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Mexico arrests cartel figure in disappearance of 43 students

MEXICO CITY -- Federal authorities captured a suspected high-ranking drug cartel member who has been implicated in last year's disappearance of 43 college students in the southern state of Guerrero, officials said Thursday.

State prosecutor Miguel Angel Godinez Munoz announced the arrest of Gildardo Lopez Astudillo in a statement, and National Security Commissioner Renato Sales later confirmed the detention.

Sales called Lopez Astudillo, 36, the "intellectual author" of the students' disappearance. He was arrested Wednesday in the city of Taxco and is suspected of involvement in drug distribution, extortion and organized crime.

Protesters demand justice for 43 missing Mexican students

In November, then Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said it was Lopez Astudillo who informed his drug gang boss, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, that rivals were causing trouble in the city of Iguala. Casarrubias allegedly instructed him to defend their turf.

The government's investigation maintains that local police in Iguala illegally detained the students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa on Sept. 26, 2014, and turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos gang. Authorities say they were killed and incinerated at a garbage dump.

A recent report presented by a group of independent investigators has discredited many aspects of the official inquiry, such as discounting the possibility that the bodies were burned on a giant pyre at the dump, fueling the anger of parents who had gone nearly a year not knowing what happened to their sons.

While the government said the Sept. 26 attack was a case of mistaken identity, the report said it was a violent and coordinated reaction to the students, who were hijacking buses for transportation to a demonstration and may have unknowingly interfered with a drug shipment on one of the buses. Iguala, the city in southern Guerrero state where that attacks took place, is known as a transport hub for heroin going to the United States, particularly Chicago, some of it by bus, the report said.

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Relatives of 43 missing students hold portraits during a protest demanding justice and clarification of the disappearance of their loved ones from Ayotzinapa, on December 6, 2014 in Mexico City. YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

"The business that moves the city of Iguala could explain such an extreme and violent reaction and the character of the massive attack," the experts said in the report delivered to the government and the students' families during a public presentation, where some chanted "It was the state!"

The report means that nearly a year after the disappearance, the fate of 42 of the students remains a mystery, given the errors, omissions and false conclusions outlined in more than 400 pages by the experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Only a charred bone fragment of one of the 43 has been identified and it wasn't burned at the high temperature of an incineration, contrary to Mexican investigators' claims.