Understanding Ayotzinapa

Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images

On September 26th, 43 students, most of whom were just beginning their first year of college at the Teacher’s College of Ayotzinapa, were kidnapped from Iguala. This attack, which also resulted in the deaths of several students, was allegedly ordered by Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the mayor and first lady of Iguala. News of the disappearances broke out through a photo taken of student Julio Cesar Mondragon’s cadaver; his skull was exposed and bleeding, his eyes gouged out. After the picture went viral – as is often organized crime’s intention in capturing these images – the nation slowly realized the extent of September 26th’s tragedy. Mondragon’s face was wiped out while he was still alive.

Attacks on Mexico’s youth have been taking place for years, but this time is different. This time, society’s outcry has been coherent, clear, and unified in a way that many say is unprecedented.

Why now?

Protesters hold signs with the faces of Ayotzinapa’s missing 43 students.
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What is happening with the Ayotzinapa case has, in a way, taken place before. In 1974, Lucio Cabañas, leader of the Party of the Poor and an alumnus of the Teacher’s College of Ayotzinapa, was also killed – in an ambush by the Mexican Army. Footage of his autopsy was recorded; it was meant to be televised. Like Mondragon’s corpse, Cabañas’ body was a message to and a metaphor for Mexican society. What followed was more systematic harassment and disappearances of student leaders who sympathized with Cabañas’ ideals during the ’70s and ’80s. This dark period is the infamous Dirty War, which kicked off in ’68 – and the state of Guerrero, where the Teacher’s College of Ayotzinapa is located, suffered the most.

A protester holds flyers with the faces of Ayotzinapa’s 43 missing students.
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Thirty years later, Guerrero and other northern states found themselves at the epicenter of violence once again, this time with Mexico’s war on drugs – a war that has led to more than 100,00 deaths, not including the 27,000 missing.

The collusion between local authorities and organized crime can no longer be ignored.

In 2010 alone, Ciudad Juarez endured the Villas de Salvarcar massacre, in which sixteen persons (mostly high school students from CBTIS) were killed and twelve wounded in a house after twenty sicarios opened fire on them. Their parents had to endure the fact that the deaths were not the result of settling a rift among rival cartel members, as then-President Calderon assured, but a mistake. Meanwhile in Monterrey, Jorge Mercado and Javier Arredondo, graduate students from the engineering schools at Monterrey’s Technological Institute, were killed in a cross fire between the army and alleged sicarios inside the campus. Their bodies were manipulated – student IDs removed from their wallets – to make it seem like they were criminals.

In San Fernando, in the perennial PRI stronghold of Tamaulipas, 72 migrants were found dead. Coverage of this event simmered down within weeks even though hundreds of bodies were found. More than 300 were disappeared and killed in Allende, Coahuila (another PRI stronghold) in 2011, but when the Mexican public learned about this in 2013 no protests followed. In Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, 6 young men were disappeared in 2013.  After roughly a month, police found their alleged remains, which were supposedly dissolved in acid. Urns with ashes and a sticker from the local government (as if branding the deaths) were handed to the families.

A group of protesters set fire to presidential palace’s wooden door on Nov. 8. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
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The disappearances from the Dirty War happened 40 years ago, and amount to a few hundred missing compared to the tens of thousands of disappearances of the past 8 years. But those of us who have been observing closely see a continuum that can no longer be ignored: the collusion between local authorities and organized crime.

Mexico’s crisis of disappearances is unlike any others that have happened in Latin America. Some have been enacted by the State, while others have been committed by cartels and organized crime. But this latter type is rarely investigated thoroughly, and very few of victims have been identified. Former President Vicente Fox rose to power promising to bring the Dirty War cases to justice, but the tribunal set up for such a task was conveniently dismantled and no responsible parties were tried. Today, in the era of NSA surveillance, authorities in Mexico routinely claim to have no information on the whereabouts of the disappeared. They construe outlandish theories to discourage relatives in their search.

Mexico’s crisis of disappearances is unlike any others that have happened in Latin America.

And yet, it has been very difficult to raise awareness until now. Guerrero has long seemed like a foreign land to many Mexicans. Identified with Marxist and Socialist ideals, which are not popular in the North and several other conservative parts of Mexico, the region is considered indomitable – an image that authorities perpetuated by casting victims of violence as deserving agitators. But Guerrero is also a time capsule, it holds the memory of what it meant to be young and committed. And this is what has come to the fore after the events of September 26th.

Protestor in Mexico City on November 5th. (Brett Gundlock/Getty Images)
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Finally, the portrait that emerged of the 43 missing — rural first-year teaching students from one of the poorest states in Mexico — made it clear that they were not, as former president Felipe Calderon once intimated of the tens of thousands of victims during the early years of the drug war he initiated, corrupt and somehow deserving of their fate. They were simply innocent victims. Today, a multitude of Mexicans are looking beyond the stigma that the students of its highlands have endured for decades. We finally see in the faces of these men, who barely touched adulthood our hopes shattered. Ayotzinapa symbolizes the peasantry, the origins of the Mexican peoples. Perhaps we might also unknowingly begin to come to peace with our indigenous roots, an aspect of our heritage we are never at ease with.

The events in the seemingly remote mountains of Guerrero have galvanized a stream of frustrations that no soccer game or finely tailored telenovela can distract us from. It has dragged the grand multitude of Mexicans who wouldn’t show empathy towards the war’s victims into the protests, and made them admit, for the first time, that they too are vulnerable.

Today, Nov. 20, Mexico celebrates the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution with a national day of marches and work stoppages. Today, and every day until there is justice, we show the world that #TodossomosAyotzinapa.