It has been almost two months since 43 students from a rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, in the Mexican countryside, were “disappeared” in an act involving the Mexican state, drug cartels and criminal organisations.
The case has highlighted the level of violence and impunity that prevails in the country.
On 26 September, six people were killed – including three student teachers, one of whom was found tortured and with the skin of his face removed – near the town of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, several hours south of Mexico City. Twenty-six people were seriously injured, and 43 were disappeared, following an attack by local police following orders from the town mayor, who suspected that the students intended to protest a local political event.
All of the disappeared are from rural teacher training college Raúl Isidro Burgos, which trains poor, mainly indigenous, children of peasant and labourer families, giving them the opportunity to further their education and support their impoverished communities.
Survivors and witnesses say that soon after being kidnapped by police, the students were handed over to the drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos. The government, unable or unwilling to clarify the facts or bring any form of justice, has released dribs and drabs of information. Yet to date little has been clarified. Dozens of police agents and a handful of alleged drug cartel members had been detained as scapegoats, but there is still no sign of the students.
Twelve mass graves were found in the region surrounding the area where the students went missing, which contained the remains of at least 38 people, according to national newspaper El Universal. Security agencies declared those the missing students, but the announcement was later contradicted by investigators from an Argentinean forensic team.
The federal government reluctantly engaged in discussions with the families and promised to search for the missing students. Reports were released by the Federal Investigative Police and presented by attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam on 7 November.
Murillo Karam read the alleged confessions of two captured suspects. The 43 students, the suspects allegedly admitted, were kidnapped and transported in a truck and a smaller pick-up. Some of them suffocated in the truck; the rest were interrogated, killed, dumped in a garbage tip and burnt – some of them while still alive. The fire raged for more than 14 hours, fuelled by diesel, old tires and logs. The remains then were crushed with shovels and put in black rubbish bags. Some were dumped into a river.
The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (which has led forensic investigations in several countries and is known for identifying the remains of Che Guevara) studied the remains and concluded that the bodies do not belong to the students.
The parents continue to hope that their children are alive. One mother said at a press conference after Murillo Karam’s statements: “Do they expect, with how much we love them, that we will accept the presumption that they are dead, without any irrefutable evidence? Do they expect we would blindly trust what the government says – the same government that took our children?”
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, chanting, “They took them alive, we want them alive!” and “It was the state!”, from Ayotzinapa to New York, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi and across the world. Strikes have taken place in most Mexican universities and high schools. People have had enough of the violence that has engulfed the country and the impunity that reigns. Offices of traditional political parties have been burnt and roads barricaded.
Why the rural schools?
The case of the Ayotzinapa students is not isolated; there are specific reasons why these students were targeted. The rural teacher training colleges (normales rurales) were established as a result of the social struggles of the rural poor during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. They were founded during the 1920s to provide an education for the children of campesinos (peasant farmers or rural labourers) and to train teachers willing to go to remote communities and respond to the specific needs of ejidos – communal land units that were distributed after the revolution.
Most importantly, the normales rurales aimed to develop community leaders and carriers of the socialist education program of the revolution.
From the beginning, however, the normales rurales were not a priority for the state, so the colleges had to find their own resources, produce their own food and maintain their own buildings. This sort of collective action and independence has characterised the schools ever since.
Critical pedagogy and democratic education are part of the curriculum. Students, teachers and the community participate together in activities such as collective harvesting and maintaining roads and public infrastructure. Students from the normales rurales face the everyday realities of the Mexican countryside, which has been further impoverished since the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
The schools that the students end up teaching in often lack chairs, tables, boards or even roofs. Students at these schools come without eating breakfast, having walked up to three hours to attend. Parents and students are often victims of state repression, or the violence of multinationals and their hired criminals.
It is no surprise that the normales rurales trained revolutionary leaders such as Genaro Vazquez, Lucio Cabaña and Othon Salazar, socialist rural teachers who led important guerrilla movements during the second half of the 20th century. All three in fact were students from Ayotzinapa. From the moment the Mexican government abandoned its rhetoric of socialist education (a legacy of reforms carried out in the 1930s), the normales rurales have become a thorn in the side of the state.
A number of the schools have been closed down, and they have been derogatively labelled “nests of communists”, “Bolshevik kindergartens”, or “guerrilla nurseries”. Students from the schools are often discriminated against when applying for jobs; sometimes they are brutally killed. The government has tried modifying the curriculum to undermine the basis of the normales rurales and the core ideals of their graduates. This has been a major mobilising factor in a campaign that the rural students have been waging for public, democratic, critical education and broader social justice.
The commitment of these students to their communities is remarkable. Take the example of Emiliano Alen Gaspar de la Cruz, one of the disappeared. He was accepted into a teacher training college closer to Mexico City, where he would have gained better career opportunities. He insisted on staying in Ayotzinapa so that he could give back to his community and support his father by working in the cornfields. His family still hopes he will be back for the next harvest season. They had hoped he would return for this harvest, but in lieu of that, Emiliano’s classmates are helping his father in the fields.
Not an isolated case
The targeting of oppositional students from normales rurales fits a broader pattern of political violence and organised crime in Mexico. Between 2006 and 2012, there were more than 136,000 violent deaths, and 26,000 forcibly disappeared people, as a result of the state’s long running “war on drugs”.
This is a sham war that was supposed to target drug cartels and other criminal organisations, but whose victims have been workers, the rural poor, indigenous communities and students. It aims to terrorise people and clear away opposition to the government’s neoliberal attacks and dismantling of the remnants of social welfare.
The corporate media, national and international, have made a great effort to portray the right wing president Enrique Peña Nieto as the country’s “saviour”. For example, the February edition of Time magazine displayed on its cover a bold picture of the president with the tag line “How Enrique Peña Nieto’s sweeping reforms have changed the narrative in his narco-stained nation”.
In September, the Atlantic Council (a right wing think tank) awarded Peña Nieto the “Global Citizen Award” for “creating a governing mandate … through extraordinary leadership and sweeping reforms in telecommunications, energy, education, labour and more”. Yet, in Mexico, the extremely unpopular reforms result in booing and heckling wherever the president goes, including in the most prestigious private universities in the country.
In his first 14 months of government, from December 2012 to February this year, there were nearly 24,000 violent deaths, an undetermined number of forced disappearances and hundreds of political internments. While the violence is generalised and affects, at some point, all levels of society, it continues to be the poor, the working class and the rural farmers that are the main targets of both the state and the criminal organisations.
Communities in Guerrero, for example, fight multinational mining corporations that, with government permission, attempt to displace them to exploit natural resources. The weekly newsmagazine Contralínea has documented at least 35 major cases of social conflict that involve road blockages, sabotage and other expressions of resistance, linked to mining.
The case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa is sparking reactions the government did not foresee. The challenge is to turn this outrage into a successful movement that opposes not only the murders and disappearances, but also the political class and the economic agenda that has generated this violence.
Lourdes García Larqué is a Mexican activist based in Melbourne. She has participated in a number of Latin America solidarity groups and is a producer of Accent of Women on 3CR community radio. Recently she organised national actions in solidarity with Mexican students and against Enrique Peña Nieto’s visit to Australia.