Mexico: The Murder of the Young

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Timothy Fadek/Redux
Demonstrators marching from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa to the center of Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, Mexico, to attend a memorial mass for the forty-three abducted students, October 2014

Monday, October 27

Something terrible has happened, something big, and now, at 10 o’clock on a bright late-October morning here we are, members of a press gang piling into a car in Mexico City, on the search. We hustle our gear into the car and lock ourselves into the seatbelts eagerly. The story! We are bound for the state of Guerrero, southwest of Mexico City, and for the normal rural—teachers’ college—in the town of Ayotzinapa.

Everyone knows what happened; no one understands why. One month ago, on September 26, forty-three students were abducted in one of the poorest states in the Mexican republic, from one of its very poorest public vocational schools—an all-male teachers’ college. The nearby town of Iguala, where the crime took place, is not huge (pop. 130,000), and one would think that forty-three is a lot of people to hide, particularly if they are active young men.

This is by no means the largest or even necessarily the most horrifying mass killing to have taken place in Mexico in recent years, but it is the most known: we know the perpetrators (the local police and the local drug gangs), the victims (forty-three young men whose pictures are now everywhere), and their families, stoic hard workers—campesinos, many of them—who have refused to back down from their demand that their missing children be returned to them alive.1 But one month later the youths are still missing and there is a national outcry, and also marches, vandalism, protests, petitions, and shame, too, as the government sinks in disgrace, its inability to guarantee the safety of its citizens or prosecute its criminals more evident by the hour.

Iguala is less than three hours’ drive from Mexico City, halfway along the express highway to Acapulco. The disordered capital city thins out, grows flatter, as we speed toward its southern edge and at last we leave behind the garish street signs and cinderblock houses of the city margins. The highway opens. Banks of yellow flowers cover the fields like sunlight. The story!

Iguala is as flat, noisy, and colorless as every other provincial Mexican town that has made the transition from village to sprawl in the last fifty years. When the only way to get to Acapulco was the old two-lane road that passed through here, Iguala was prosperous. Now there are some maquilas—assembly factories—Coke and Pepsi bottling plants, nearby gold mines, and, it would seem, a lot of drug activity related to the poppy fields in the mountains further south. And ever since Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the drug baron who ruled all of Guerrero, was killed by Mexican navy troops in a prolonged shootout in Cuernavaca five years ago, there has been an unending, self-cannibalizing war for supremacy among the various groups he had trained, commanded, and kept in check. Prominent among these are the United Warriors—Guerreros Unidos, or GU for short—who rule the area around Iguala, and the Rojos, or Reds, whose domain is the town of Tixtla and extends to the area around Ayotzinapa, about three miles down the road.

My colleagues in the car keep busy thumbing on to the various Internet rumor and information streams. There is the recurrent rumor that bodies have been found, this time in a town near Iguala called Cocula. Some buildings are said to have burned in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, down the hill from Ayotzinapa. There are marches in solidarity with the forty-three students planned for today in Mexico City. Which of these events will yield a story? We rely mostly on rumor and tweets from colleagues, because throughout Mexico’s history the government—every government—has considered it unnecessary to provide reliable, verifiable information. In the end we decide to stick with the one event that has been formally announced: prayers in Iguala for the three normal rural students who were killed one month ago at the start of the terrible events in that city.

Everyone in Mexico knows about the normales rurales because their students and faculty are often protesting, blocking roads, waving red flags with hammer-and-sickle logos or images of Che, calling for revolution, denouncing corruption and inequality, and, since the students come from the lowest-income stratum of Mexico, crying out against their own isolation and poverty, always uselessly. It’s understood that the students—mostly campesinos, or the children of migrants to the city—will receive a poor education, just enough to qualify them to pass on their limited body of knowledge to the next generation of children of other poor families. Of the several government-run normales rurales in Guerrero, the Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos in Ayotzinapa is the poorest.

The students are rowdy and deeply resented by the citizens of Chilpancingo, and also by the people of Iguala, because the Ayotzinapos have a habit of coming into town, covering the walls with graffiti, commandeering buses from the bus station, and asking for money that is not willingly given. That was their stated intention on September 26, when about eighty first-year students left the Ayotzinapa campus in two buses, looking to commandeer more so they could block off roads and collect funds from the fuming drivers, enough to pay for the third-year students’ annual study trip to nearby schools, and for their own journey to Mexico City to join a protest march there. Wherever they show up, the Ayotzinapa students are generally an alarming but not dangerous presence, and it’s safe to say that they are not remotely as feared as the marauding Guerreros Unidos, a gang that not only presides over the region’s drug traffic, but runs local kidnapping and extortion rings and keeps the area in a state of terror.

I have been away from Mexico, so my colleagues fill me in on the story’s background: José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, was elected two years ago as the candidate of the leftist opposition, for reasons not even his sponsoring party can explain. He resembles a ventriloquist’s puppet, but he has been accused by a political rival of shooting dead two local leaders who stood in his way. His wife, an aging brunette in tight dresses and too much makeup, is the sister of three GU leaders, two of whom have already been killed.

Corruption in Iguala defies belief. The police are entirely in the pay of the GU. The students who cannot be found were last seen in the late evening of September 26, some hours after Mayor Abarca turned the municipal police force on them. That evening the Iguala first couple were at a party to celebrate her first-year report as head of the local family welfare institute. According to the most accepted version of events, someone told the mayor that the Ayotzinapos were in town; he told the police to handle the matter. The police chased the student buses and opened fire, then cornered them and opened fire again.

Three students and three bystanders died that evening. The police rounded up forty-three students who did not manage to run away, and, according to necessarily confused and fragmented reports, sometime before midnight the students who are now missing were handed over to men in civilian clothes who drove them away in vans or trucks.

It is understood by everyone that the police were in cahoots with the men in civilian dress, and that the latter were members of the Guerreros Unidos. Like everyone else, my colleagues, who have been working the story for weeks, know that the boys are dead, and that it’s just a question of when and how they will be found. They know this not because they have a source, or evidence, but because we know this sort of thing in Mexico.2 This is how life has been over the last ten years or so, ever since the reckless Felipe Calderón, president of Mexico from 2006 to 2012, unleashed his own version of the drug wars on his country. Some 70,000 dead later, the homicide rate is diminishing. The level of atrocity is inconceivable.

Today’s religious service in Iguala is being held at the intersection of a downtown street with the ring road that circles the city; the spot where local police killed two students (a third student’s body would be found the following morning). Their fate is known, and so prayers for their souls can be said.

We wheel into the ring road just in time to slip behind a procession of buses (were these commandeered also, we wonder?) that stops to let out several dozen mostly very young people. They form orderly rows and walk in silence to where a table is being covered with white cloth and a priest is donning a white chasuble in front of a bullet-pocked wall.

It is a compact, silent, organized crowd; small, slender, dark-skinned people carrying wax candles and enormous bunches of white chrysanthemums. At the head of the march walk older adults who look hammered into the ground by defeat, overwork, or extreme grief. Behind them walk the students, including delegations from teachers’ colleges in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and further north. The delegates look like children barely on the edge of adolescence, but in fact they are old enough to vote. It is their back-country manner, their unguarded eyes, that make them look whole ages younger than their city cousins. The women wear jeans and plastic shoes and cover their heads against the sun with a sweater or, occasionally, a traditional rebozo. The men wear ranchero hats and tennis shoes or, here and there, leather-strap Indian huaraches—sandals with thick rubber soles. The front row of the procession unfurls banner-size portraits of the missing youths, presumably taken from their student credentials. They look just like their fellow students gathered here: serious, uncertain, so very very young.

Three shy girl students from Oaxaca stand, arms interlaced, heads reclined on each other, toward the back of the crowd. Their names are Delilah, Bonfilia, and Yanira, and they have come to express their solidarity and their fear that the improved future they thought within reach is being ripped away from them, courtesy of the educational reforms that President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law last year. The reforms are urgently needed, but the normales rurales, and also the million-strong official teacher’s union, have been marching against them for months.

It’s not difficult to understand why: until last year graduates from the appallingly staffed and equipped normales rurales were guaranteed a job at a state primary school somewhere, but according to the reform’s most important new regulation, teachers will now have to take a standard qualifying exam in order to apply for a job or keep one. “But the test has questions about things we’ve never even been taught,” Bonfilia whispers, eyes down.

My travel companions come up to murmur that the morning’s most important rumor seems reliable. It appears that the bodies of the forty-three students have at last been located in the environs of Cocula, a town about twenty-five kilometers away. It is said that the president himself is planning to hold a press conference the next day about the finding. We are off like a shot.

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Anwar Delgado/Reuters
Former Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda—arrested in early November for allegedly ordering the abduction of the students—at an event in Chilpancingo, March 2014

The site where the bodies are supposed to be is close to the forested hills where twenty-eight bodies were found three weeks ago, one of my friends says. He had spent days there trying to hike around the police tape, but as it turned out, none of the remains belonged to the students, and now those bodies, twenty-eight people with no name, are hardly mentioned at all. We drive through Cocula, a charming small town with a traditional central plaza and a kiosk for the band to play on Sundays, stopping frequently to ask for always contradictory directions. Where is the garbage dump of Puente Río San Juan? Several U-turns later we finally start heading uphill on a dirt road that recent tread marks in the mud tell us is the right one.

Enormous dragonflies buzz escort alongside the car, there is not a human being in sight, tagged, well-fed cattle contemplate us quietly, and we think: this is the road. This is the road they were driven on. This wind-whipped slope is where the road ends, where the trucks stopped, and where the boys were forced out, frog-marched further through bramble and underbrush—sobbing? silent? praying?—to an unknown spot in the dark. This is where the road ended.

The road turns into a path that, we gather, eventually leads to a ravine used as a garbage dump by the Cocula sanitation department. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, known for its work identifying the victims of atrocities through DNA samples, has been asked by the parents to be in charge of that task in Iguala, so if the rumor is true that the bodies are in this ravine, the team members must be somewhere in the neighborhood. But it is impossible to know because by the time we get to the area the sun is setting and a long convoy of dark-windowed government vans, trucks, pickups, and cars is rattling back down the hill toward town.

The entire array of government security forces is here—army, navy, Red Cross, too, and, mostly, judiciales (federal investigators) who take their orders directly from the national Attorney General’s Office, and are often as feared as the traffickers. My driving companions, photographers all, race uphill to the last police checkpoint to see what, if anything, can be photographed, while I stay behind, taking note of the jewel-green landscape and a couple of tarantulas making their way slowly across the path and up our car’s tires. A judicial with a terrifyingly burned face stops to offer me a ride in his pickup truck. “You shouldn’t be out here at this hour, señora.”

On the following day my friends and other photographers will force their way past the police tape to take ludicrous pictures of the Argentine and local forensic teams dressed up like spacemen, poking at the rubble with sticks. We laugh: obviously, there are no bodies here; there is no story. The government has set us up, and all of Mexico with us. Snookered again!

As it turns out, there probably once were bodies at the Cocula garbage dump. Perhaps even the bodies of forty-three teenagers from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college who were last seen being herded into trucks by the local police. On November 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam will provide a detailed account, complete with video footage of grotesque reenactments by three of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre, of how forty-three boys at this site were shot to death or suffocated that grim night, then stacked up like cordwood and set to burn for long hours under a watchman’s eye. But in Cocula, the current government will pay the price for decades of state manipulation of the press and public opinion. Murillo will not be believed by the indignant young people who are demonstrating against the government all across the country. Most critically, he will not be believed by the missing students’ families—or much of the press—and instead of dying down, the nationwide marches and protest will only increase in number and fury.3

It is night—seven o’clock—by the time my colleagues and I finally get back on the road leading from the Cocula dump to Iguala. There are houses and lights frequently along this road and we feel cheerful to be back on it. In the back seat are a couple of local reporters who have hitched a ride with us. “A month ago there’s no way you could have been out at this time of night,” one says. “The Guerreros Unidos were watching everywhere.” They had checkpoints? “The municipal police had checkpoints,” he answers. “But they all belonged to the GU.”

I wonder if the Coculenses are feeling relief, or gratitude, now that navy and army troops are wheeling around town in ski masks, in what seems like dozens of pickup trucks with M-50 machine guns mounted on the back. Or perhaps the many halcones—hawks—the Guerreros Unidos paid to act as lookouts—ice cream vendors, garbage collectors, shopkeepers, or housewives looking out a window—are in a rage at their loss of income in this black hole of a land.

“Did you get a look at the municipal palace?” a colleague says, back from hunting for a local newspaper while the rest of us wait for our dinner in a garish neon-lit Iguala restaurant. After the chilaquiles and beef jerky we set off to look for a hotel room and stop for a moment, stunned, in front of the charred, skeletal remains of the municipal palace. It could collapse if one blew hard enough on it now, but just a month ago Iguala was the center of power of Mayor Abarca and his wife, which is presumably why the government building was methodically set on fire, office by office, in the course of a midday protest march five days ago. In the days to come government and political party offices elsewhere in Guerrero will suffer the same fate and, in spreading waves, throughout the country. It seems that the local teachers’, campesino, and student movements agreed to march past the Municipal Palace on October 22 so that a combined delegation of their number could slip into the mayor’s headquarters unnoticed and avenge the students’ fate by burning it down to its skeleton. That, at least, is what a well-informed local reporter and gadfly tells me, although in Mexico City, where demonstrators in the Zócalo will attempt to set fire to the nineteenth- century door of the National Palace, there are attempts by more well-mannered sympathizers to quell the escalating violence during the marches.

Right next to the palacio’s charredruins, a group of exhausted-looking campesinos is sitting on folding chairs. They are members of yet another Guerrero militant organization, and they tell us that they have formed a search committee for the students, going door to door, town to town, armed with sticks and perhaps firearms, demanding information in their own communities. So not only the government is looking for the youths, or failing to find them.

There is no history of passivity by the inhabitants of the state of Guerrero in the face of the violence that has been exercised against them over the generations. The list of massacres and assassinations of leaders in this rough, scrubby, stingy land goes on and on, and so do the stories of strikes and protest movements that are not peaceful but enraged. Guerrilla organizations course through the history like a fever—two prominent guerrilla leaders from the 1960s, Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, were, in fact, campesino rural teachers, graduates of Ayotzinapa, which has long been seen by the government as a breeding ground for subversives.

Even now, a few dormant guerrilla groups have been stirring back to life since the events of September, and they may find a more receptive population now that it seems that all of Guerrero is a burial ground for victims of the drug traffickers, who necessarily act in connivance with local and perhaps federal security forces. There is a lot of loose talk about Marx and socialism in the protests, but the list of concrete demands belongs to the campesinos and harks back to Emiliano Zapata in the early twentieth century: agricultural assistance, redistribution of fertile land, universal education and suffrage, eight-hour workdays, adequate supplies of fertilizer.4

Iguala is packed tonight with federales, judiciales, soldiers, navy troops. The judiciales, particularly, have taken over the hotels, but at last we find two empty rooms for three of us in two hotels. I fret about my hotel, looking at the clutch of judiciales milling around the entrance; these people are going to party all night long. Not this time, one colleague assures me; they’ve got them sleeping in shifts in the same room; they stumble in dead tired and sleep like logs. But thumping norteño music plays all night long in the room next to mine, the same song, “Maldita sea mi suerte”—Cursed Be My Luck—over and over, louder each time.

Tuesday, October 28

It’s noon, and I’m sitting in a breezy open corridor at the Ayotzinapa Escuela Normal Rural, in conversation with two boys, one a little pudgy and with the thin beginnings of a beard, the other small, slight, and smooth-faced. They live in a world of their own that has suffered first brutal assault and now the daily probing and picking apart by reporters, at least three or four of whom are constantly finding their way to the hillside campus. The students’ response has been to veil themselves in secrecy: large parts of the campus are off-limits to outsiders, and students are not supposed to give their names, so I’ll say here that I talked to Pudgy and Skinny.

It does not strike these boys as strange that a school designed to train elementary school teachers should approve of an annual hazing ritual that involves getting first-year students to commandeer buses illegally from an interurban bus station and drive them to a toll station on the Acapulco–Mexico City highway, where they will engage in a kind of ritual battle with local and federal security forces. In 2011, police opened fire on the students at the climax of one such confrontation, killing two, but the hazing ritual has not been suspended.5

Skinny and Pudgy are convinced that without this kind of pressure the state and federal governments would forget to provide for the school’s miserly operating budget every year or fail to authorize 140 places for an entry-level class. Besides, as one student has told another reporter, it doesn’t matter if passengers are inconvenienced when the buses are commandeered, because passengers who can afford to ride on buses obviously belong to “the rich class.”

Skinny and Pudgy recite the story of the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos: “Ayotzi means turtle in Nahuatl,” Skinny says, which explains the enormous papier-mâché tortoise on top of a wall decorated with a Maoist-style mural of the people’s struggle. The normal was founded in 1926 as part of the new revolutionary government’s ambitious effort to bring education to all Mexicans, they say. “So we are the heirs of eighty-eight years of struggle!” Pudgy declares. “The school is a product of the Mexican Revolution, so it could not be otherwise.”

For them, Ayotzinapa’s heroic identity clearly makes up for what to an outsider is the school’s shocking physical condition. Murals—of Che, of Marx and Lenin, of leering capitalist devils clutching bags of gold—are on every wall, but the classrooms are littered with trash and the dormitories are a mess of wall-to-wall rotting mattresses competing for space with mounds of clothes. It’s not only the poverty, it’s the sense of abandonment, a sort of generalized orphanhood, that surprises.

“More or less all of us who are here come from the countryside,” Pudgy says, and I struggle for a while to understand their parents’ financial situation by asking the boys what their families’ annual income might be. This is not how they add up their lives, and also not a topic they like to discuss. Eventually I narrow down the question to how much Skinny’s family gets paid for the year’s crop of maize, marigolds, beans, whatever, and he stares at the ground for a while before answering: “We can grow enough to eat, mostly.”

It’s time to go. The story is shifting from Ayotzinapa and Iguala to Mexico City, where it has been announced that on Wednesday, October 29, President Peña Nieto, having at last taken the measure of popular outrage, will be meeting with the relatives of the missing students. Tomorrow he will spend long hours listening to these tough, grief-stricken people, forced by circumstances to tolerate their unyielding demands—we want our children back, and we want them alive—and undisguised contempt for the dignity of his office.6

On Thursday, as many people in Mexico are tending to their flowery altars for the Day of the Dead, lighting candles and preparing to welcome the souls of their departed loved ones back into their homes, Carmen Aristegui, a crusading television journalist, will interview the fathers of two missing boys, and also Omar García, a personable and articulate student leader from Ayotzinapa. He was on one of the buses that traveled to Iguala on September 26 and he speaks clearly as he tells the story whose outlines we more or less know.

For a moment we listen to him merely as an act of obligation: how the buses were fired on by the municipal police, how the students carried a gravely wounded comrade to a hospital, how army troops eventually showed up there, not to protect them but to carry out an interrogation. How one soldier looked at the defiant students and said, “This is what you get. That’s what happens to you for doing what you’re doing.” But the army is like that, García goes on:

I come from the Sierra—the mountainous region of Guerrero—where there is so much organized crime. And ever since I was a child I’ve often seen how they kill each other, and how people have to flee to the United States, or how some kids have to join the criminals—and there goes the army, as if nothing were happening! The army just gets its cut and leaves.

I was a peon for those people too—in my village we all came up like that, going off to work as peons for the ones who plant poppy and all that. I’m not embarrassed to say so, because that’s how it was. The army always reached an agreement with the narcos, and it was the army who showed the boys how to shoot.

So these are things that get registered in children’s memory: those who don’t get the opportunity to study end up going to the United States or with the narcos. Inevitably.

Aristegui is listening to García as we all are, in dumb shock. What is this story we are trying to tell and cannot understand?

  1. 1

    In early November, the government released a statement saying that the students had been turned over to a gang related to the mayor of Iguala and his wife, the Guerreros Unidos, who killed the young men, burned their bodies, and dumped the ashes in the San Juan River, though the families of the victims have not been willing to accept this explanation until adequate physical evidence appears. For a full account of the events of September 26 see my “Mexico: ‘We Are Not Sheep to Be Killed,’NYRblog, November 5, 2014. 

  2. 2

    The families of the forty-three missing students have remained steadfast in their demand that the students be found alive. Members of the militant Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero (Union of Villages and Organizations of the State of Guerrero, or UPOEG by its Spanish initials) have embarked on a search of their own. They have not come up with new information or evidence, but they have found many older clandestine graves, and claim that the families of another 350 missing persons have come to them for help in finding and identifying the remains of their relatives. 

  3. 3

    On December 6, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team confirmed the government’s announcement that DNA from one bone fragment had been identified as belonging to Alexander Mora, one of the forty-three students. The Argentines’ communiqué clarified, however, that they had not been present when that fragment was found, presumably by Mexican police investigators. At the Institute for Forensic Medicine of the Medical University of Innsbruck, in charge of carrying out the DNA analysis, its director, Richard Scheithauer, warned that obtaining further DNA samples from the badly charred bone fragments would be “a very complicated task.” 

  4. 4

    For an excellent brief account of social protest in Guerrero see Carlos Illades, “Guerrero: la violence circular,” Nexos, November 1, 2014, 2014. 

  5. 5

    The video of this confrontation can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1AWEIgEBMQ.  

  6. 6

    On November 27, President Enrique Peña Nieto presented a ten-point program for improving public safety in Mexico. Some ideas are not new (there is, for example, already a vastly increased military presence in Guerrero and other states afflicted with drug violence); some could be significant (new anti-corruption safeguards at the local government level); some are useless (a “debate” about the minimum wage); some are controversial (the creation of a single, nationwide police force). None, however, is likely to lead to a short-term change in the balance of power between anarchic drug organizations and the security forces.