On September 26th, over 100 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, Mexico traveled to the nearby town of Iguala in order to protest. The students were angered that government founding practices favored urban colleges as opposed to rural colleges; students from inner-city colleges were also much more likely to get hired. The student protests coincided with a conference hosted by María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, wife of Iguala’s mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez, in order to celebrated her public works and to promote her campaign to be Iguala’s next mayor. The students were also planning on soliciting transportation to Mexico City in order to participate in the annual march to commemorate the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco. The students, however, never made it because they were stopped by the Iguala municipal police shortly after.
Accounts as to what happened next are inconsistent. The Iguala municipal police claims that they chased after the buses because of claims that the students had hijacked the buses for their own use. Police forces gave chase to buses and opened fire, which resulted in the death of six of the students. Some students then attempted to run into the hills in an attempt to escape from the hailstorm of bullets. Once the dust settled, the remaining students were rounded up by Iguala’s police force and forced into police vehicles. 43 of these students have not been seen since.
Mayor Abarca claimed that he had no connection with the case and that he would cooperate fully with authorities in an interview days after the initial disappearance. Despite calls for his resignation by both critics and members of his own party, el Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), Abarca assured his supporters that he would not resign. He did, however, request a 30 day leave-of-absence and was granted it by the Iguala city council. Before the meeting concluded, federal agents were there to arrest Abarca, but had already left prior to their arrival. Federal agents then raided Abarca’s home to no avail; Abarca had fled from Iguala with his wife and children.
The fact that the mayor, who himself claimed had no part in the disappearance of the students, fled before being able to be questioned by the proper authorities automatically called suspicion to him and his wife. Pineda is known to be the sister of members of the infamous Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. Many believe she orchestrated the kidnappings because the protests were interfering with the conference she was hosting; she saw the student protesters as a nuisance. The collaboration between the mayor, police forces, and cartel members soon became evident.
A mass grave with about 34 charred bodies was found near Iguala two weeks after the kidnappings. Forensic tests revealed that the bodies were tortured and burned alive, but DNA testing revealed that none of these bodies were of the 43 missing students. Because of this misidentification, many families of the students were still holding out hope that they were still alive. On November 7, this slight glimmer of hope was destroyed when the family members of the missing students met with the Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. Murrilo informed the families that authorities had found body bags with human remains in them near Cocula. This, coupled with testimony from arrested gang members, gave authorities probable cause to believe the missing 43 were killed at the hands of cartel members. Murillo also said that the remains will be examined by forensic specialists from the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Even after this announcement, some families saw this as an attempt by authorities to sweep the entire situation under a rug in order to quell the outrage and protests that spawned.
According to investigators, once the protesters were in the Iguala police department’s hands, they were transferred to the police in Cocula. Cocula police then handed over the students to los Guerreros Unidos, a criminal organization in Guerrero. One of their top leaders informed his subordinates that the students were actually members of the rival gang Los Rojos and that they posed a threat to the Guerreros’ territory. With that in mind, the gang members drove the students to the outskirts of Cocula; 15 of them suffocated en route. The rest of them were then killed, their bodies put in a pit which was subsequently set on fire in order to destroy any identify evidence. The gang members then placed the remains in plastic bags and threw them into a river. Shortly after, the same high-ranking gang member that essentially signed off on the students’ execution sent a text message ensuring the top leader of los Guerreros Unidos that the authorities will never find the bodies.
The disappearance of these 43 has caused great backlash against Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto for his inaction. It also sparked outrage throughout the world, with many nations and human rights groups condemning the kidnappings. Massive protests have been going on throughout much of Mexico, but one wouldn’t know it if one looked at most American news sources.
While the majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful, the Mexican people’s anger towards their inept government has occasionally boiled over into violence. Masked vigilantes set fire to the Iguala city hall about a month after the initial disappearances. Later on that week, a group of 20 or so teachers ransacked and set fire to the regional office of the PRD in Chilpancingo, Mexico. Since the PRD is in control of the Guerrero government, many protesters have shown their dissatisfaction for them by vandalizing and/or set fire to government buildings in Chilpancingo and throughout Mexico.
President Peña Nieto has come under intense and relentless scrutiny by both his constituents and the international community at large for his lack of action on the situation. If one were to visit President Peña Nieto’s official Faebook page, one would see that he has made very little mention about the students or their kidnapping. Instead of meeting with the families of the students, President Peña Nieto is posting pictures of him shaking hands with foreign dignataries and birthday wishes for his daughters. The people commenting on his Facebook photos, however, have not forgotten about the missing 43. Nieto’s Facebook pictures’ comments are littered with multiple people posting the hashtags #EPNAsesino (Enrique Peña Nieto is a murderer) #TodosSomosAyotzinapa (We are all Ayotzinapa) and #RenúnciaEPN (Renounce Enrique Peña Nieto).
Even when Peña Nieto goes to other countries, he cannot escape the anger and frustration of the people. While in Australia for the inauguration of the G20 summit, President Peña Nieto was greeted by a swarm of protesters that demanded both his resignation as well as government accountability for the disappearance of the students.
The Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College is one of the 16 schools across Mexico meant to train students who plan on becoming teachers. Many if not most of the students here come from poor farming families and are quite the activists. The system of teacher-training colleges was established after the Mexican Civil war in the 1920s. Because of this, the college has often been touted as a bastion of leftist politics in Mexico and refers to itself as the cradle of revolutionaries. Murals of Marxist revolutionary leaders, such as Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx can be seen on the walls of the campus, giving the campus an anachronistic look.
The kidnapping and subsequent massacre of the 43 students is reminiscent of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.1968 was a time of great political tension in Mexico; the Summer Olympic games were right around the corner and the Mexican government was reeling from the $150 million ($7.5 billion in today’s money) spent on the games. While the Mexican government was spending extravagant amounts of money of the games, the people of Mexico were living in squalor and poverty. Coupled with this, the Mexican government also passed various laws that restricted the rights of students and protesters. Students protesting at the Vocational School #5 were cleared out by riot police, with many of them being beaten in the process.
Shocked by the violence and gross violation of university autonomy, 50,000 students peacefully protested against the government at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Knowing the Summer Olympics were starting in a couple of weeks, President Diaz Ordaz ordered the military to take the campus back and disperse the protesters. They took the campus back through mass beatings of both students and teachers.
Students also occupied the Polytechnic campuses of Zacatenco and Santo Tomas. After hearing of the events that transpired in UNAM, they decided to fortify their position to barricade themselves from the inevitable onslaught of riot police. A thousand bullets and 15 dead students later, the army successfully gained control of the campus.
This act of violence only spurred even more protest. On October 2, 1968, over 10,000 high school and university students gathered in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest against the injustices perpetrated by the Mexican government. Curious onlookers and residents of the nearby buildings soon joined the crowd. Slowly, heavy military presence began seeping into the plaza. A couple of flares were fired into the sky and that’s when the military began shooting at the otherwise peaceful protesters. The shooting sent the crowd into a wild frenzy with everyone trying to save their own lives. The violence carried on well into the night, with riot police going door to door and arresting/killing anyone they suspected to be involved with the protests. The military fired indiscriminately at nearby buildings, hitting civilians who had no connection to the protest as well as some children. When all was said and done, up to 300 people were killed and thousands more were arrested. Newspapers, which at the time were mainly ran by the Mexican government, tried to downplay the situation, claiming only 30 people died and the military only shot because they were provoked by the protesters. Decades later in 2001, a report indicated that there were snipers on the buildings adjacent to the plaza and that they were given orders from the President to shoot into the crowd to provoke the military and police on sight.
While corruption and abuse of power has long plagued Mexico, the cooperation between the government and cartels has never been more obvious than now. The kidnapping and murder of the 43 students marks a dark chapter in modern Mexican history; one can only hope that this tragedy brings about change and reform, rather than fade away from the minds of the Mexican people and the world at large.