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 for their own disappearance—a theory intended to let the government off the hook.
Mexico has a long history of crushing dissent, particularly among students. On October 2, 1968, thousands of college and high school students were met with gunfire when they flooded a Mexico City plaza to protest government abuses. The estimated number of deaths varied wildly, from eyewitness accounts claiming that hundreds died to a government spokesperson saying only twenty did, to an army general insisting that not a single death occurred. In 2006 declassified documents cited forty-four deaths, yet hundreds of families have said that their children were disappeared.
Every October, on the anniversary of the 1968 killings, the Socialist Federation of Mexican Rural Students organizes students from the normales rurales throughout the country to march in Mexico City. In a long-standing tradition that local authorities have tended to regard as a minor nuisance, the students commandeer private buses to take them to the capital, peacefully but forcibly demanding that the bus drivers abandon their regular routes and raising money along the way by holding up traffic and asking motorists for cash. Each year, dozens of buses throughout Mexico are seized, thousands of students march in the streets of Mexico City, and the buses are then returned home, generally unscathed.
In late September 2014, in preparation for the annual march, the Ayotzinapa normalistas set out to find buses to bring them and students from neighboring schools to Mexico City. In what amounts to a hazing ritual or rite of passage, the first-year students are often sent to find the buses, meaning that some of those involved on September 26 were among the youngest in the school. The students managed to commandeer five buses in the nearby city of Iguala and late that night began the drive north. But in Iguala and on the highway outside the city, the buses suddenly found themselves under sustained gunfire. According to eyewitnesses, a series of attacks took place over the next three hours (a bus carrying a high school soccer team from a neighboring town also came under fire). The violent attacks were wildly out of proportion to any crime the students could have been accused of committing. Survivors from a number of the buses said that over the course of the night they were attacked by armed members of the local police force, the federal and state police, and even soldiers from the Mexican army. The gunmen encircled the buses, punctured their tires, shot at the students, teargassed and beat them, and chased a group of them through the city and into the neighboring woods.
By midnight two students lay dead near the main square of Iguala, and more bodies were found along the highway. The next morning, the mutilated body of a twenty-two-year-old student was found along a main road; his corpse showed signs of torture, with sixty-four fractures in his skull, face, and spine. And forty-three of the students were missing—witnesses said they had seen the young men being dragged from the buses by municipal and federal police officers into trucks and vans. One of the students who survived, Omar García, spoke to the press about what happened that night. “The [police] shot straight at the buses—at the windows, the doors, the tires,” he said. Then they took his friends away.
In the following days and weeks, as international outrage over the missing students grew, the government of President Peña Nieto made conflicting claims about the events of that night. It initially placed the blame on the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who was making a speech that day launching her run for local office; notably, Pineda’s brother, it is widely believed, is high up in one of the most violent gangs in the region, the Guerreros Unidos. The federal government said that the students may have been mistaken for members of a rival gang, Los Rojos, or that Mayor Abarca and First Lady Pineda were angry that the students were being disruptive in their town on the night of her speech.
Then, in January 2015, four months after the disappearance, the Mexican attorney general’s office announced what it called the “historical truth” of what had occurred: the Iguala police, in collusion with the mayor, had handed over the forty-three to gang members, who killed them and burned their bodies at a dump. But the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), an international legal panel appointed by a human rights commission, would find after a lengthy investigation that there was no evidence to support this theory, particularly regarding the dump, where no remains or DNA were found. And none of the theories advanced by Peña Nieto’s government explained the eyewitness reports of police in federal uniforms at the scene.*
The GIEI report reached several important conclusions, including that “the [narcotics] business that is carried out in the town of Iguala could explain the extremely violent reaction and the massive character of the attack.” Indeed, in 2018, testimony from a drug trial in Chicago suggested that buses from Iguala were sometimes used by the Guerreros Unidos to transport heroin across the US–Mexico border. It’s clear from the abrupt halt of the buses that local, state, and federal security forces were trying to keep them from leaving the city limits—could the students have accidentally commandeered a bus full of heroin? But the federal government declined to investigate this particular theory. The authorities also refused to hand over evidence to the GIEI, including government security footage. While the GIEI report advanced no definitive theory of the attacks on the students, it noted that, whatever happened that night, it amounted to “a massive and coordinated operation” to protect “high-level interests.”
Although more than a hundred people were charged in the case, including Iguala police officers, the deputy police chief, Abarca and Pineda, and members of the Guerreros Unidos, not one person has been convicted, the full story is still unclear, and the bodies have yet to be found.
Three recent books on the fate of the Ayotzinapa students outline in chilling detail what happened five years ago this month. A Massacre in Mexico by Anabel Hernández, an investigative journalist from Mexico, and Faces of the Disappeared by Tryno Maldonado, a Mexican novelist and literary critic, offer moment-by-moment accounts of that night and the subsequent government cover-up—one that, in a grotesque irony, mirrors the cover-up of the very massacre the students were en route to protest. A third book, I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us, by John Gibler, an American journalist, is an oral history of the attacks in the words of the survivors. After nine months of intensive research for a book on the case of the forty-three, Gibler decided that “what needs to be shared, urgently, are both the words and the storytelling of the people who lived through the attacks.”
Both Hernández and Maldonado chip away at the government’s own investigation bit by fabricated bit, and their reconstruction of the night of September 26 is supported by the eyewitness accounts that Gibler collected. All bolster the conclusion of the GIEI investigators: culpability for the death and disappearance of the students reaches the highest levels of government. The testimonies in I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us offer stunning evidence again and again that members of the army, as well as local and state police, helped carry out the attack. A twenty-two-year-old student told Gibler that men wearing both state and federal police uniforms were shooting at the bus he was on. He was shot in the arm by an officer who then held the gun to his head, but for some reason decided not to shoot and instead called an ambulance. The student was one of a handful of the wounded who were taken to the hospital while others were driven away in trucks and cars. “When they put me in the ambulance, that was when they started to put my compañeros in the different squad trucks. I could see it…. Everyone who was riding in the bus where I was is now disappeared,” he said.
Maldonado’s Faces of the Disappeared opens after the massacre, as the parents of the forty-three begin their protracted fight for justice. Central to his book are the stories of the missing students themselves. Maldonado lived at the school for several months in the fall of 2014, and his sensitively rendered portraits of the missing, assembled through letters and interviews with their families and friends, can make this a difficult book both to pick up and to put down.
The narrative moves between the students’ lives in the days leading up to September 26 and the aftermath of the violence, as the families wait for justice and a resolution that never comes. We read about a young man named César Manuel who dropped out of school to join his uncle’s welding shop, went back to become a lawyer, dropped out again, then decided that he wanted to be a teacher (much to the consternation of his working-class parents, who dreamed of a more lucrative career for him). He was set on going to Ayotzinapa. We also meet César Manuel’s friend Bernardo, an avid basketball player and the son of a poor farmer and a rural schoolteacher, who, as a member of the Student Council, was responsible for getting hold of the buses that night. Both young men were said to have stayed aboard as the attacks began to try to protect their friends.
Maldonado vividly conveys the families’ struggle for information from a stonewalling government. He describes a meeting between a group of the parents of the missing students and President Peña Nieto and his staff in late October 2014; the scene, he notes, was most likely a bid by the administration “to seem more sympathetic to the plight of a handful of bumpkins from Guerrero.” The meeting took place in the presidential palace, in a ballroom with “gleaming floors.” Throughout, Peña Nieto avoided eye contact with the bereaved parents, many of whom wore sandals made from old tires. They removed their straw hats in deference to the man in the expensive suit. (How can he afford such suits, Maldonado wonders, on his government salary? The trial in New York earlier this year of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, offered a possible explanation: Peña Nieto allegedly received $100 million in bribes from the infamous drug lord.) Many of the parents speak indigenous languages and little to no Spanish, a fact ignored by the officials, who went on and on in Spanish as the parents sat patiently. They held up photos of their missing children while the “dignitaries on the dais” looked at their cell phones. It was clear that they would do nothing to help. The parents would return to their isolated villages with no more clarity than when they left.
If Faces of the Disappeared has some of the power of a novel, Hernández’s A Massacre in Mexico is more like a forensic report. The author has created a painstaking chronology of the events of the night, and doggedly tracks down new evidence—such as video footage that had been hidden or withheld—to reconstruct a narrative of brutality and corruption. Hernández concludes that the students may indeed have accidentally taken at least one bus carrying either drugs or narco cash, and that this made them a target for the army, which was in league with traffickers. Though her account is at times scattered and confusing, her review of the evidence exposes the obfuscations of the government’s investigation.
Hernández situates the Ayotzinapa story within the wider history of social unrest in Mexico, including the Dirty War in Guerrero during the 1960s and 1970s, when leftist leaders and insurrectionist movements flourished. From 1971 to 1981, she writes, military officers “raped, sent to secret prisons, disappeared, summarily executed, and threw out of planes into the sea men, women, senior citizens, boys, and girls from campesino [peasant] families around the [Guerrero] state.” The Ayotzinapa Normal School is, among other things, a relic of Guerrero’s leftist movements during the Dirty War, and thus a potential government target even thirty years later.
Hernández makes plain that a government cover-up of the crime was underway from the beginning. Shell casings were removed from one of the areas where bodies were found. Authorities declined to take statements from witnesses. Surveillance tapes went missing. Someone picked up by the police would make a confession supporting the government’s version of events, only to recant the story later, saying that it was obtained under torture; another person would come forward with the same story, then recant, again citing torture—and on and on. Much of Hernández’s reporting is corroborated by the GIEI report, and she builds a convincing case that someone was engineering the confessions to support the government’s account.
The one significant disagreement in the reconstruction of events by Hernández and Maldonado is in the role of the local officials in Iguala. According to Hernández’s findings, they had limited knowledge of or involvement with the attacks. Maldonado, however, tends to reinforce the narrative put out by the Peña Nieto government, that Mayor Abarca and Pineda (who remain in jail today) were entangled with the local narcos and regarded the students as a harmful nuisance—and were at least partly responsible for their murder.
The difficulty of reporting such a story is obvious: there seem to be infinite layers of truth and lies, of interests both financial and political. The Peña Nieto government needn’t put forth a coherent theory; offering up many theories, in fact, better serves its purpose by creating confusion.
However blame is meted out, it’s clear that officials from Peña Nieto’s government must be held to account. Hernández found that the federal government, along with the officials from Guerrero, had been keeping tabs on the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School long before the night of the disappearance. When Peña Nieto took office in 2012, the previous administration provided him with a seventeen-page security briefing entitled “Priority Areas of Concern for the Start of the 2012–2018 Administration.” Hernández obtained this document and was able to verify its provenance. The first region on the list was the state of Michoacán, in western Mexico; the second was Guerrero. Among the many threats to “governability” in Guerrero—organized crime, activists protesting dams and thermoelectric plants, increasing violence in Acapulco—was “activism of the Ayotzinapa normalistas.” Yet nowhere in the entire briefing are the notorious drug criminals of the Sinaloa cartel or Los Zetas mentioned. In the weeks before September 26, Hernández writes, the Guerrero state government and the federal government “were closely coordinating and preparing to quickly respond to and halt the students’ commandeering of buses.”
It becomes increasingly difficult to regard the students’ murder as collateral damage from a narco-feud or the work of an overzealous police force. “The unavoidable conclusion,” Hernández writes, “is that on the night of September 26, 2014, all the law enforcement branches…knew, in real time, everything about the attacks that were occurring in the streets.” A lawyer for the victims’ families has stated that the students’ movements were being tracked by a command and control station, known as the C4, to which federal police, the army, and state police all had access. The GIEI report confirms this. Hernández reports that the army was overseeing the C4 that night—meaning that, in direct contradiction to the claims of the Peña Nieto government, they were most certainly aware of the attacks, if not directly involved, and could have stopped them.
Like Maldonado and Gibler, Hernández pays tribute to the normalista movement and the victims’ families, whose protests have prevented the massacre “from being just another everyday story of Mexican violence or of bloodstained Guerrero.”
It’s also clear that, by telling these stories, Hernández and Maldonado have put themselves at great risk, too. Mexico is one of the deadliest places on earth to be journalist. When Hernández first heard about the Ayotzinapa killings, she was a fellow at the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, and was trying “to find a way to return to Mexico, the place of my home and my life, and yet a place that was, at the same time—little by little—killing me.” Her relentless pursuit of stories over many years about collusion between the government and the cartels has made her and her family a target again and again. Before she left for Berkeley, the police raided her house and sent her death threats. At times she traveled with armed bodyguards to write this book. The narrators in Gibler’s book, too, took a risk in coming forward, even anonymously. To tell the truth in Mexico, or to search for it, can be a death sentence.
In Faces of the Disappeared, Maldonado describes a father sick with typhoid, a welder from a nearby town, who demands to know what happened to his missing son. “What kind of fucking country is this?” Mario shouts. “What kind of goddamn country are we living in?” Maldonado writes about the families:
They’ve made the trip from their remote mountain villages in clothes they’ve rarely worn: store-bought shoes and pants. They’ve lost ancestral lands to eviction and watched their crops wither and their animals starve…. All that unites them at first are their forebodings. But, little by little, they come to realize that what they share in the depths of their souls is rage.
See the final GIEI report, “Informe Ayotzinapa II: Avances y nuevas conclusiones sobre la investigación, búsqueda y atención a las víctimas,” April 2016, available at www.wola.org/analysis/analysis-and-information-on-mexicos-ayotzinapa-case/. ↩