In September 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the Mexican state of Guerrero disappeared after an attack by police that left six dead and more than 20 injured. The incident has sparked ongoing nationwide protests and international condemnation.
On Monday, March 16, 2015 CUSLAR, Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and MEChA de Cornell invited Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro to discuss the event, its aftermath, and the implications for Mexican politics.
In the excerpts below, Hernández Navarro highlights four key factors that created the conditions for the September 2014 massacre: the stigma faced by the rural colleges, a culture of impunity, the existence of a narco-state, and the cartels’ struggles over territorial control and their networks of complicity.
Luis Hernández Navarro is an opinion editor and columnist for the Mexico City daily La Jornada. A writer, consultant, social activist and political analyst, he has been an astute commentator on Mexican politics and social movements for over thirty years.
Talk by Luis Hernández Navarro
For the last five months, Mexico has been living days of pain and anger that stem from the disappearance of 43 young men and the killing of six others.In this brief talk, I will try to explain what happened, in what context it happened, and what it seems may happen in the future:
Let’s start at the beginning. On September 26, a group of approximately 80 students from Ayotzinapa traveled from their school to the city of Iguala, about 120 miles away. The purpose of their trip was to organize solidarity work around a trip they were planning to take on October 2, a very important date in Mexican social movements because it commemorates the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968.
On that day, September 26, there were three armed aggressions against these 80 students. First, municipal police surrounded the buses and shot at the young men, and they wounded one young man who is now brain dead. Second, about three hours later, close to midnight, the students who had survived the first attack, as well as teachers, held a press conference. During the press conference, there were masked civilians with high caliber rifles and police protection who began to shoot. There, two more students were killed. The third direct aggression happened minutes after this second attack when the police and masked civilians attacked a bus full of soccer players, whom they confused with the students from Ayotzinapa.
There were three deaths. The next morning, another student was found dead in the street, with the skin of his face pulled off and his eyes gouged out. In sum, the final count was six deaths and one more student who is brain dead. After the first attack, the police and other actors took 43 students as prisoners. These young men are still unaccounted for today.
In this operation, the Mexican army participated through participation and omission. The 27th Infantry Battalion is headquartered in Iguala, and it has a history of disappearing people. In the Dirty War between 1969 and 1979, almost 500 people were disappeared and the primary responsibility was on this battalion.
There are several contradictory and different versions of what happened next. The official government story is that the municipal police handed over the 43 students to members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel. Then the cartel members ostensibly took the 43 young men to a city dump in nearby Cocula where they assassinated the young men and burned their bodies. Their ashes were then thrown into a river. Many specialists have seriously questioned this version, highlighting, among other reasons, that it was raining the day the bodies were supposedly burned. The remains that should have been found in the dump, such as the residue of burned tires, were never located. Officially, these 43 young men are disappeared. However, as I’ve mentioned, the official story tells us the students were killed and burned.
Students demand the return of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the state of Guerrero, who were disappeared by the Mexican police in Sept. 2014.
So, in what context did this happen? I want to talk about the context and then return to the explanation. The young men were students from Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College. The Rural Teachers College is a place where one studies to become a teacher in a rural area. These are schools of poor people, for poor people. They are boarding schools, where students are guaranteed room and board, a library, and a place to study. The Rural Teachers’ Colleges were created in Mexico in the 1920s and they encapsulate the two great aspirations from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. First: secular, free, and obligatory education, and second, the agrarian reform that would end large landholdings and redistribute the land to peasants.
Rural Teachers’ Colleges have a reputation of conflict. Part of that reputation has to do with the fact that the government has time and time again attempted to shut down these colleges. Students have fought to keep the schools open. The government turns off the faucet of resources for these schools and the students fight to re-open it. For example, the amount of money that a student in one of those schools has to eat every day is five dollars. As a result, these students at these colleges live in permanent conflict, through protests and marches, which has led to a stigmatization in society. To call a student Ayotzinapo, is to refer to him in one of the most degrading ways possible. This is the first element we need to take into account: the stigma attached to the rural schools and their students.
This brings us to the second element that helps us understand what happened, which is impunity. In Guerrero, as with all of Mexico, impunity is the name of the game. A report from the International Human Rights Commission highlights that 65 percent of the crimes committed in Mexico are not reported because people are afraid of the offenders who commit the crime and the government who is connected to them. Bishop Raul Vera, one of the most important ethical figures in the country and was in charge of one of the Altamirano diocese in the state of Guerrero, said that impunity is the state’s largest problem.
This impunity has gotten worse because of an additional factor: Guerrero is a narco-state in a context where the production of drugs in Mexico has become more and more significant. Ten percent of Mexico’s GDP is due to criminal activity, of which approximately 45 percent is linked to drug production and trafficking, which is between $50 and $65 billion. This money enters the circuits of the formal economy for laundering through financial markets, real estate, tourism, and other activities, and a portion of the money goes directly toward buying politicians, police, and other branches of the state.
Guerrero is a key state in the drug network in Mexico. After Afghanistan and Myanmar, Mexico is the third largest producer of heroin in the world, and approximately 60 percent of all heroin produced in Mexico comes from Guerrero. Many synthetic drugs are also produced there, with chemical inputs from Asia arriving at the ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo. In addition, it’s a point of entry for cocaine on its way from countries in South America to the United States. Most of this business was controlled by the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, but as a result of the War on Drugs in the last presidential administration, it disintegrated into 20 to 25 smaller cartels fighting over territory, markets and routes.
In this landscape, Iguala, where the 43 students were disappeared, is a key city because it is connected to many other cities via transit routes and is surrounded by mountains where many of these products are produced. Because of its strategic location, in Iguala and surrounding cities, there have been ongoing and violent territorial disputes between cartels over who will control these cities. As you can imagine, narcotrafficking cannot survive without networks of complicity, which extend from politicians to armed forces. In that sense, the state of Guerrero is a narco-state. A considerable number of the most important politicians are well-connected to the cartels.
This begs the question, why were these young men attacked?
Why were some disappeared and others killed? The first response is that they were young, poor, and they were from the Rural Teachers’ College. They killed and disappeared them because they knew that they could do that without any repercussions. During Angel Aguirre’s three-year governorship, 17 leaders from popular movements were assassinated and 30 more were disappeared. I’m referring to ecologists, feminists and student leaders. Do you want to know how many of these crimes have been cleared up? Not one. This is the climate in which this aggression happened, which is part of a more general climate throughout the country.
As a result of the War on Drugs of 2006-2012 that Calderón’s administration began, and which Peña Nieto’s administration has discretely continued, there have been 120,000 murders and between 23,000 and 30,000 disappearances. The United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) published a harsh critique of the Mexican government in February because of these numbers.
Ayotzinapa is the last straw. What sets it apart from other situations, where people were in remote and isolated areas, is that it was a large, organized group that was disappeared. Many young people thought they could have been “number 44” and we, as parents, began to think that it could have happened to any one of our children. Consequently, there has been a huge national upheaval because of this situation. Thousands and thousands of people, mostly young people, began to take to the streets. After nine days of protest, the demands shifted from “they were taken alive, we want them back alive” to “Fuera Peña,” or calls for the president to resign. While the official strategy has been to put responsibility on a few individuals by accusing them of murder, the general sense has been to treat this as a state crime and to frame these enforced disappearances as a crime against humanity.
This framing is extremely important because the case may reach the International Criminal Court. There have been protests all over the world demanding the return of these young men, alive. In an unusual move, the White House showed their concern for these young men. The Pope has expressed his pain and has prayed for the young men, dead or disappeared, and their families. In addition, two United Nations commissions have intervened. There has been a relative isolation of the Mexican government on the international scale. And currently, as an agreement between parents and the federal government, a commission of experts from the International Commission on Human rights is conducting an investigation. In the public sphere, there’s a huge debate. On one hand, the federal government wants these events to be forgotten and left behind. But on the other hand, parents, universities and huge sectors of society are demanding a clarification of the facts and for the students to return home alive.
There is a strong dispute between memory and forgetting, a clash between justice and amnesia. The state of Guerrero is in a state of pandemonium. At the beginning of June, there will be federal elections and in Guerrero, there will also be state elections. Yet there is a broad movement calling for these elections not to happen. For example, close to half of the 81 municipalities in Guerrero have been taken over by the people. The next months leading up to June 2015 will be full of social upheaval around the two words that drive this lecture: pain, for crimes that have not found justice, and hope, for these enormous citizen mobilizations, mostly of young people, will be able to change this country.