‘It Was the State’: Thousands Protest Forced Disappearance of Mexican Students
They came with flowers. They came with cardboard signs. They came with pictures of the missing, squarely framed faces in black and white.
As dusk began to fall, more and more people, bundled against the cold, gathered in front of the Mexican Consulate on Manhattan's East 39th street to protest the disappearance of 43 students from the southwestern town of Iguala.
Poster of the missing students (Wikimedia Commons)
The forced disappearance—allegedly carried out on the orders of local officials—has unleashed a firestorm of frustration and protest in a country where over 100,000 people have been killed and 27,000 have disappeared in the last decade alone. Since the Mexican government declared its own war on drugs in 2006, the country has borne witness to everything from decapitations to epidemic sexual violence. A culture of corruption, intimidation and fear has muffled popular protest, and unthinkable brutality is accepted as the norm by state officials and citizens alike.
But the disappearance of the students in Iguala—all of whom were under the age of 30 and studying to become teachers in poor rural communities—touched a nerve. Yesterday, on the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, demonstrators gathered in New York, Mexico City, Barcelona and cities around the world to tell the Mexican government that they have had enough.
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Though the current whereabouts of the students are in dispute, some facts about their disappearance are known. On the night of September 26, they traveled to Iguala from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, a famously radical teacher’s college in the Guerrero foothills, to collect funds to protest federal education reforms. They never returned.
According to media reports, the wife of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca ordered local cops to open fire on the students, fearing they would disrupt an event she was holding that evening. Six were killed. Forty-three were taken away in police caravans and allegedly transferred over to members of Guerreros Unidos, the cartel that controls the area. Official reports say they were then taken to a municipal dump, executed, and burned beyond recognition. Their ashes and bone fragments were put into garbage bags and tossed into a river.
Yet many dispute the government’s narrative and claim that its response to the tragedy has been muddled, slow and incomplete. Some, including the families of the disappeared, believe the students may still be alive. Given that an astonishing 98 percent of crimes in Mexico go unsolved, their suspicion that the case is really closed is understandable. One of the chants that elicited the most energetic response at the protest was "Los llevaron vivos. Los queremos vivos." "You took them alive. We want them back alive."
A woman holds a poster reading "Until we find them."
“We’re not exactly sure what happened,” Maria Perez, a Guerrero native who now studies at Queensboro Community College, told me. “There are videos saying that they found the bodies; there are others saying that the government is just trying to cover it up and put an end to the protests. We don’t know that the students aren’t still out there somewhere.”
The official story is drawn from the confessions of police officers and cartel members who were arrested following the students’ disappearance. Several local politicians, including Mayor Abarca and the Guerrero state governor, Angel Aguirre, have stepped down in response, and dozens have been arrested. But the human remains, which have been sent to Austria for DNA testing, have not been proven to belong to the missing students, leading some to suspect a coverup.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam first announced the government's account in an early November press conference, chronicling the supposed events of the night in detail. After an hour of questioning, however, he turned away from reporters and uttered a phrase that would take on a life of its own in the weeks to come. “Ya me cansÃ©,” he said. "Enough, I’m tired."
Within minutes, the phrase caught fire on social media, where it became a trending topic on Twitter. People were outraged that a government official would say something so callous on national television and in front of the families of the missing. And they too were tired.
At the protest, Gilberto Trujillo, who came to the U.S. from Oaxaca 25 years ago and now works for a sprinkler company, explained why.
“I’m tired of my people being mistreated, of my people being kidnapped, of my people being robbed, of my people not getting the education they deserve. I’m tired of watching people be disappeared and it being treated as if it’s no big deal. I’m tired of watching those in power use that power to abuse the people they’re supposed to protect. I’m tired. We’re all tired."*
Protesters across the street from the Mexican consulate in Manhattan.
Murillo Karam and others have tried to paint the incident as a localized, isolated occurrence rather than an act of state violence. In the November 7 press conference, he responded to a question along these lines saying, “A crime of state?…Iguala isn’t the Mexican state.”
As Francisco Goldman points out in The New Yorker, this is quite a misleading depiction:
All over the country…municipal police forces are corrupted by organized crime or else forced into ‘comply or die’ subservience. That reality, which leaves communities all across the country exposed to the depredations of organized crime, without any protection from local law enforcement, is ultimately the federal government’s responsibility.
Yet Mexican President Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto, who came into office in 2012 promising economic reform and relief from drug-related violence, has been similarly eager to minimize the significance of the disappearances. Though he has promised to bring the perpetrators to justice, he has repeatedly dismissed the protesters as rabble-rousers looking to destabilize his administration.
On Tuesday, PeÃ±a Nieto told the press, “We have seen violent movements which hide behind the grief to stage protests, the aim of which at times is unclear. They seem to obey interests to generate instability, to foment social unrest.”
Other officials, including Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, have also pointed fingers at the demonstrators, blaming them for instigating further unrest in a violence-wracked country. According to Cienfuegos, violence “only leads to national failure, social backwardness, ungovernability, instability.”
The same governing officials who have been charged by some with overseeing a new dirty war are now accusing their own citizens of fomenting instability. This hypocrisy has not been lost on the protesters.
“Basta de PeÃ±ajadas” ("Enough with PeÃ±a's stupid shit") read one sign outside the consulate.
And over and over came the chant, “El estado, se fue.” It was the state.
In the weeks since September 26, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Mexico demanding an end to state violence and PeÃ±a Nieto's neoliberal economic reforms. On Thursday, protesters in Mexico City clashed with police who had blocked the entrance to the ZÃ³calo, the city’s main square, though most of the demonstrations were peaceful. Cities from Montevideo to Los Angeles held their own rallies in solidarity.
“This isn’t just about the 43 students,” said Jose Ãngel Figueroa, a line cook from Cuatla Morelos. “This is about the future of our country... They say that people could get hurt, could die. And I say, yes, thousands of Mexicans are dying right now of hunger. Better that we die fighting than die for that.”
Protesters staged a "die-in" at New York City's Grand Central Station on Thursday evening.
Though the outcry over the missing students has received limited attention in the U.S., with neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry electing to speak publicly about the issue, activists here believe our government has a critical role to play in stemming the tide of violence in Mexico.
To date, the Obama administration has continued to implement the “MÃ©rida Initiative,” a cornerstone of George W. Bush’s efforts to combat narcotrafficking. The plan involves channeling millions in military aid to Mexico and using specially trained forces to target major kingpins and seize drug shipments. It has been widely condemned as a very expensive failure, costing the U.S. $3 billion so far and precipitating no significant downturn in the still-flourishing narcotics and amphetamine trades.
If it did decide to act, the U.S. already has a law, penned in 1997 by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, that prohibits the U.S. from providing military aid to foreign armed forces units that have committed mass human rights violations. If, as so many seem to think, the murder of the students in Iguala is just one stitch in an enveloping blanket of state-sponsored torture and abuse, activists in the U.S. are demanding that the President cut off the aid and make critical reforms to the MÃ©rida plan. For now, they're simply asking that Obama, like PeÃ±a Nieto, acknowledge that we all deserve to know what happened to the missing students.
As night fell on 39th Street and the lights in the windows of the Mexican consulate flickered on, the protesters remained crowded on the sidewalk outside. Across the street, Maggie Miranda, a student at St. John’s University, waited with her mother. “We aren’t going to settle for anything less than the truth,” she told me. “Until then, we’ll be out here."
*These interviews have been translated from Spanish.