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On the trail of the 43


The last three months of 2014 saw Mexicans take to the streets in vast numbers to protest the disappearance of 43 students at the hands of the police. Témoris Grecko tracks the political fallout from the abduction and meets the parents who refuse to give up on their lost children.

Published in “Delayed Gratification” magazine, March-April issue.

Captura de pantalla 2015-03-26 a la(s) 10.31.42

Carlos Lorenzo dreamed of being a teacher in the countryside. “I felt proud of him,” says his father, Maximino Hernández Muñoz. Carlos is the eldest of his five children. The youngest is a three-year-old girl. “Carlos told her he’d come back with a doll for her and every time I speak with her over the phone, she asks me where he is,” Maximino says. “I hang up because I can’t stop the tears.”

The Muñoz family are from Huajintepec, a town of 3,800 people on the easternmost edge of Guerrero State, bordering Oaxaca. It’s a beautiful part of the world: mango and tamarind plantations flank the roads and the pine-covered hills are filled with deer, jaguars and foxes. Teaching was a natural choice for 19-year-old Carlos: illiteracy is a problem locally and the name of the indigenous people he belongs to, the Amuzgo, means “place of libraries”.

It’s been four months, though, since anyone has heard from him. Between 9.30pm and 12.30am on 26th September 2014 he was part of a group that was attacked in the city of Iguala by local uniformed police. Six people were killed, 18 others were wounded and one more lies in hospital in a vegetative state. And the police took away Carlos and 42 of his fellow students, those now widely known as “los cuarentaitrés”, the 43.

The Mexican government says they are all dead, their bodies burned, pointing to fragments of bone uncovered in the official investigation as proof. The DNA of one of them reportedly matched Alexander Mora’s, one of the missing students. The parents of the 43 don’t buy it, though. They are buoyed by a long and well-known history of official cover-ups – and by hope. “I feel they are alive, my son is alive,” Max tells me. It’s 26th January 2015 and he has travelled from his small coastal town to Tlalpan Avenue, an eight-lane highway which cuts through a swathe of Mexico City. We join tens of thousands of students and union workers on an 11 kilometre march from Taxqueña station to the Zócalo, the huge central square that serves as the political and emotional heart of Mexico.

Three other demonstrations converge slowly on the same spot. “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos,” chants the crowd. “Because they took them away alive, we want them back alive.”

As night falls they light candles and listen to speakers under the glow of the illuminated cathedral and the imposing Palacio Nacional. The Zócalo is beginning to fill up and thousands more are pouring in from the surrounding side streets, eager for a chance to join the throng. One speaker reminds the people of the words recently spoken by Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto: “Get over the pain”.

“I want to ask you,” cries Epifanio, father of 19-year old Jorge Álvarez Nava, “whether you could get over the pain of a missing son.” “Nooo!” the crowd replies in unison. He continues: “The government keeps hurting us with its lies, but I’m certain our children are alive”.

Jorge Aníbal Cruz’s mother, Carmelita, takes her turn at the microphone. “This nightmare has lasted four months already. I want to tell my son that, wherever he is, I’m looking for him.” Behind her there’s a red banner containing portraits of the 43 over the word ‘Ayotzinapa’, the informal name of the teaching academy they attended. “Don’t let Enrique Peña Nieto play the fool, we know the government has our children because uniformed people took them away,” she says. “They pretend to be searching for them but they can’t find anything because they themselves keep them hidden. Murderers from the military took our children, it was Iguala’s 27th Battalion”.

The involvement of the army, a rumour that has slowly become a certainty in the minds of many of the parents and their supporters, has gained the weight of a delicate national security issue. In the beginning, army officers claimed to have been informed “last of all” and that they couldn’t do anything to help the students as they were attacked and abducted. Their local headquarters is 900 metres away from the crime scene but, they say, they never heard the heavy gunfire unleashed by local police.

Out of Ayotzinapa

The Rural Teachers School Raúl Isidro Burgos, known as Ayotzinapa, is seen by some as a troublesome institution and by others as an exemplary beacon of political consciousness.

Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez Rojas, iconic leaders of the peasants’ guerrilla movements of the ’60s and ’70s, both graduated from Ayotzinapa. Its walls are covered with images from the leftist pantheon: Lucio and Genaro, of course; Karl, Friedrich and Vladimir, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Rallying cries including “Ayotzinapa is the rebel call of the exploited and oppressed” are interspersed between the murals.

The federal government sees Ayotzinapa and other rural teachers’ schools, all founded in the ’30s by the Socialist-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas’ government, as an annoyance. In the ’60s its policy was to force their closure by military or police takeover: more recently it has put them out of business by cutting their budgets. Of 44 that were open in the ’60s, only 17 remain.

Ayotzinapa also has powerful local enemies amongst the economic and political elites. The state’s leading families, especially the Figueroa clan, have ruled almost unchallenged over Guerrero, the country’s second poorest and least educated state. They have reason to feel antagonistic towards Ayotzinapa. In 1974, the then governor-elect, Rubén Figueroa Figueroa, was abducted by Lucio Cabañas’ Ejército de los Pobres (Army of the Poor). The ensuing military operation rescued the politician with a scorched-earth strategy that left many innocent people dead and killed Cabañas.

In the struggle for their school’s survival, Ayotzinapa students routinely use demonstrations as a tool to pressure the state for budget increases. Taking possession of passenger buses run by private companies has become customary and tacitly accepted: the owners don’t sue the school but apply for government compensation for their losses. The vehicles are not normally damaged and the drivers remain at the wheel for as long as the protesters need them.

On the evening the 43 were abducted, several groups of students had been commissioned to journey by bus to take possession of other buses needed for political activities. A second-year student, who asks me to call him “Ernesto”, travelled in one of two buses going to the nearby town of Iguala. They managed to pick up two more buses, but one of the vehicles got separated from the group.

The three buses tried to return to Ayotzinapa on Juan Álvarez street, which goes through the downtown area. There police agents started to shoot at them and blocked the street with a police pick-up truck. Several of the activists got out and Ernesto and his friend Aldo Gutiérrez, 19, tried to push away the obstacle. Aldo was shot in the head. Bullets kept coming at them from in front of them while, behind them, some officers were arresting the passengers in the last bus. “We yelled that Aldo was dead [he wasn’t but he suffered catastrophic brain damage]. Where were the soldiers then?” Ernesto asks me.

More shootings took place after midnight. Teachers and union members had arrived to support the students and journalists were taking pictures when, Ernesto tells me, “we heard many shots from different types of weapons. There was a huge roar, everybody was running in panic.” Two of his fellow students died and three other civilians were killed when a bus containing teenage football players was mistakenly shot at. One of the murdered students, Julio César Mondragón, was found in a nearby street the next morning. His face had been mutilated, his eyes had been cut out and he had been left to bleed to death.

And 43 young people were missing.

The “Historic Truth”

The official version, which federal general attorney Jesús Murillo Karam calls the “historic truth”, is that María de los Ángeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala’s mayor José Luis Abarca, was holding a public event in the main square and thought that the students from Ayotzinapa meant to disturb it, so her husband ordered the local police chief to stop them. His agents attacked, arrested the 43 students and delivered them to Guerreros Unidos gang members, who took them to a neighboring municipality’s rubbish dump. There they killed those who were still alive, rolled them down to the bottom of a hole where they improvised a gigantic incinerator and burned the corpses from 2am until mid-afternoon. The army and the federal police (under presidential authority, while other security bodies are controlled by the mayors and the State governors), so the story goes, were unaware of what was happening.

There are other, competing versions. From political Rightist circles, commentators say some of the students belonged to a criminal gang called Los Rojos wich tried to use them to conquer territory belonging to their rivals of Guerreros Unidos, so all this brutality would be explained as a defensive action with which the perpetrators hoped to set an example to prevente future attacks; in the Left, on the other hand, many believe former mayor Abarca and Pineda probably participated but are being displayed as scapegoats to cover up involvement of officials at higher levels, probably in the military. The parents also think that their children are alive, working as slaves in marihuana and poppy plantations in the mountains.

In any case, the general attorney’s “historic truth” has been disputed by a series of journalistic and scientific investigations. In a radio interview in MVS station with host Carmen Aristegui on December 16th, Murillo Karam was forced to accept Proceso magazine’s assertion that the students had been followed all the way since they left Ayotzinapa and that this information was transmitted in real time to all governmental bodies connected to the national security network, including the army and the federal police.

The attorney denied that the main sources upon which he based his conclusions were statements made by criminals his men arrested and tortured (Proceso claims to possess official health reports that prove this mistreatment took place). He also rejected students’ testimonies which claimed that federal police took part in the first attack, although he failed to explain its failure to intervene even when its officers officially became aware of the incidents. “There is no [reason] to suppose they were involved,” he said. “Yes, they knew there was a demonstration. Yes, they knew they  were on the other side of the toll booth, that’s all in the investigation, but that doesn’t imply (the federal police’s) participation.”

Murillo Karam didn’t mention the army. Photos show that the 27th Batallion’s commander was present at the mayor’s wife’s political event. It has been officially acknowledged that soldiers showed up at a clinic at about 3 am, and harassed students who had sought refuge there (medical care was denied to them). It remains unexplained why they didn’t do anything sooner.

This Batallion has a long, bloody history. It’s involvement in the 1970’s “Guerra Sucia” (dirty war) against the guerrilla movements, ransacking villages, torturing and executing civilians, throwing bodies from airplanes in “death flights”, has been documented in the Guerrero State Truth Comission’s Final Report, given on January 16th, 2015. More recently, the illegal detention and forced disappearance of six young men from Iguala on March 1st, 2010, attributed to 27th Batallion’s soldiers, was denounced in a 2011 Human Rights Watch investigation.

The “historic truth” about the burning of the students has also been challenged. Scientists from Mexico’s National Autonomous University have published reports stating that improvising a crematorium for 43 people in a remote rubbish dump and incinerating them in 15 hours is impossible. Also, it would have left traces that were never acknowledged by the authorities, such as blood and clothes from the corpses that were rolled over the trash, human fat in deeper layers of the soil, steel wires from the tyres supposedly used to fuel the fire and so on. The destruction of the remains would not have been complete and many more than a few burned-out fragments of bone would have been found.

A civil organisation was invited to join the investigation by the parents of the 43, who lacked trust in the authorities. The well-respected Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (AFAT) – set up in Argentina in 1984 to investigate the disappearances of 9,000 people under the military regime – was accepted by the federal general prosecutor’s office in an attempt to gain credibility. On 7th February 2015 it questioned Murillo Karam’s rush to reach conclusions and close the case while “the investigation has not finished, and it can’t come to an end given the nature of the crimes”. Among other irregularities, the AFAT noted that the evidence had been gathered carelessly and that it’s uncertain whether the bone fragments discovered actually belong to the missing students.

The attorney’s office called AFAT’s comments “speculations” and “far from reality”. It claimed that they had “departed from their field of expertise” and said that it “will not accept any doubts” about its own verdict.

Fresh criticism came from another quarter. On 10th February 2015, Amnesty International accused the attorney of dismissing the recommendations of “respected independent experts” (referring to AFAT) and of trying to discredit their work. The government, they said, “mainly bases its case on self-incriminatory testimonies by the detainees [suppossed gang members who appear to have been tortured by the authorities] and very limited forensic evidence.”

Revolution Day

November 20th 2014 marked the peak of the protest campaign’s demands that the government find the 43 alive. It was Revolution Day (marking the anniversary of 1910’s Revolución Mexicana, the second-most important celebration after Independence Day) and thousands and thousands of Mexicans of all social classes flowed into the Zócalo. Middle class professionals, indigenous people, wealthy youngsters from private universities, members of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, artists, anarchists… all chanting what must be the longest slogan in Mexican political history: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…” and so forth until “Cuarentaiuno, cuarentaidos, cuarentaitrés… ¡Justicia!”

The protest was ended by riot police carrying out a vicious offensive that emptied the square, sparing those who were throwing rocks and targeting families for beatings and arrests instead. This sort of police brutality has been a regular occurrence over the last two years since Peña Nieto became president and his government broke an unspoken decades-long peace agreement that had kept relations mainly calm between cops and demonstrators.

For two and a half months, protests in the name of the disappeared took place on a nearly daily basis and mass demonstrations, accompanied by a movement called Global Actions for Ayotzinapa (with events in tens of cities around the world), were held every week. The administration’s bet was that the Christmas holidays would help demobilise the crowds, and they were right. Partially. The numbers of participants decreased and the 26th of January marches, although well attended, seemed small in comparison with the ones from the autumn.

There was no respite, however, for Peña Nieto. He and his ministers were kept on the back foot by a succession of corruption scandals, policy mistakes, weak economic performances and falling currency and oil prices. On top of all that, the 43 were haunting them and Murillo Karam, with his “historic truth ” (announced on January 27th), had failed to put the issue away.

Some sensed a new opportunity for the far-left opposition. On 6th February, I was in Ayotzinapa for the National Popular Convention, a gathering of university groups, social organisations and popular movements from a marked Leftist political spectre. Since 2012, when a movement named #YoSoy132 drove private-school students to join political opposition, whiter, wealthier faces can be seen protesting together with the predominant dark, poorer hard-core activists. Their presence was probably the novelty of this “Convención”, as similar efforts have been launched without much success since the 1994’s Zapatista uprising.

One of its immediate goals is to derail June’s mid-term federal elections . Its members believe that people shouldn’t vote when they know that they will be helping narcotraffickers to gain political influence. They point at the harsh reality of life in Guerrero state, where it’s difficult to find a politician free from links to organised crime. They realise that it’s almost impossible for clean politicians to compete with those who enjoy criminal support. They’ve got more money, stronger networks… and guns.

But the convention didn’t seem rooted in reality. Under the gaze of Marx, Engels and Lenin, about 150 delegates agreed to close the country’s borders, stop the elections from taking place and build a “national organisation of the people”. This last resolution was the trickiest as there were opposing views on how to achieve it. For some, the road was clear: without an election, a void was going to be created and would in turn be filled by the people through a National Popular Assembly, which would be created before the 7th June election date.

“We are going to scare people away,” says Javier Monroy, a life-long leftist who heads the Committee of Relatives and Friends of Those Abducted, Disappeared and Murdered in Guerrero. “Truth and justice are goals that appeal to many everywhere. The more demands you add up [such as calling for a new constitution and the rule of the proletariat], the less support you’ll get. And we have a long list now .”

Confronting reality

It is not just the extreme left that has been inspired by Ayotzinapa. New grassroots groups are being born out of the “national emergency” of the 43: artists, journalists, farmers, musicians and manual labourers are gathering with the aim of cleansing Mexico of violence, impunity and corruption. They are, of course, plagued by a deep level of distrust, as similar attempts in the past have ended with leaderships and entire groups hijacked by politicians – and nowadays few entities are as despised as political parties.

Still, people are looking to take national matters into their own hands. And some are also confronting some of the most painful realities of daily life in Mexico.

Groups like the relatives of “los otros desaparecidos”, the other disappeared, in Iguala. Former mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife may be in prison now, accused by Murillo Karam of being solely responsible for the whole Ayotzinapa affair, but during their dark two-year reign as many as 300 people are thought to have disappeared. This is out of the 23,272 people who went missing in the country as a whole between January 2007 and October 2014, according to official figures.

When her brother Tomás was abducted in July 2012, Mayra Vergara Hernández, now a member of Iguala’s Committee of Families of Victims of Forced Disappearance, says that “we didn’t even look for him, we were afraid more of us would vanish.” But they gained new confidence when the search for the 43 began and “they started finding bodies”.

Mayra witnessed the behaviour of the authorities with dismay: once it had been proved that the initial 28 corpses found, exhumed from five clandestine graves on 6th October, were not those of the students, the police showed no interest in what their identities actually were and how they died. Mayra and her siblings asked themselves “whether my brother was there”.

They joined others to found the Committee and started going out to the fields in November 2014. The Cerro Gordo hill, which serves as the brownish backdrop to life in Iguala, is a colossal clandestine grave. Juan Jesús Canaán Ramírez, an uncle of two young men kidnapped in 2008, has learned to distinguish the smells carried by an iron bar he sinks in and pulls out from the soil, in order to detect when a human body is buried underground. When I join them in their search , a sunny sunday on 8th February, they are protected by six federal police agents, but it is only the second time they’ve received such support: in most of their 80 expeditions, they’ve been at risk of retaliation from criminals.

In the context of so many murders, it would be miraculous if Canaán found his nephews’ corpses. He doesn’t care: “When we find a body, we feel calm because we know that, even if it’s not our relative, that body belongs to a family.” “Every grave is a light of hope,” Mayra tells me.

Maximino Hernández will not take any credit for the wave of inspiration that has awoken in his countrymen. But he’s happy because many others, like him, have become more aware of the reality and of the need to act now.

“This has to keep going,” he tells me on Tlalpan Avenue. “God willing, if our children return, we will still carry on because another massacre, another abduction might happen. Many people feel bothered by our struggle. May God not let them go through what we are going through. It’s very sad. But we have to put order in our country.”

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