Mexico: ‘We Are Not Sheep to Be Killed’

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Jose Mendez/epa/Corbis
Relatives of the forty-three kidnapped students attending an outdoor mass in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, October 27, 2014

There must be few instances of a head of state spending long hours listening to the poorest of the poor of his country’s citizens, and then accepting their demands. But thanks in large part to the stubborn, combative parents of forty-three kidnapped teenage boys, this was at least one outcome of the horrific events that have transfixed Mexico since the boys were abducted by municipal police in the impoverished state of Guerrero on September 26. Looking tired, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto went on national television last week to inform the citizenry that he had spent five and a half hours with the families of the young men, and that his government would soon be implementing a number of measures to increase the probability of finding the victims. He also vowed to devote more resources to the desperately underfunded rural teachers’ colleges like the one where the victims had been students.

Whether Peña Nieto actually was moved by what he heard and learned in the course of the meeting with the grieving families was hard to deduce from his habitually well-coiffed and poised presence. The demands they had made were reasonable enough, to be sure, things that are normally expected of any responsible state: find our children, care for our schools. But the president’s willingness to entertain them, belated and half-measured as it was, was a huge triumph: at last, a disgraceful crime and its incompetent investigation had not slipped all but unnoticed into the stream of murders, kidnappings, and other horrors that now flow through daily life in Mexico.

There are many explanations for the fact that this particular outrage, among so many others, has created a crisis of a different order for the Mexican state, but prominent among them is the fight put up by the organized, tough, militant families of the victims—who are, of course, victims themselves—to recover their children. Another is the state’s woeful inability not only to solve the crime, but also to provide a motive, or even a minimally coherent account of what is known so far. Once again, the press has been put in the impossible position of disentangling various and conflicting versions of the events put forth by the survivors of the attack, spokesmen for the ministries in charge of the investigation, rumormongers on the web, and versions given in court by a few of the sixty or so people arrested in connection with the abduction, and what can be gleaned is not nearly enough.

The missing young men were almost all first-year students at the all-male Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, in Ayotzinapa, a small village in the center of the southwestern state of Guerrero. The crime took place about two hours away on September 26, in the raucous town of Iguala, also in Guerrero, about eighty miles southwest of Mexico City. (Glittery Acapulco, on the Guerrero coast, is the state’s best-known city.)

On that day, some eighty students of the normal rural left their campus in Ayotzinapa, perched high on a breezy hill. (Student leaders say they did not keep count of how many freshmen actually got on the bus.) Normales rurales are teachers’ colleges that take in students from the lowest-income stratum of Mexico. Their parents may earn as little as $400 a month, and it is understood that the students 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 one at Ayotzinapa is the poorest.

By long tradition, normales rurales are militant institutions, and none more so than Ayotzinapa. Two leaders of famous rural guerrilla movements in Guerrero studied there in the 1950s, the institution’s walls are covered with radical propaganda, and the Ayotzinapa students descend from their campus several times a year to join protest marches, or to collect money from the public for their expenses. Rice and beans, rice and eggs, beans and eggs are staples of their diet, books are scarce, and, because their parents are already making a great sacrifice by sparing the youths’ labor power at home, outside expenses are generally financed through these collections.

As a part of a week-long hazing ritual at the school, about eighty first-year students took two of the school’s buses down the hill to Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state. The orders from the older students were to head for the capital’s bus station, commandeer a few additional interurban buses, and drive them a couple of hours away, past the town of Iguala, to toll booths on the superhighway that connects Acapulco to Mexico City. There, the students would shut the toll booths down, as they do every year, and use the buses to block the highway lanes, chanting protest slogans and asking for more or less involuntary contributions from infuriated drivers. This year, they had an additional motive; they wanted to join the large protest march being organized in Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary, on October 2, of the student massacre of 1968. However, before they could get to the bus station, security forces chased the students out of Chilpancingo, which is why, according to one version, that afternoon the students headed instead to Iguala, to commandeer more buses there.

As it happened, the students went to Iguala for their hazing on the very day that María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the wife of the town’s mayor, was performing another ritual. As Iguala’s First Lady, Pineda served as the beneficent godmother of the local institute for poor children. On September 26 she was celebrating her yearly report on the institute’s activities. The most widely accepted version of events—among several now circulating—has it that, upon learning that the Ayotzinapa kids were commandeering buses at the local bus terminal, either the mayor or his wife gave the order to “do something” about the normalista rowdies, so that nothing might ruin the Iguala First Lady’s big day.

It turns out that Ángeles Pineda comes from a family of well-known drug traffickers. (Her father and three of her brothers were known members of the extremely violent drug gang Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors, and two brothers are already dead.) Her husband, Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, is rumored to have links to a different criminal gang in Acapulco. Chilpancingo, Iguala, and the townships around the two cities are all under the control of the United Warriors, and the municipal police are known to be entirely in the gang’s pay. Even by the standards of Guerrero, which is now the most violent state in the nation, the township of Iguala (which has about 150,000 inhabitants) and its surrounding region are a fearful territory, thanks to the United Warriors and other bloodthirsty gangs at war with them. Kidnappings and extortion are a part of life, daytime shootouts are routine, and the homicide rate, sixty-three murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, approaches that of Honduras.

On the evening of September 26, the municipal police of Iguala chased down the commandeered buses, cornered them, and opened fire on the students. Two first-year students were killed on the spot. (Shortly afterward police also fired on a bus they mistakenly believed to be carrying students. The driver, a member of a local football team riding in the bus, and a passenger in a nearby taxi also died.) The rest of the boys tried to scramble away in panic. Ultimately, several dozen got away but forty-four of them did not manage to escape. In the patchy reconstruction of events, including what can be gleaned from the eyewitness accounts of the boys who got away, the students who were abducted were last seen several hours later, as uniformed municipal police shoved them into three vans and drove off. A day after the shootouts, one of the missing youths was found. His eyes had been gouged out, the skin had been removed from his face, and then he had been killed. Our worst nightmares these days consist of imagining the other missing boys’ fate.

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Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Meliton Ortega, one of the relatives of the missing students, at a press conference after meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico City, October 29, 2014

More than five weeks later, the outrage has not diminished. That boys so young and so poor were being killed and kidnapped revolted Mexicans across the class spectrum. Because they were students, the crime has reignited student activism nationwide. And there is also the fact that over the years we in Mexico have received a long education in just what might happen should security forces, or traffickers, or security forces who happen to be in the pay of traffickers, get hold of you or someone you love.

Day after day, an increasingly desperate state security apparatus follows leads, searches new and promising sites, discovers yet again just how completely the enforcement of law and order has slipped from its grasp. According to recent declarations by the Attorney General, state and national law enforcement forces have arrested some sixty people, including municipal police, suspected members and recognized leaders of the United Warriors gang—and most recently, on November 4, the Iguala mayor and his wife, who had waited four days after the bloodshed before going slo-mo into hiding in Mexico City. (The mayor submitted a request to the city council for a thirty-day leave of absence, then left town in an official vehicle with his wife and family.)

Still, there has not been one reliable word about the normalistas’ whereabouts, although the search for them has turned up nearly forty unidentified bodies no one seems to be paying much attention to, while every day more families come forward to demand that their disappeared relatives be found as well. And although the arrests of the mayor and his wife have at last scored one point for the security forces, it remains to be seen whether the couple can provide new leads in the search for the students, who appear to have been turned over directly to various drug gang units immediately after their abduction.

When I visited the Ayotzinapa normal rural one day last week, the parents were sitting in small groups in the shade of a covered basketball court, serving their shift in a weeks-long vigil. Some women make tortillas for a living, some men work the land or are employed in various odd jobs. Most have other children at home and all have to decide whether on a given day they will go to work for the trickle of income required to keep their families going, or keep up the pressure on the government by participating in the vigil at Ayotzinapa and protest activities around the country. (Until the families’ meeting with the president, it hadn’t occurred to either the state or national government to provide assistance to the families. Now, reportedly, they have refused it.) One woman in a ragged pink polo shirt and plastic sandals stopped me as I was preparing to leave the campus. “Make the newspaper you work for lean on our government so that it finds our children,” she said, and burst into tears. “We can’t stand the anguish any more.”

By rights the Ayotzinapa parents should all go mad, faced with the waiting, uncertainty, systematic mistreatment by the authorities, and sheer horror of contemplating how their children may have been killed, but they cling to the less terrifying belief that the forty-three boys are still alive. In Mexico City, following the October 29 meeting with President Peña Nieto at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, members of the forty-three victims’ families held their first press conference in a small auditorium at a human rights center in the city. “We are living a nightmare and we can’t manage to wake up,” said Epifanio Álvarez Carvajal, a big ranchero-looking man in a plaid shirt and a moustache. “If we’re eating something, for example, we remember [the boys] and we wonder what they’re eating, if they’re being fed, or if they have something to drink.”

It is unlikely that Álvarez and the other families present were aware of the triumph of the moment, given their vastly more urgent concerns. Even so, the likes of Barack Obama and Pope Francis had felt inclined to comment on the scandal of Ayotzinapa in the preceding days, and the president of Mexico at last found it prudent to pay attention to the tragedy. Likewise, the large crowd of Mexican and international reporters and cameramen jostling for space at the press conference were very willing to wait more than five hours for people who would normally be invisible to them to emerge from their meeting. Addressing a crowd from behind a microphone, facing a bank of camera lights, the six relatives elected to speak for the rest were composed and spoke in brief and orderly turn. The president had already gone on the air to announce the government’s promises to the families, but the group was there to stress that those commitments were not nearly enough.

Emiliano Navarrete, a slight man in a baseball cap who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was the last relative to speak.

“I am the father of a boy who, for me, is not disappeared,” he began. “For me, he was kidnapped by men in uniform who are municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero.” His face was stretched taut against his skull from tension and the stress of speaking in public, and his stumbling Spanish revealed his Indian origins. “Why does this government act like this?” he went on, searching for words. “We are not sheep to be killed whenever they feel like it.”

Even the cameramen, normally so noisy and cynical, were listening closely. “I haven’t come here to ask for any favor,” Navarrete shouted now, in his rage. “I’ve come to demand [that our children be found], because I am a citizen of Mexico, and I have rights.”

The following day government security forces were deployed by the thousands in and around the towns of Iguala and Chilpancingo. They mobilized in tanks, helicopters, vans, and motorboats.

At this writing, we are waiting to hear whether, as a result of the capture of the mayor of Iguala and his wife, the bodies of some of the students may have been found. In the course of a march on November 5 in Mexico City led by the families of the missing youths, some of their parents confided to reporters that they had met privately with government officials, who had told them that their children were dead. But the spokesman for the families, Felipe de Jesús de la Cruz, has reiterated their position: they will only accept proof that their sons are dead in the form of positive DNA test results analyzed by a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists, who have been acting as independent investigators throughout the search.


Update: November 9

On November 7, before a deathly silent press corps, Jesús Murillo Karam, the Mexican attorney general, announced that the arrest of one of the main leaders of the United Warriors gang, and the subsequent arrest of three of his henchmen, have yielded important new evidence concerning the missing students. All four had made detailed confessions, Murillo said, and he explained what had been learned in the course of the interrogations, videotaped bits of which were shown as well.

It was José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, Murillo said, who told the police to do something about the normalistas, according to the police radio operator on duty. But the orders were restated in more detail by one of the principal leaders of the United Warriors drug gang, Sidronio Casarrubias, who was arrested on October 16. He learned of the normalistas’ presence in the city from one of his subalterns, a killer known as Corporal Gil. In a text message, Gil told Casarrubias that members of a rival gang, los Rojos—“the Reds” —had come into town, looking for a fight. Casarrubias gave the order to “defend the territory,” as he put it.

After the initial shooting in the early evening, in which two students were killed, the other students tried to escape in their commandeered buses, only to be detained again by the Iguala police, who fired on them, rounded them up, and took them to the police station. Then, police from the nearby town of Cocula, about a half hour away, arrived in squad cars, and with their assistance the Iguala police drove the students to a point about halfway between the two towns some time before midnight. According to the reconstruction of events presented by the attorney general, police then handed the students over to Casarrubias’ waiting associates near that halfway point on the road.

The captives were driven uphill to a municipal garbage dump in a verdant ravine in the countryside around Cocula. Fifteen boys were already dead, one of the accused said. How? “Drowned…asphyxiated,” he mumbles in the video. The lackeys had their instructions: in the videos of their separate interrogations, carried out at the scene of the crime, two of the accused demonstrated how they took the dead bodies out of the trucks, while the boys who were alive were thrown on the ground next to them and shot, presumably by gang members. Subsequently, the lackeys said in the video, they were told to throw the dead bodies to the bottom of the ravine, where they were then stacked up like firewood. Men they identified only by their gang nicknames told them to pour diesel fuel and gasoline over the corpses and construct a pyre out of scavenged tires, planks, branches, plastic, and whatever else could be found in the dump that night, then set it on fire. It burned until mid-afternoon on the following day, by which point ashes were practically all that was left. Following instructions that one gathers were now phoned in, the lackeys waiting by the pyre filled plastic bags with the ashes, and then emptied them into a nearby river.

According to the forensic specialists from both the Argentine team and the Mexican government who worked on the site all last week, the small fragments of bone that have been found are so badly scarred by the heat that it is all but impossible to extract a DNA sample from any of them, Attorney General Murillo said. Still, those fragments have been sent to a specialized laboratory at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, to see what can be done. For the moment, Murillo said, the students are still officially categorized as “missing,” but clearly reporters, and the families, are being encouraged to consider the account of their execution as the truth. (Although the families insist that they will wait for “scientific evidence”—presumably the all but impossible to obtain DNA results—before accepting that their sons are dead.)

The facts and sequence of the atrocity have been detailed, and at least some of the direct perpetrators have confessed. But it is hard to imagine that this result will quell the relatives’ fury and pain, or soothe the outrage felt by so many Mexicans at the state of their country today. For one thing, the information now provided by the attorney general is not nearly sufficient. Shepherding forty-three young men to their death, executing them, and disposing of the evidence is rough work, and certainly required more men than we saw on videotape at Murillo’s press conference. (There are ten arrest warrants still out in relation to the case, Murillo said.) And many of the most central questions about the case have not been answered: Where, for example, are the director and the professors of the school, who should have been at the head of the protests all these weeks? Where is Mayor Abarca’s brother-in-law, who was said to be a top leader of the Warriors himself, and the one most closely connected, through his sister, to the municipal office? And most importantly, what was the Warriors’ motive for committing mass murder, once it was clear, as it must have been from very early on, that those scared, spindly teenagers were hardly the murderous enemies they were on the lookout for?