The disappearance of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School has aroused horror, indignation, and protest throughout Mexico.
CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR TORRES / AFP / GETTY
Every morning, the newspapers in Mexico City announce how many days it has been since forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School disappeared while in Iguala, Guerrero. On Friday, the number—twenty-eight days—was accompanied by an announcement that the governor of Guerrero state, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, had finally resigned after weeks of outrage over the violence and lawlessness that marked his tenure.
The disappearance of the forty-three has aroused horror, indignation, and protest throughout Mexico and all over the world. An air of sadness, disgust, fear and foreboding hangs over Mexico City, where I live, like the unseasonably cold, gray, drizzly weather we’ve been having. This is usually a festive time of year, with the Day of the Dead holidays approaching, but it’s impossible to feel lighthearted. As one friend put it, the government’s cardboard theatre has fallen away, exposing Mexico’s horrifying truths.
The journalists John Gibler (the author of the book “To Die in Mexico”) and Marcela Turati (who has been reporting on the disappearance in the weekly magazine Proceso and elsewhere) have provided the most complete reports of what happened in Iguala on the night of September 26th. “Scores of uniformed municipal police and a handful of masked men dressed in black shot and killed six people, wounded more than twenty, and rounded up and detained forty-three students in a series of attacks carried out at multiple points and lasting more than three hours,” Gibler wrote to me in an e-mail. “At no point did state police, federal police, or the army intercede. The forty-three students taken into police custody are now ‘disappeared.’ ” On September 27th*, the body of another student turned up. His eyes were torn out and the facial skin was ripped away from his skull: the signature of a Mexican organized-crime assassination.
The Ayotzinapa Normal School trains people to become teachers in the state’s poorest rural schools. The students, who are in their late teens and early twenties, tend to come from poor, indigenous campesino families. They are often the brightest kids from their communities. According to Gibler, six hundred people applied to the class that included the students who disappeared, and only a hundred and forty were accepted. To become a teacher is seen as a step up from the life of a peasant farmer, but also as a way for those chosen to be socially useful in their impoverished communities. When Gibler and Turati went to visit the Ayotzinapa School in early October, only twenty-two students were left. In addition to the forty-three missing classmates, many others had been taken home by frightened parents.
Fifteen of the students Gibler and Turati met there had been present on the night of the violence. They told the journalists how much they’d been looking forward to that Friday, the first day they’d been allowed to visit their families since the beginning of the semester, a month before. They said they’d then been told that they would have to go on Saturday instead, because there was going to be an “action.” Mexico’s rural teachers colleges have a long tradition of leftist activism, but this would be the first “actividad de lucha” for most of these youths. They were to block a highway to solicit travel funds for the annual October 2nd march in Mexico City, which commemorates the 1968 massacre of student protestors in the Tlatelolco Plaza by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) government of Díaz Ordaz. In keeping with protest traditions, they would temporarily commandeer busses from private bus lines for the trip to Mexico City.
That Friday, the students left in two busses, but needed two more, which is how they ended up in the small city of Iguala. They didn’t know that the politically ambitious wife of Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, was giving a speech that evening. They also didn’t know that her brother, known as “El Molón,” was reputedly a leader of the narco-trafficking gang Guerreros Unidos, which, with the mayor, ruled over Iguala. The mayor and his wife have since been implicated in ordering that the students be massacred; they are both now on the run as fugitives.
According to Gibler’s account, on the night that the students disappeared Mayor Abarca sat next to the colonel in charge of the army base in Iguala. “The army colonel’s presence next to Abarca a few hours before the attack, and the army’s absence on the streets during and after the attack seem to me both linked and disturbingly suspect,” Gibler wrote. Subsequently detained municipal police have confessed that they and masked gunmen opened fire on the students twice, in at least two separate sustained attacks, and then turned the students over to sicarios from Guerreros Unidos. Guerreros Unidos has been hanging narco banners in Iguala that bear a chilling threat: if the twenty-two detained police are not freed, the narcos will murder innocents and release the names of the politicians who have supported their violent, criminal acts.
With Mayor Abarca and his wife on the run, we may never find out exactly why the Ayotzinapa Normal School students were so viciously targeted. Was it because they upset the mayor’s wife on the evening of her big speech? Was it an act of political repression against leftist student activists (who are overtly despised by the state’s political class and by the army), and thus also a threat directed against all leftists and activists? Those are among the possible motives mentioned in the media and by experts. But Mexicans know from experience that the motives behind acts of narco-state violence are often bewildering and senseless. What matters is that such acts happen because the groups responsible—both the narcos and the police and politicians who are allied with them and protect them—know that they can get away with almost anything.
The federal authorities and community groups searching for the missing students have turned up a multitude of clandestine graves, including one holding the remains of twenty-eight badly charred, recently slain bodies. But after the first round of DNA testing, authorities announced that the corpses were not those of the students. The sheer number of newly discovered graves seems to confirm what many journalists, human-rights workers, and others have long claimed: that since 2006—when, at the behest of the U.S., President Felipe Calderón, of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), militarized the fight against Mexico’s drug cartels, a policy continued by the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto—seventy thousand Mexicans have been killed and some twenty-seven thousand disappeared, effectively turning the whole country into a “narco grave.” Sixteen thousand Mexicans were killed in the violence of the narco war in 2013.
In a recent opinion piece, Alejandro Paéz Varela, the founding director of SinEmbargo.com, perhaps Mexico most influential digital news site, wrote, “Marches, protests, rage. International condemnation: the country which, according to the cover of Time magazine, was being ‘saved’ by Enrique Peña Nieto and his reforms is now, on second look, seen as one of savage and corrupt officials.” On Tuesday, I met Paéz for coffee at a Starbucks near his offices. “Congress just passed its annual budget, which is always a big story—the proposals, the negotiations, the votes—but this year it isn’t even front-page news,” Paéz said. “I can’t tell you if the education budget went up or down.” Paéz, like all of us, has been consumed by the tragedy of the missing students, but also by the resulting political repercussions and machinations. That drama, centered in Mexico City, seems to be providing new evidence of the lack of connection between the country’s politicians and their abandoned and often terrified constituencies. Protests in Guerrero and elsewhere have focussed on demanding the resignation of Governor Aguirre. In Chilpancingo, the state capital, protestors nearly burned the Governor’s Palace to the ground. Aguirre, from 1996-99, was the PRI governor of Guerrero, “leaving behind,” according to Proceso magazine, “among other things, a gaggle of murdered PRD party members.” The PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) though founded as an outgrowth of the PRI, has, in its rare, best moments, provided a functional leftist opposition over the last two decades to the PRI and the right-wing PAN.
There’s another question going around Mexico City: Is the government withholding what it knows about the missing students’ whereabouts for political reasons? Father Alejandro Solalinde, Mexico’s most prominent voice on human-rights, was recently interviewed by the television journalist Carmen Aristegui. In the interview, Solalinde argued that it was cruel to encourage the families of the students to hope that they might still be alive. He said that he knew they were dead, because people—including one man who, he insisted, had witnessed what had happened to the students—had come to him to tell him what they knew. He said the students, some of them wounded, had been marched up into the jungle-covered hills, and forced to dig their own graves. Then they were executed. But some of them were still alive when, along with the bodies of their dead companions, they were soaked with diesel, laid over wood, and set on fire. Under a barrage of questioning from Aristegui, the priest, his voice tight with anguish, insisted on the credibility of his sources. Solalinde believes that the authorities lied and that the grave holding twenty-eight badly burned bodies did indeed contain the students.
“What causes less damage to the system?” Solalinde asked. “To say they [the students] were burned, with everything that implies? Or say they’re disappeared and that they don’t know what happened. The second has less impact, and is less incriminating, but it’s more painful for the families to keep them hoping. “ Solalinde said he had an appointment the next day to share his information with federal investigators. “I am going to tell them what I think of this government,” he said, “which is so corrupt, so dishonest, that they’ve become a true threat to the people of their own country. I am going to tell them that instead of defending us, instead of accompanying us and looking for justice, they’ve become a threat and a danger to the citizenry.”
* * *
Mexico City feels different these days. Its usual vibrancy has been muted, and not only because of the missing students of Ayotzinapa. Paéz tells me that when he walked the city streets on the night of September 16th, which is Mexican Independence Day, he was struck by how quiet things were. “It’s not just our intuition that senses that people are feeling down since Peña Nieto took office,” Paéz said. “Check out the indexes of consumer confidence: month after month it’s been plummeting.” Back in the days of the Calderón government, he said, people living in Mexico City felt insulated from the horrors and violence of the narco war. “Ciudad Juarez, you’d say, that all seems so far away. But now it feels like it can happen here, too.”
But the very day that Paéz and I spoke would end up providing some hope that maybe all was not lost in Mexico. Protests and marches took place throughout the country that day. Here in Mexico City, students from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) blocked traffic at several points around the city, and there were several marches, including a night march down Avenida Reforma. Huge marches are being organized for next week, including one in Mexico City on Tuesday. Even conservatives in the Catholic Church hierarchy and the business sector are joining the protests. The national outcry has had a swift result: Governor Aguirre’s political support crumbled almost overnight, forcing his resignation on Thursday.
This morning’s lead editorial on SinEmbargo.com reflected on the meaning of the protests: “The political parties and their members, the majority of whom have been living high for decades off the earnings of all Mexicans, today are nothing in the face of a society that, organized and very hasta la madre [has had it up to the mother, i.e. totally fed-up] with them, can turn things around and impose an agenda on them … The tragedy of Ayotzinapa pains all of Mexico…. However, this pain and grief is providing Mexican society with an extraordinary lesson: you can protest peacefully, you will be listened to if there is unity and if you don’t radicalize your demands, then you can force politicians to do their work and make them pay for their corruption.”
In the warning against radical demands I heard Paéz’s characteristic caution. And he is right: Mexico’s struggle against political corruption and rampant organized-crime violence it breeds can’t be co-opted by any one ideology or party or movement. The popular hashtag slogan “We are all Ayotzinapa” really does have to mean all of us, both in Mexico and outside it. The civic movement that has begun must be sustained. Perhaps when the Mexican congress has finally been cleansed as legislatures were in Colombia and Italy, where sustained civic pressure led to sweeping dismissals and criminal prosecutions of corrupt legislators—why should it possible for those countries and not for Mexico?—Mexico, with a fresh start, can renew its passionate and necessary ideological arguments with the possibility of translating those discussions into honestly administered policies and reforms.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the body was found three days after the kidnappings.