Mexico Missing Students
People light candles around the photographs of missing students from the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college during a protest at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Oct. 23, 2014. Reuters/Daniel Becerril

The governor of a Mexican state where rage has swelled over the disappearances of 43 students stepped down after weeks of mass protests and pressure from his own party. Protesters had been calling loudly for his resignation over the case of the missing students, which has come to signify deep-seated corruption and political links with organized crime in Mexico.

Angel Aguirre, the governor of Guerrero state, where the students were last seen in September, told reporters at a press conference Thursday night that he was requesting an indefinite leave of absence in order to “better the political climate” and allow the search for the students to go on unhindered.

“In this tragic scenario, I refuse to center public debate on whether the governor should remain in office,” he said. “The priority should be to continue with the search for the missing youth and guarantee that those responsible for these serious human rights violations are punished.”

Protesters had demanded Aguirre’s resignation over his handling of the search for the students, who have been missing for nearly a month. They were last seen in late September in the town of Iguala, where local police shot at them while they were attempting to commandeer buses to take them back to their university. Witnesses said they last saw the students being hauled off in police cars, and federal officials believe the students were handed over to local gang members afterward. More than 20 police officers have been arrested and interrogated in connection with the episode.

Rage over the incident has been palpable in Guerrero, with protesters marching in the streets and overtaking government buildings. Last week a group of demonstrators set fire to parts of the state government complex, and this week dozens of protesters stormed and torched Iguala’s town hall.

Although Aguirre is the first official political casualty of the ongoing mass protests, he is not the first to leave the scene: The mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, fled town along with his wife a day after the students clashed with police, and he is considered a fugitive. Authorities believe that Abarca, widely thought to have deep ties to organized crime groups, first ordered the police to go after the students for fear that they would disrupt a speech being given by his wife on the same day. Officials ordered arrest warrants for both Abarca and his wife this week.