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Ayotzinapa: Mexico’s Unhealed Wound

Today marks the first anniversary of the disappearance of 43 Mexican students from the Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero. On the evening of September 26th, 2014, around 80 first-year students from Ayotzinapa headed to Iguala – a town 150 km from the school – in order to raise funds. Ayotzinapa students have a tradition of attending the yearly protest of the 1968 student massacre of Tlatelolco in Mexico City, but as a low-income student body, a fundraising campaign is annually conducted to pay the expenses of the trip to the capital. Generally, the students would take a short trip to the nearby city of Chilpancingo for their activities. Yet, because of reported police and army presence (with whom the students have historically had a tense relationship due to their political activities), they decided to detour and go to Iguala instead. The decision was costly. Policemen chased and fired upon the students. Six people were killed – three students and three bystanders – and 43 students vanished.

The brutality of the crime shocked Mexican society and was heavily condemned outside of the country. Public outcry caused a profound crisis of legitimacy for the Mexican government and challenged the image of a politically and economically stable Mexico in the international arena. A year on from the events, the wound of Ayotzinapa remains open. Despite exhaustive investigations by governmental and non-governmental actors, the whereabouts of the students are still unknown. Yet the opening of a post-Ayotzinapa era seems to have arrived, as Mexico’s daily drug-war related disappearances are now uncovered to the eyes of the world.

The motivations behind the attack continue to be contested. The Mexican government’s official version of events argues that policemen were following an ambiguous order from Jose Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, who feared Ayotzinapa students would boycott his wife’s ongoing political event. But evidence has proved that the event had long finished when the students entered the town. Also contested is the final destination of the missing 43. The official account says that policemen handed the students to members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who killed them and piled their bodies to light a gigantic pyre in the Cocula landfill. This storyline was challenged by a number of scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico claiming that a fire of that magnitude was physically impossible. What is certain is that all levels of the Mexican police – municipal, federal, and state – and even the Mexican Army were involved in the attacks to a certain degree. Recordings from the Control, Command, Communications and Computer Centerthe state’s agency that enables communication among Mexico’s diverse defense forces – reveal that all police in the area were aware of the students’ presence in Iguala and that they responded with a highly-coordinated attack. Surviving students have reported and denounced the Army’s presence and continuous harassment while attending to wounded at a local hospital on the night of the shootings.

With the certainty of the involvement of authorities in the case and without any clear findings of the students’ whereabouts, it is not a surprise that Mexicans responded with such outrage and took to the streets. Ayotzinapa has come to represent all that is rotten in Mexico, an exemplary case of the daily atrocities that occur in a country shaken by the violence of absurd drug war policies. The tragedy of Ayotzinapa occurred against the backdrop of such violence, fueled by long-standing poverty, inequality, and entrenched corruption in Mexican society. Guerrero is indeed among the top three poorest states in Mexico, and it is currently its higher producer of amapola. Violence between drug-cartels occurs on a daily basis. Police and state authority collusion with cartels is largely acknowledged.

The events in Iguala have shed light on a long-denied aspect of daily life in Mexico: the country’s crisis of enforced disappearance. The government’s flawed and poorly conducted search for the disappeared students has further exposed Mexico’s inability to cope with such a crisis. Latest official estimates accounted for at least 26,000 victims of this crime within the last eight years (going back to 2006 when the Mexican drug war erupted), close to the number that disappeared during Argentina’s infamous coup in 1976. But as 90 percent of crime in Mexico goes unreported, it is likely that the actual number is much higher. The situation is so desperate that it is often the families of the disappeared who have to look for their missing ones without financial resources or knowledge of how to search.

In the midst of such pain, it is hard to conceive that Ayotzinapa could possibly have had any positive outcome on the state of public politics in Mexico. But this view denies the important role citizenship advocacy has played in challenging the actions of the Mexican government. Ayotzinapa, as a movement, reactivated the mobilization of civil society on a massive scale. In Mexico City alone, citizens have taken the street sixteen times – seventeen if counting today’s protest – to express their solidarity with the victims. At the peak of the movement, demonstrations may have been attended by up to 100,000 people from very diverse political and economical backgrounds. Outrage has spread. Every protest in the capital was replicated in numerous cities within and outside of Mexico. Political groups have allied in an unprecedented fashion and new groups, encouraged by the civil response, have formed. The most notable of these is Los Otros Desaparecidos, a group of 300 families from Iguala who meet on a weekly basis to plan coordinated action in the search for their missing family members.

Attention from the international community has rightly focused on the failures of the Mexican state. Mexico’s fading image of a recovering economy under the rule of Peña Nieto has collapsed, revealing the overwhelming number of human rights violations inflicted during his administration. After Ayotzinapa, messages of support from other nations flowed from every corner of the world and were deeply appreciated by the parents of the missing students. In November 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), agreed to offer technical assistance to investigations. In January, the organization commissioned a special Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to investigate Ayotzinapa and offer recommendations to the Mexican State regarding enforced disappearances. It was the IACHR that ultimately debunked the government’s official version of the events that transpired at Iguala all while working alongside the parents of those missing, unlike the Mexican government. In February, the United Nations appointed Mexico during the eighth session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED). Mexico thus had to submit a truthful and detailed report on disappearances to be presented at Geneva. Ayotzinapa parents were invited to the session and attended it.

Lastly, the events at Ayotzinapa have led to modifications in state policy and legislation. After months of tension and continuing public advocacy, the Mexican congress passed an initiative for a new Enforced Disappearance General Law in April 2015, aiming to standardize laws at a federal level and focusing on reparation for victims. While a major step, the translation of legislation into the effective prevention of disappearance crimes will be a more difficult and longer process.

One cannot discount the victories of activist networks operating after the Ayotzinapa crisis. But despite the genuine efforts of such groups, the Mexican government has yet to be held responsible for the disappearance of the 43 students – and by extension 26,000 missing Mexicans. The delegitimized Mexican government, nonetheless, remains unaccountable, and Mexico’s open wound will remain so without some measure of justice. Parents are still waiting for their children to return, and Mexicans are still waiting for an answer.

A year later, Ayotzinapa continues to evoke pain serving as a constant reminder of the long list of crimes perpetrated by modern states. In the hope that collective memory may deter further violence, let us keep in our minds the horrors of what occurred at Iguala, if only for the sake of the thousands of devastated Mexicans who are still search for the missing bodies of their loved ones.

About the Author

Camila Ruiz Segovia '18 is a world columnist from Mexico City, with an interest in humanitarian crises, social movements and political art. She enjoys late-night conversations, hitchhiking and oil paintings.