I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa
Anywhere you go in Mexico, from southern Chiapas to the well-to-do neighborhoods of Mexico City, you may see scrawled on the wall of a building, the back of a bus, or a bathroom stall the words nos faltan 43—we’re missing 43. The slogan refers to the forty-three students from a rural teacher-training college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who have been missing since the night of September 26, 2014. Mexico’s murder rate has skyrocketed in recent years, and unmarked graves riddle the countryside; according to figures from Human Rights Watch, over 32,000 people disappeared in Mexico between 2006 and 2017. Roughly 80 percent of murders go unsolved. But even against a backdrop of such violence and impunity, the disappearance and presumed murder of the forty-three students have sparked prolonged public outrage. In the year following the incident, hundreds of thousands of protesters, led by students and the parents of the missing, marched in Mexico City to demand action from the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose term ended this past November still under the shadow of the crime.
In December, the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced the creation of a truth commission to investigate the students’ fate. While López Obrador’s government has insisted that the commission is working night and day to find those responsible, the families, along with much of the rest of Mexico, complain that no progress has been made.
The missing students’ school, the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College, sits on a hillside overlooking the village of Ayotzinapa in the southern state of Guerrero, one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. It belongs to the post-revolutionary educational movement known as the Rural Normal Schools, institutions steeped in leftist ideology that train schoolteachers to serve in some of Mexico’s most impoverished communities. Education, in the Normal School philosophy, is more than rote memorization or the transmission of knowledge; teachers are seen as agents of justice, health, and social change. At Raúl Isidro Burgos, posters of revolutionary heroes line the walls, and the normalistas—all young men in their late teens and early twenties, and almost all from poor families—spend their days farming and receiving basic teacher training and lessons in political organizing. Several well-known guerrilla leaders studied at Raúl Isidro Burgos in the 1950s and 1960s, including Lucio Cabañas, who founded the Party of the Poor in 1967. To some in Mexico, the Ayotzinapa school and those like it are training grounds for progressive young leaders; others see them as an outright threat to stability. The latter view has bolstered a theory that the students themselves were to blame…
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