterfeit goods and it is a breeding ground for crimes like theft and robbery, which has led to an increasing gang presence in the area that is known as the roughest neighborhood in the entire country.

That gang presence is what the government has said was apparently the cause of the kidnapping and killing. Although no official reason has still been given for the abduction or why the victims were targeted, government investigators suspect that the perpetrators belonged to a gang that was hellbent on avenging the murder of their leader that took place weeks before the Heaven incident.

La Unión y Los Tepis are two gangs that have operated in Tepito for several decades now and occasionally wage street battles against each other, and it was discovered that members of one of the gangs were involved in the kidnapping. Judicial officials handling the case have said that none of the victims were involved in any gangs or criminal groups themselves but that three of the victims were related to criminal figures who operated in the area and were incarcerated at the time of the killings.

Another theory that has been raised by investigators (and Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera) is that the 13 were kidnapped and killed due to a conflict between rival street-level drug dealers.

This theory, however, has not been accepted by the victims’ families as a typical, street-level drug dealer would not have the operational capacity to carry out a multi-vehicle kidnapping in an urban area with a police station and security cameras in the immediate vicinity, nor would that simple drug dealer torture, dismember and bury the victims in a mass grave in a rural area.

That sort of sophisticated kidnapping and forced disappearance operation, along with the brutality of the torture and the internment of the dismembered bodies in a mass grave, is the calling card of the narcotrafficking cartels that have terrorized other parts of Mexico.

The reason that this criminal element has not been discussed by investigators, however, could be due to the fact that Mexico City, the urban heart of the nation with some 30 million residents in the metropolitan area, has remained relatively unaffected by the upheaval seen elsewhere in the nation due to cartel violence.

That same sort of brutal violence, a trademark of the cartels, is also something that made investigators discard the theory of their involvement. In similar cases where a small group in a small locale is targeted, cartel members would simply enter and massacre everyone inside in a hail of gunfire. Operations that involve kidnapping, murder and mass graves are typically reserved for larger groups of victims of a longer period of time and in a strategic location along the well-known drug smuggling routes.

Indeed, closed circuit security cameras recording in the neighborhood at the time of the kidnapping showed the events of that day and how they played out. The footage revealed the youths entering the bar separately at different points during the late evening and early morning hours and then later being walked out by at least seventeen unarmed and unmasked men with no force involved just before sunrise.

Given these strange circumstances, some of the victims’ family members have even alleged that the government could be complicit in the killings, although no proof of those accusations has surfaced, unlike in the highly publicized Ayotzinapa case where the victims and their teachers’ college were heavily involved in political activism and regularly protested against local (Guerrero State) and national authorities.

Other relatives of the victims, on the other hand, have expressed concern that regardless of who was behind their loved ones’ killings will not be captured. The reason for this, they say, is that security forces in the capital have not put all of their efforts into the case because the victims all came from one of Mexico City’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

On May 26 of this year, the second anniversary of the kidnapping, the family members and loved ones of the victims gathered at the now-closed building that housed Heaven at 27 Lancaster Street to lay flowers and candles at the makeshift memorial. They lamented the loss of the 13 and decried the justice system and its figures.

One victim’s mother said that Rodolfo Ríos Garza, the Attorney General of the Federal District, had not met with the families since August of 2013 when the mass grave was discovered.

Another mother guaranteed to Mexican daily La Jornada that “if these children were the children of the Attorney General, I would be damned if he did not move heaven and earth to find them but since we are from Tepito, they treat us like common criminals and thieves.”