Why Did Mexican Police Make 43 Student Teachers Disappear?

Montevideo, Uruguay: Girl holds sign reading A girl holds sign reading “We’re missing 43” at the “Uruguay for Ayotzinapa” demonstration on November 17, 2014 in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo: Sofía)

Assisted by Manuel Juarez, who is a Mexican historian.

Luis Carrillo is 20 years old. He is gentle with his mother, and though quiet, a good debater at school. He is training to be a teacher. On September 26, 2014, six of his classmates were openly murdered, and he was among 43 more carried away by police, never to be seen again. On April 26, Mexican teachers burned trucks at the legislature and continued to demand an explanation.

This story is about Mexico’s top-down educational “reform.” It is about the testing industry and largely indigenous rural Mexican teachers and the international private school industry. It tells how governments prioritize so-called economic development, with little concern for workers’ rights and teachers’ voices, and how teachers are brutally silenced – even killed.

The Massacre

Recently, in Iguala, Mexico, a total of 49 teachers-to-be were kidnapped and killed. Six were killed in the initial attack, and 43 were trucked away. Several men confessed to executing the 43 and then incinerating their bodies with tires and gasoline. However, many Mexicans doubt these specifics and suspect local, state and federal governments of covering up what occurred, a violent political repression.

They were killed, at least in part, because they were poor, rural teachers from indigenous backgrounds, teachers who were speaking out.

All sources say police fired into a defenseless group of education students traveling through Iguala, a modern, historic town south of Mexico City. The students were almost all college freshman at the normal school (teachers’ college) at Ayotzinapa (Ah-yote-see-NAH-pah). The normal school students (normalistas) regularly organize public events to express teachers’ voices about managing schools. That day, they were part of a related activity, organizing to attend annual public marches commemorating the never-prosecuted 1968 military slaughter of hundreds of students in Mexico City. The normalistas carried no weapons. The government now tells the enraged public to forget about the “senseless” massacre. Politicians tender only the shallowest explanation of the massacre, now mentioned infrequently in the corporate-government media.

Mexican Society Responds

However, many Mexicans are still digging to know what occurred, who was responsible and why. The families and classmates of the murdered student-teachers have organized speaking tours throughout Mexico, and now the US. In mid-November, these speakers spoke before thousands in the Mexican city where I live. Two fathers of victims affected the audience of 43 most strongly. In Mexico, men like these fathers – with little money, and no political connections – can be made to disappear easily; no one will search for the killers. Both men said they are no longer afraid. They have already lost everything. Each speaker clearly spoke out, with anguish and anger, repeating their movement’s message, “Our sons were carried away alive. We want them back alive.”

The Aggressiveness of the US-Mexican Drug War

Since 2006, social violence has exploded in Mexico. That year, the Mexican and US governments began militarizing the Mexican “war on drugs.” Since this “Merida Initiative” began, the export of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin into the US market has not been staunched. More than 100,000 Mexicans have died in this “drug war.” According to Amnesty International, more than 22,000 people have disappeared. Much killing has been done by criminal gangs in the businesses of extortion, kidnapping, the sale of humans and human body parts, and the production and sale of recreational drugs. Much has been done by soldiers and police – often criminally allied – using US arms and funding. The aggressiveness of the government forces has a binational seal of approval from the US and Mexico. Both US political parties support it.

Public schools are the one Mexican institution that aims to expose poor, rural Mexicans to the humanities and critical thinking, and provides an economic opportunity.

Combining ignorance, laziness and institutional malevolence, the US press typically reports the Iguala massacre as fallout from “drug gang wars.” The often repeated US press story is that the murders were caused by the unfortunate whim of an Iguala politician who was irritated by the loudly protesting Ayotzinapa students, ordering them to be removed by police, who then delivered them to a gang, her collaborators, to be slaughtered.

The government continually leaks information that supports the shallow story that the gang members thought they were removing drug-trade competitors. Removed they were – brutally, but the silencing of the teachers-to-be was not about the drug war, and not even the most sold-out official or publication claims these students had criminal links. They were killed, at least in part, because they were poor, rural teachers from indigenous backgrounds, teachers who were speaking out.

Who Were They And What Forces Contributed to Their Deaths?

The student-teachers killed in Iguala on September 26, 2014, were a group that regularly organized to speak out passionately and politically about the ballyhooed Mexican educational reform, focusing on key themes such as the privatization of public school networks and the undermining of rural teachers committed to community empowerment. Most importantly, they wanted working-class teachers running rural schools – not political demagogues, or money-making interests or urban intellectuals.

Mexican educational reform is tied to the US privatization process, but has its own flavor and its own impact on poor and indigenous communities. The school at Ayotzinapa is a rural normal school, part of a 1930s education effort to prepare teachers for Mexico’s overwhelmingly poor population. Public schools are the one Mexican institution that aims to expose poor, rural Mexicans to the humanities and critical thinking, and provides an economic opportunity. The rural normal schools attract poor, rural young people of an indigenous background and send them home to teach and train their students to show respect for, and listen to, rural and indigenous ways and knowledge.

Some time back, I encountered others of these teachers-to-be from a sister normal school at a “manifestación.” (a public gathering, a protest, with placards). They were urging authorities to increase the student spots at their teaching college and had no access to the Mexican media, which is jealously controlled by powerful interests. Throughout Mexico, groups often have street assemblies, blocking traffic, irritating some drivers. Normalistas often do this. That day, I listened to several young men in their late teens. They wanted the possibilities of their school expanded, not marginalized and closed. They were concerned about the future of teachers, as were the teachers-to-be from Ayotzinapa a few years later in Iguala.

The Ayotzinapa normalistas regularly protested Mexico’s new reform, which, if carried out, will obliterate their career path. For decades, the normalistas have graduated into rural school, entry-level jobs, with tiny salaries. The educational reform seeks to eliminate this, dictating that all aspiring teachers must take nationally standardized tests. The normalistas know that people from favored backgrounds will score highest – and the tradition of having permanent local people teach in rural communities will end.

The Mexican Private School Industry

Fifty percent of Mexicans have an income of $8 dollars, or much less, per day. Approximately one-half of Mexican children go to private schools. The private school industry is lucrative and serves corporate, religious and small business interests. As an example, take a private primary school with 1,400 students in Monterrey, Mexico. The annual profit to the school’s owners exceeds $7 million dollars. The salaries of its teachers and administrators add up to fewer than $2 million dollars.

Politically active corporate and religious interests benefit from privatizing schools. They work in legislatures to protect profits and shield curriculum content and workers’ rights issues from outside interference. Though private school teachers have fewer messy real-world problems at work, they receive even lower salaries and exercise even fewer of the limited labor rights that public school teachers struggle to maintain. Mexico is profoundly Catholic.

Most private schools are church schools, with ideologically conservative curriculum. For example, the study of the millennia of powerful pre-Spanish Mexican civilizations has been largely abandoned here, even though most Mexicans have indigenous ancestors. Study of the founders of Mexican independence – Miguel Hidalgo, Jose Morelos and Benito Juarez – who stood with the poor, is marginalized.

The Mexican Educational Reform – Supporters and Resisters

The central feature of the 2013 reform, lauded in the US press, is a reduction in workers’ rights. Throughout Latin America, business interests construct privately funded groups such as Mexicanos Primero, which powerfully manipulate education legislation. (In Brazil, this group is called Todos por la Educacion, and in Guatemala, Empresarios por la Educacion; the phenomenon is functioning powerfully in several other major Latin countries.) Mexicanos Primero and related groups are criticized by Mexican teachers as being based on a top-down international standards orientation promoted by the internationally influential Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Chucho, a middle-class chauffeur, seemingly a decent, hard-working, honest man, told me that the Ayotzinapa students were “looking for it” and “got what they deserved.”

Educational “reform” promotes the profitable subcontracting and bean-counting of the high-stakes testing industry and a school model for training workers, not raising citizens. It may destroy the rural teacher-training schools, the effects of which would fall most heavily upon minority and impoverished teachers and schools. As with the US’s “No Child Left Behind,” the reform is backed by a well-funded campaign of government-published propaganda.

The reform interests find it inconvenient when the normalistas constantly force themselves into public forums, charging that the reforms are just another recycling of a tired and shallow education model that has failed repeatedly to produce gains for poor communities. It is convenient that their voices be silenced.

The Mexican upper classes generally view the public schools as part of a world of poverty and disorder, a place of low standards, where corruption is endemic. Perhaps this is why some accept that violent repression descends upon student teachers. Fearing social anarchy, the rich support increased police militarization and the promotion of a systematic, explosive, military and police aggressiveness almost entirely in poor, rural communities.

For years, a repetitive flow of one-sided editorials and news hammering the normalistas and the normal schools has dominated the major Mexican media outlets. The Iguala massacre occurred in this context. This organized drumbeat against the normalistas has left many Mexicans thinking the normalistas are a monstrous problem. Chucho, a middle-class chauffeur, seemingly a decent, hard-working, honest man, told me that the Ayotzinapa students were “looking for it” and “got what they deserved.” The political context has framed these young people as a chauffeur’s mortal enemies.

The Atyotzinapa normalistas were tortured and slaughtered by interests that serve the power structure … a bloody warning to others engaged in resistance, such as public school teachers who interfere with the privatization of Mexico’s schools.

For a century, Mexican college students have been a fundamentally progressive voice, one seen by military, corporate and established neocolonial interests as obstacles to important ends. The normalistas have joined others who are already public school teachers, usually organized within the more democratic of Mexico’s two teachers’ unions. One practice is to commandeer buses to transport them. The Ayotzinapa students apparently did this on the day they were killed. The seizing of buses is not done with arms, and the bus companies get their buses back. As with much of Mexican politics, it is mysterious just why this process continues. There seems to be a wink-wink relationship behind the scenes that allows the bus seizing to continue.

In two highly publicized cases, constantly replayed by the two Mexican television consortia, buses were burned. At one normal school, the buses may have been burned by students, by police, or by agents provocateur. No one was convicted.

Will Teachers Run Schools, or Will Businesses?

The normalistas’ message is idealistic, directly speaking truth to power. They struggle to defend the underfunded public school system against private interests that want its budget. They work to combat the reshaping of public education to be entirely oriented to training low-wage workers, ignoring the teaching of local knowledge, Mexico’s revolutionary history and citizenship.

At the heart of it, the Atyotzinapa normalistas were tortured and slaughtered by interests that serve the power structure. Their death was an example, a bloody warning to others engaged in resistance, such as public school teachers who interfere with the privatization of Mexico’s schools.

These aspiring teachers didn’t have weapons, or the brutal drive of their opponents. They did have courage and an internationally important message – and were killed. Teachers must confront this violent repression, learn from their message and apply this learning to their own struggles against institutional-corporate forces.

In Mexico, those who speak out against abuses are commonly intimidated, beaten, murdered or disappeared. Their cases are never solved. It is convenient to the powerful that the abused and their protectors learn to bow, to fear, to shut up.