The flames started to engulf the municipal palace of Chilpancingo in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero as the rage built within the students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College who, for more than three weeks, have received no answers concerning the whereabouts of 43 of their fellow students. The last time the group of missing students were seen was in the custody of Mexican municipal police forces, who detained them after opening fire on their caravan in an attack that killed six people and injured dozens more. This massacre and subsequent disappearance of the students, known as “normalistas,” has sparked an international movement demanding that the 43 students be found alive. But it has also called into question the deep ties between drug cartels and Mexican politicians.
To understand the political significance of the Ayotzinapa case, it’s important to understand who the students are. The Ayotzinapa Normal School was founded in 1926 in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution as a teachers’ boarding school for youth from the most marginalized rural communities in Guerrero, a poor state in the south of the country. The students have been some of the nation’s most politically active; in recent years, they participated in protests against education reforms that they believed would privatize the system. Furthermore, the majority of the 43 who have disappeared grew up in rural farming towns that have been devastated by Mexico’s post-NAFTA economy. These voices of dissent are the ones that the government saw as a target for their machine gun fire — thinking no one would take notice.
But people have taken notice. On October 8, tens of thousands of them marched in solidarity actions in 80 cities across Mexico, Latin America, Europe and North America. On October 15 tens of thousands more people took to the streets, and the majority of public and private universities in Mexico City went on strike.
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If You Moved
The initial attack against the students came two and a half weeks ago, when local police, in conjunction with armed gunmen, opened fire on three buses full of normalistas in Iguala, Guerrero, located just 150 miles southwest of Mexico City. The students had traveled to this small city to ask for donations to help them finance their trip to Mexico City for the annual march honoring the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. The students had boarded commercial buses, after asking for permission from the bus drivers, according to their testimonies. Commandeering buses is a common practice for the normalistas, who say their schools limited budget drives them to take these measures. They also often engage in Robin Hood-style expropriations of large corporations’ delivery trucks to get milk and other basic food items. (The normalistas constantly engage in anti-capitalist actions that most direct-action anarchists only dream about.)
While the normalistas of Ayotzinapa are known for protesting, that is not what they were doing at the moment that they were ambushed — contrary to the majority of reports that have appeared in the international press. Instead, they were en route to their school aboard the commandeered buses, when, according to students’ testimony, municipal police and armed gunmen opened fire on them in two separate attacks.
“If you moved, they fired, if you yelled or talked, they fired,” said Ayotzinapa student Mario in an interview with VICE News.
Two students, 25-year-old Daniel Solís Gallardo and 19-year-old Aldo Gutiérrez Solano, were killed. Dozens more were injured. In a separate attack nearby, armed men opened fire on a bus of a semi-professional soccer league, most likely mistaking them for the normalista students, killing 15-year-old soccer player David Josué García Evangelista, the bus driver Víctor Manuel Lugo Ortiz, and Blanca Montiel Sánchez in a nearby taxi.
The day after the attack, Ayotzinapa student Julio Cesar Mondragón was found dead. His body exhibited signs of torture: His facial skin was torn off and his eyes gouged out. Since then, 22 police have been detained from Iguala, as well as over a dozen supposed members of the narco-trafficking gang Guerreros Unidos and policemen from the nearby town of Cocula, for their involvement in the ambush.
José Luis Abarca, the mayor of this small city, first claimed to have no knowledge of the attack. (His excuse was that he was busy dancing at a government celebration with his wife.) Shortly thereafter, Abarca fled the town along with Felipe Flores Velázquez, the municipal secretary of security, and his wife, María de los Angeles Pineda, whose family has clear drug cartel ties. There is a search warrant out for Abarca and Velázquez.
Abarca, who belongs to the Party of the Democratic Revolution, which is considered by many to be a leftist opposition party, has been in the spotlight before. Last year, eight members of a campesino organization were kidnapped, of which three were murdered, including leader Arturo Martínez Cardona. One of the kidnapped campesinos managed to escape and gave a testimony stating that Abarca himself pulled the trigger that killed Martínez. No proper investigation was conducted into these murders, and the case currently sits before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Abarca’s mother-in-law, Maria Leonor Villa Ortuño, revealed in a forced testimony in a YouTube video released last year that her family members worked for the Beltran Leyva cartel and that they had financed the gubernatorial campaign of Angel Aguirre, who is the current governor of Guerrero. Thus it should come as no surprise that municipal police were working hand-in-hand with the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, as the state has a documented history of narco-government collaboration. In fact, this cartel has hung banners in Iguala stating “The War has begun,” threatening to reveal the names of all politicians who have relations with this organized crime group if they don’t release the police detained for attacking the buses of students.
A week after the students disappeared, the state government claimed that testimonies of the detained police and cartel members led them to clandestine graves where the bodies of the normalistas have been buried. The international press immediately started pumping out their stories about the mass graves containing the students. The parents of the students are more skeptical; after all, it was state forces that fired on their children, kidnapped them and, according to the state attorney’s office, handed them off to a drug cartel.
Mexico Is a Mass Grave
Rather than accept the government’s allegations, family members, students and human rights groups began pressing for an independent investigation. A well-known Argentine forensic team rose to the task. On October 14, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam stated that according to their investigation the bodies in the first round of mass graves do not belong to the students.
The question remains: If it’s not the students’ bodies, who are they? Likely they belong to the close to 10,000 people who have disappeared during President Peña Nieto’s first two years in power.
“Mexico is a mass grave,” writes the Mexican Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, famous for his defense of Central America migrants crossing Mexico. In other words, it may seem logical to assume that the remains of the dozens of disappeared people are those in clandestine graves that were discovered a week later, but as mass graves become more common across the country, this likelihood diminishes. Last year, in the nearby state of Jalisco, for example, at least 67 bodies were found buried in 35 different clandestine graves. The same Argentine forensic team is still trying to identify some of the remains of the 72 largely Central American migrants who were killed in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, just 85 miles shy of the U.S. border in 2010.
“The government wants to instill terror in the population,” said Edith Na Savi, a young indigenous activist speaking about why the students were targeted. “Ayotzinapa, here in Guerrero, has been an emblematic example of struggle, with these students who are organized and fighting for their right to education.” Na Savi also pointed to the state’s horrific human rights records; according to local media outlets, between 2011 and 2013, more than 17 political activists have been assassinated and more 16 incarcerated.
The state of Guerrero has a long history of political repression, particularly during the dirty wars of the 1970s, when the government disappeared and assassinated leftist and indigenous guerillas. Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, the most famous of these guerillas, were themselves both graduates of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College. These movements gained strength following the government’s massacre of students in Mexico City in Tlatelolco in 1968 and in Halconazo in 1971.
Guerilla armies still operate in Guerrero today but with much less strength. Since the massacre and disappearance of the students, at least three groups have released communiqués, including the People’s Insurgent Revolutionary Army, which stated that they are forming a “Popular Execution Brigade” to confront the Guerreros Unidos cartel. A communiqué from the Popular Militants of Guerrero blamed the government for numerous massacres including the recent military execution of 22 young people in a warehouse in the nearby town of Tlatlaya in Mexico State on June 30, 2014.
We Want Them Back Live
Numerous politicians have threatened to close down the remaining 16 Normal schools, which are run by the Federation of Socialist Campesino Students, claiming that they breed guerrillas. In an interview conducted during the large mobilization in Mexico City on October 8, 2014, one student said that he was proud of the radical political tradition but not of the repression associated with it. “Five of our students have been killed in the past four years,” said the student during the protest, referencing a previous attack when the government opened fire and killed two students blockading a Guerrero highway to demand more resources for their historically underfunded school. “Now the people will think: if I study in Ayotzinapa are they going to kill me?”
As journalist Daniela Rea explained in a recent article, these students are also often on the frontlines of broad community struggles. “They, together with other residents of Guerrero, resist the construction of dams and mines on their land, the domination of the local chiefs, the militarization of indigenous communities,” she wrote.
But this activism has subjected the students to an increasing amount of hostility — both from the country’s elites and the government. And in an atmosphere of impunity, this hatred can turn into an outright massacre. As Mexican journalist Luis Hernando Navarro said, in response to a question on why the government would kill normalistas: “Because they can.” He added, “You see this in the media and society that the police believe that they won’t be tried for their crimes.”
Yet, this attitude is increasingly being challenged by mobilizations by students, family members and broader civil society demanding the reappearance of their fellow comrades. Graffiti painted on the streets of major thoroughfares throughout the nation beg people to not forget the normalistas, declaring: “You took them alive; we want them back live.”
One particularly poignant stencil sprayed on a central avenue in Mexico City features the face on one of the disappeared students and the words: “I don’t know you, but we need you to make a better world.”