The Latin American Disappeared and Repeating History in Mexico

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On October 15, activists rallied outside Mexican embassies across Latin America demanding the return of the 43 students of Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, commonly referred to as normalistas, who were abducted by police and organized crime from the Mexican state of Guerrero for their political activism. The college students’ disappearance is yet another episode in the long history of disappearing those critical of Latin American governments during the Cold War and dirty wars in Latin America.

In Guatemala City, activists from HIJOS Guatemala, an organization that advocates for the investigation of those who were disappeared during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict, organized a demonstration outside the Mexican Embassy. Photos of the disappeared students were displayed, and a banner declaring, “The anger and indignation exceeds borders,” was taped below the Mexican crest.

“This is a historic moment for Latin America and it is important for the people who were affected by the Cold War and the dirty war to demonstrate in solidarity with the normalistas in Mexico,” said Paco, a HIJOS member from Guatemala. “We are repeating history. The conservative forces are making alliances with the mafias and cartels. They are using the disappearances to advance their interests of market liberation.”

Guatemalans know all too well the terror and fear created by disappearances. According to Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano, Guatemala was the “first Latin American laboratory in which the dirty war was carried out.” During the internal armed conflict, 40,000 people were disappeared by the right-wing military dictatorships. Nearly 20 years after the end of the war, families still demand to know what happened to their loved ones.

Support for the normalistas in Guerrero has come from across Latin America, and from around the world. Similar demonstrations in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, among other countries – all where critics were threatened with disappearances during the dirty wars of the 1960s through 1990s – were held to coincide with the demonstrations in Mexico.

“Alive They Were Taken, Alive We Want Them Back”

The students from Guerrero’s Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, were last seen on September 26 in Iguala, Guerrero, when state police and members of organized crime from the western Mexican state ambushed their buses. Three students were killed at the scene, along with three bystanders in the attack, which was directed at the students. Reports from the scene state that the 43 people were forced off the buses by police, and put into police vehicles. The students have not been seen since.

Soon after the attack, the mayor of Iguala, Albarca Velázquez, and the police chief went into hiding. Both are alleged to have ordered the attack on the students, and have connections to organized crime in Guerrero.

In the search for the missing students, searchers have made the gruesome discovery of more than 19 mass graves in the state of Guerrero around Iguala, a testament to the widespread use of disappearances in the drug war in Mexico. As of yet, none of the graves have contained remains of the missing students.

Normalistas were in Iguala to raise money to fund their travel to Mexico City to participate in demonstrations organized by the students of National Autonomous University and the National Polytechnic School, to mark the October 2 anniversary of the 1968 massacre of students by the military.

Teachers from across Mexico joined students in condemning the Mexican government and joined the protests demanding the return of the missing students. The radical Oaxacan teachers union, Section 22 voted in early October to support the students, and strike alongside them. The coalition has held protests across Mexico demanding, “alive they were taken, and alive we want them back.”

Students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in association with other public and private universities and student organizations, called for a national strike demanding the return of their fellow students.

On October 13, students and teachers demanding the return of the missing students in Guerrero clashed with police, and set fire to the government palace. The following day in the Mexican state of Michoacán, students were arrested for attempting to hijack buses to support the students protesting in Guerrero.

Since the disappearance, federal police have arrested 50 individuals, including 14 police officers, who are allegedly connected to the attack. Yet no amount of effort from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will eliminate activists’ claims that he is partially responsible for the disappearances.

For many activists in Mexico, the disappearance of the students from Iguala is eerily similar to the state violence that occurred during the years of the dirty war in Guerrero where the government targeted guerillas and campesinos and detained and disappeared them, as did the dictatorships of Central and South America in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the disappearances of the dirty wars, the attacks on students are meant to stymie and intimidate their movement.

As a result, the students and teachers are quick to denounce the insecurity and fear that is created by the neoliberal policies of a Mexican government that has allowed the cartels and the state to become deeply intertwined. Furthermore, as critics point out, Peña Nieto has focused more on pursuing neoliberal reforms than tackling corruption within the Mexican state – corruption that allows the disappearance of 43 students with absolute impunity.

Living Memory

The solidarity coming from Latin America is significant. Today, the memory of those who disappeared without a trace during the dirty wars still lingers.

“Disappearing” dissidents was the favored technique used to strike fear into those who challenged the right-wing dictatorships during the dirty wars in South America. Operation Condor in the Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil was responsible for the disappearance of tens of thousands of leftists and critics of the conservative governments who were following Milton Friedman’s blueprint for neoliberal reforms. In many cases, those carrying out the disappearances received training from the CIA.

Galeano captures the fear created by the disappearances in his seminal book Days and Nights of Love and War, in which he recounts his experiences during the dirty war in exile from his home in Uruguay.

“The technique of the ‘disappeared’: There are no prisoners to claim nor martyrs to mourn. The earth devours the people and the government washes its hands,” he wrote about the disappearances in Latin America.

The disappearance of the students in Mexico follows this same formula: a state force using criminal or paramilitary elements to execute the repression. This isn’t something lost on the activists of Latin America; the memories of terror still remain 20 or 30 years later, as do the memories of those who were never found.

Furthermore, the paramilitary violence – as carried out by the cartels – reflects the violence of neoliberal transformation of the economies of Brazil, Chile and Argentina, when the state apparatus was used to strike terror into the hearts of the critics of dictatorships.

Mexico first embarked down the path toward neoliberal reforms of the economy in the 1980s. The 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sped up the reforms, the opening of the economy and the selling off of public institutions. Peña Nieto has overseen the near completion of the neoliberal agenda by privatizing the oil industry, “reforming” the telecommunications industry, breaking teachers unions and utterly transforming the Mexican education system. The recent violence is a return to this dark period in Latin America history, especially as Mexico pursues a neoliberal development policy that activists claim is “ripping the social fabric of their country.”

In an interview in August 2014, an educator associated with Section 22 of the Oaxacan teachers union, a radical union that has led the resistance of teachers to Peña Nieto’s education reforms, recounted his fear that Mexico was “returning to the era of state repression.” In many ways, the disappearance of the 43 students in Guerrero is that return.