Sunday, July 26, 2015 was the ten month anniversary of the forced disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. Commonly referred to the as the “Ayotzinapa 43”, these young men were new freshman at the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School who disappeared without a trace over ten months ago. There has been much speculation as to what really happened to these students. The Mexican government has not been transparent with the investigation and there is evidence to suggest that state actors were involved in their forced disappearance. They were last seen in police custody and as of today none of the missing students have turned up alive. The family members of these students have one rallying cry, “You took them alive, we want them alive!” Initially when word got out about the students’ disappearance there were worldwide protests and actions. Every month on the 26th, family members of the students and human rights groups all around the world, take time to remember these young students. As is the case with many tragic events, the passage of time dims the interest of the international community. The events of September 26, 2014 were a turning point for human rights in Mexico and need to be acknowledged and remembered.
Rural teachers colleges in Mexico were founded in 1921 and are known as “normales” or normal schools. In the normales the students are given a lot of independence. They participate directly in administrative decision-making, and have established support networks among the other rural colleges. The schools function as boarding schools and the students are given meals as well as a small daily stipend. The young people who choose to study at the rural teachers colleges are generally the poorest students in the country. They are also very bright as they have to pass exams and be accepted to the school. These students are trained to educate poor “campesinos” or peasant farmers in the most marginalized and remote communities. These are rural areas where teachers who have trained in urban areas do not want to work. Many of the students at these rural schools are themselves campesinos and this is their only chance at an education.
Besides giving rural communities an opportunity to receive an education, the schools were created to do political work and consciousness-raising. The students at the rural colleges exhibit a strict discipline unlike their counterparts at urban teachers colleges. Of the 46 original rural teachers colleges, only 15 are left. Many legendary Mexican guerrillas have passed through the normal schools. This level of political activism is one the reasons that the Mexican government has not been supportive and is suspicious of these schools and their students. The students live in spartan conditions bordering on impoverished while at the school. They sleep on cardboard on the floor and have little in the way of resources. It appears that the Mexican government tries hard not to fund these schools as a way to dampen the activism of the students. With all of the corruption and problems in the federal, state and municipal authorities in Mexico, an educated and motivated group of politically active young people are considered a direct threat.
Brooklyn based journalist Ryan Devereaux has done extensive research on the events that unfolded on September 26, 2014. Following here are some of the facts that he has documented in a two-part series called “Ghosts of Iguala”. On Friday, September 26, 2014, one hundred students left the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School in Ayotzinapa in two buses. They were going to observe other rural colleges and learn teaching techniques. They were also planning on attending an event in Mexico City. Every year students from rural teachers colleges meet on October 2nd in Mexico City to commemorate the Tlatelolco Massacre in 1968 where an estimated 30 to 300 students and civilians were killed by the Mexican military and police during a protest.
A common and well known practice among these students is to commandeer buses. Considering that the students receive very limited funding, they have to fend for themselves in terms of resources. This includes taking the lead on their transportation. The students stop a bus and then negotiate with the driver. Generally the drivers are fine with this because they are paid. There has been criticism of this tactic, but it is very common.
The students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School left in the late afternoon. After about seventy miles from campus they stopped twenty miles outside the city of Iguala. The students split into two teams. One bus waited on the side of the highway. The other bus went to a toll booth. The students at the toll booth stopped a bus and made a deal with the driver. The driver wanted to drop off his passengers and he agreed to then drive the students. Some of the students boarded the bus and went with the driver to the bus station in Iguala. At the bus station the students waited on the bus while they watched the driver talk to a security guard and make a phone call. After waiting on the bus for awhile the students decided to exit the bus. They found out that the doors on the bus were locked from the outside. They were frantic and started to panic. They called their classmates who quickly showed up. They broke the windows of the bus and managed to escape. This is where the situation starts to get chaotic. In the ensuing confusion the students grabbed more buses for a total of five. Two of the buses took a direct route to the highway and the other three started crawling through the congested city streets of Iguala. Their plan was to leave Iguala and continue on to their destination.
The buses that were slowly making their way through the crowded streets of Iguala were being followed by police patrols. The police started firing live rounds at the buses. The students thought that they were shooting into the air. They realized pretty quickly that the police were shooting directly at them. At one point one of the buses was cut off by a municipal police cruiser and then was abandoned on the street to block the passage of the students. The students jumped off the bus and attempted to move the vehicle. The students armed themselves with rocks as a desperate precaution against the gratuitous gunfire. As the students were trying to move the police vehicle they started screaming. One of their friends was shot in the head. The panicked students started hiding under buses and some ran. The young man who was hit in the side of his skull is still in a coma and has been pronounced brain dead. The students on the first two buses were running and hiding and trying to stay alive. The police removed the students from the third bus which had shattered windows from multiple gunshots and blood soaked seats. The students were forced onto the ground and then loaded onto the beds of the police trucks. Black hoods were placed over the heads of all of the students. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
As this was happening in the city, the two buses that made it to the highway were also under attack. Armed gunmen were patrolling the road looking for the buses. One of the buses was caught under an overpass. When it was discovered hours later the tires were blown out and it was covered in broken glass. A pile of clothes was found nearby covered in bloodstains. These students were attacked by hooded police and they were removed from the bus. These students have also not been seen since this incident. The second bus was pulled over and the students disembarked. A police officer held a pistol to them and they ran from the scene. This bus contained fourteen students. A little while later the police attacked another bus carrying a semi-professional soccer team. The police let loose a hail of bullets and killed one of the soccer players, a fifteen year old.
Back at the scene of the first attack in the city streets, the students who were not taken away were milling around and making phone calls to human rights workers, journalists and other students back in Ayotzinapa. A few reporters showed up and the students were using rocks to preserve evidence and mark bullet casings. A police patrol drove by and opened fire on the students. Two young men from the Ayotzinapa school were killed during this attack. They bled to death in the street. Some students took cover and then ran away. Another group of students ran to a private medical clinic where they expected to be helped. Instead they were turned away by the frightened staff members. As the students were begging for an ambulance patrols from the 27th Battalion showed. The students received no medical care and instead were held at gunpoint. As the soldiers left they issued one last, terrifying and telling, threat. “If you give us false names, you’ll never be found”.
The next morning the violence of the previous evening was obvious. Shell casings, destroyed buses, pools of blood and more importantly, the disappearance of 43 students told a frightening story. It took almost four days to account for the other students and for them to come out of hiding This is the point that the families of these boys raced to Ayotzinapa and also to Iguala to search the jails. In the first months after the students’ disappearances, a number of search parties looked for the missing students.
A few days after the violent events a number of local police officers were arrested. The narrative that started coming out of Mexico was that the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, was involved and was possibly the mastermind of the kidnappings. His wife (and heir apparent to the mayor’s seat) was giving a speech that same evening and she was unhappy that the students were in Iguala. Supposedly, she was concerned that they were going to disrupt her event. She has family ties to drug cartels and political ambitions. Apparently, the mayor and his wife ordered the police to detain the students and they were handed off to the cartel. Abarca and his wife went on the run and were arrested in October in Mexico City. A number of people have been arrested, mostly low-level local police and gang members. Although there is evidence to suggest that federal police and/or members of the military were involved, there has been no thorough investigation on this front. Many people think that the Mexican government has done a shoddy job investigating. They tried to find an easy explanation for the violence and to not implicate any federal authorities. It is better for the Mexican government if these were the actions of local and municipal authorities.
According to Francisco Goldman of The New Yorker magazine, the government’s case has unraveled. The Mexican government and more particularly the (former) Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, have stuck religiously to the theory that the local Iguala police handed off the students to the Guerreros Unidos, a local drug trafficking gang. According to them, the students were transported to the Cocula (another nearby town) where some had asphyxiated on the trip and the remaining students were executed. One of the 43 students was found the next morning in Iguala, murdered with his face peeled off and eyes gouged out. The corpses were burned in a massive pyre of wood, tires, plastic etc. The gunmen gathered the incinerated remains and placed them into plastic bags and then tossed in a nearby river. There is not nearly enough evidence to warrant this conclusion. No remains of the students have been definitively located.
The Attorney General sparked outrage internationally when he cut off a press conference about the Ayotzinapa 43 in November 2014 by stating “Ya me canse” — a phrase meaning, “Enough, I’m tired”. President Peña Nieto, has also given the appearance of indifference to this crime. In January of 2015, he declared the students dead and told the family members and the world to “move on”. This comment rightly enraged many Mexicans and people of good will all over the world.
Since President Peña Nieto took office the number of daily missing persons has risen from an average of six people per day to thirteen per day. In the initial search for the 43 students a number of mass graves were discovered. The graves were full of bodies, but none of them were the Ayotzinapa students. It is a horrifying commentary on the state of affairs in Mexico that the discovery of a mass grave is almost becoming mundane. Estimates vary, but it is a widely accepted fact that there are anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 missing people in Mexico at this time. The case of the 43 students was the breaking point for the Mexican populace. This case is unique in that it received international attention. These boys have become the faces of all of the missing in Mexico.
The challenges that are facing the Mexican people come from many different sources. They face threats from drug cartels, street gangs and the corruption that is found in many local police forces. They also endure much from the federal police and the military. Part of this problem is exacerbated by the Mérida Initiative. The Mérida Initiative, aka Plan Mexico, is defined as a “new security cooperation initiative” between Mexico and the U.S. to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. While the stated goals are to “produce a safer and more secure hemisphere and prevent the spread of illicit drugs and transnational threats,” the reality of the initiative for the Mexican people tells a different story.
In a memo dated July 6, 2015 from Amnesty International and other human rights groups to The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Congress, an assessment of the human rights requirements in the Mérida Initiative is detailed. The main conclusion of this memo is that research and documentation by Amnesty International and the United Nations concludes that the Mexican government has failed to make sufficient progress on the human rights priorities identified by the U.S. Congress in its assistance to Mexico. The memo also noted that the Mexican government has not made any meaningful progress in regard to the high numbers of enforced disappearances and the widespread use of torture by state and federal actors. The authors of the memo recommend that the U.S. cease all financial assistance to Mexico and its armed forces through the Mérida Initiative as it reinforces the dangerous role of the armed forces in domestic law enforcement. The unchecked abuses and corruption found within Mexican security forces are likely to exacerbate the already dreadful human rights situation in Mexico. The United States has sent millions of dollars to Mexican state that is waging a war against the local citizenry.
The United States has a vested interest in the stability of Mexico. Both countries have many intertwined social and political relationships. What happens in Mexico has a direct impact on the United States. Issues like immigration, human trafficking, drugs and gun smuggling all have links to both countries. On a human note, severe violations of human rights, torture, murder and enforced disappearances are issues that should inspire the United States to take action. It is clear that the Mérida Initiative has emboldened the Mexican military and expanded their role in domestic law enforcement to a dangerous level. The United States needs to immediately stop funding the Mexican state for the sake of Mexico and its people.
Todos Somos Ayotzinapa – We are all Ayotzinapa