A youngster fumbles for a rock, grips it firmly and throws it in an effort to counter the bursts of gunfire.
“Let us be. We’re students!”
Several boys are trapped in a police ambush. They are unarmed. Some of them get off the bus and try to make a run for it. Others hide under the seats. Ernesto, a 23 year-old boy with creole skin and thick eyebrows, hides behind a tire and continues to defend himself with rocks.
One of his mates goes down beside him, one bullet to his head. Ernesto shudders. He feels his strength waning. It smells of blood and gun powder. Bullets whizz by them in droves.
“Stop! You’ve killed him. What more do you want?”, Ernesto shouts. He tries to carry his colleague, but he’s too heavy. He goes off running, leaving him behind.
September 26th 2014. Mexican police attacked three buses with some 80 students in them, on their way to a . Three youngsters were killed in the shooting; their bodies were left in the street. Amidst the chaos, three passers-by were also shot dead. Police then proceeded to thrashing them and leaving them bare-chested, subsequently loading them up in cars and vanishing with 43 of them. Their whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
In Mexico, eleven people disappear each day. Over 20.000 persons are missing. Most of those are from Guerrero, the state in which Ernesto lives. Sometimes, a body will pop up or a mass grave with bones or burned bodies which remain unidentified.
Authorities point their fingers at the drug traffickers, who fill their pockets with bribe money in order to have a clear passage and to go about their business in many of the . Common people have ceased protesting, out of fear of them vanishing as well.
February 2016. Ayotzinapa is a packed little city in the state of Guerrero, with unpaved and dusty streets. Map in my hand, I try to find the school of the missing students. I get panicked at the thought that I’ll be kidnapped every time a car with tinted windows rolls by.
A boy stares at me from the confines of a black and white photograph stuck on a road sign. His name, Felipe Arnulfo Rosas, is printed under his chin. Above his forehead, one can read in Spanish “until we find him alive”.
He’s one of the students that vanished. In this area, road signs have long stopped reading “priority ahead” or “take left turn”. Instead, they show black and white photos with the faces of the missing persons. Some are hanging by a thread; others are fresh out of the printer. The walls and the trees are exhibiting pieces of graffiti and knife scribbling, all of them made by people searching for the disappeared: “You’ve taken them alive, alive is how we want them back” or “They’re taking the living daylights out of us”.
Near the way out of the city, in the middle of a forest, is the rural school. In order to get to it, I descend among shrubbery and concrete stairways. The school’s walls are shriveled, and its amphitheaters are empty. The windows are covered with black mourning drapes.
Every now and then, a youngster playing the Mexican national anthem on the trumpet breaks the silence. Placards with revolutionary slogans hang on the walls.
Rural schools were established in the immediate wake of , the biggest socio-political event Mexico’s seen since the dawn of the 20th century. It was then that the peasants, under the leadership of the revolutionist Zapata, fought to take back their nationalized land. The revolutionary stance was kept to this day: rural schools are preparing youngsters to be teachers. But they’re no ordinary teachers.
“In most schools, they’ll only teach you how to be a pawn. We learn to protest and question anything that comes from a government like the one we have. We are taught to stand on the side of the right causes”, says Ernesto Guerrero, the young man who got away from the police ambush a couple of years back.
Ernesto tells his story of how he managed to hide after throwing rocks at the police and seeing one of his mates getting shot in the head. Snooped behind a tree, he looked on as the police officers dragged the students out of a bus. They slammed them on the pavement. Many were shirtless and were bleeding. Ernesto spent the ensuing night repeating, on a loop in his mind, the plates of the police cars that took half of his colleagues, lest he forgets any of the digits. “017, 019, 020, 022, 027.”
After the students were seized, police gathered all the empty shells from the pavement and drove away the people who had come to help the students: “Go on, scram!”, they shouted at them.
In Mexico, protesters are mainly people from the countryside and students like Ernesto. For a few years now, Mexico wants to reform the sixteen rural schools, change their curriculum and stop the scholarship program . The money that’s coming to a pupil at an Escuela Normal Rural is 90 pesos a day, which is the equivalent of four loaves of bread. Shutting down the scholarships would put an end to the rural schools. Meanwhile, tuition at a city college costs more than what Romanians are paying for one year of college.
“The government doesn’t want them, because the teachers that are schooled here are opposing the system”, Zosimo Camacho explained to me on the phone; he is a journalist specialized in social unrest, who’s been documenting the phenomenon of rural schools for years.
Ernesto and his colleagues bribed some drivers from a public transport company to make a detour and get them to the march in the capital, 200 km away. In order to get there, students will often seize buses by force. Sometimes, they’ll negotiate with the drivers right at the bus station, other times they’ll jump in front of cars on the motorway. Several times, students forcefully disembarked the passengers and left them on the side of the road. Ernesto says there’s no other option, transportation being very expensive. “It’s our duty to go and protest, for Mexico and for all students”.
“The government and organized crime form a single organism which acts like a parasite”, says Arturo Basáñez Lima, a lawyer and sociology teacher who told me a great deal about corruption in Mexico.
Since 2006, the cartel war claimed more than 150.000 lives, according to a report published in early June by six human rights organizations.
It’s common to hear news of people who were decapitated, burned, mutilated, hung from bridges, dead or missing.
The president currently in office, Enrique Peña Nieto, won the 2012 election with the promise that he’ll subdue violence without starting a costly and bloody war against the drug mafia. Crime rates, though, are still very high.
92% of the townships of Guerrero are led by drug cartels who sell their merchandise in plain sight, not bothering to hide. The former mayor of the city where the missing students vanished is relatives with the boss of a traffickers’ group. There’s this unwritten law, that the authorities just let them do what they want.
“They took them alive; alive is how we want them back”
The school in Ayotzinapa became a reunion spot for the parents, teachers and colleagues of those who went missing. They have a bus, the Ayotzinapa Caravan, and they roll it across the country to try and hold the authorities accountable. They attend conferences, meet with prosecutors and organize marches.
On the night of their disappearance, the students kept on ringing the emergency services, but no one bothered to respond. Many of them also called their friends and their parents to come and save them. This wasn’t the first time when students .
“We didn’t think the police can do this and our sons can disappear like this”, says Felipe de la Cruz, father of one of the survivors. His boy called him from amidst the ambush, but Felipe had no chance of getting there in time.
“I told him to take care, stand with the group. To comply, lest they beat him up, because if they put them in jail, we’ll be there to get them out.”
Felipe de la Cruz is a man of moderate height, hailing from the country side. It’s him that mobilized the other parents to fight at all costs. “If they took our sons, what else can we lose?”
Felipe de la Cruz’s son managed to walk away with his life that night and he’s still struggling to get over it.
“My son was just like all young people – restless, energetic, played the guitar. Now he stays only indoors, he’s twenty and unwilling to talk to anyone anymore.”
The man recalls the morning after the ambush. “On the 27th of September we, the parents, went to school. Everyone went there to look for answers; we had yet to establish which ones of our children had gone missing.”
It was then that several teachers, parents and students went to the police station to provide statements in order to retrieve the supposedly arrested students. All that, only to learn that they had never made it to any police station.
After several months of trials, were arrested and a few Mexican civil servants were relieved of their duties on corruption charges. More than one year on, the court made its first convictions. Dozens of police officers who had opened fire on the students are now behind bars, and the police commander is jailed in a maximum security facility. The former mayor, who was accused of having issued the order to kidnap the students, was relieved from duty and arrested together with his wife, who is relatives with the boss of a trafficking group.
At the request of the parents’ group, in March 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) sent in to investigate the case – three attorneys, a judge and a coroner, specialized in human rights, with more than ten years of experience. One of their conclusions was that “the students were harassed by both the federal and state police, and by the army as well.”
The specialists left in April of 2016, after the authorities had concealed pieces of evidence, blocked meetings and interviews with key witnesses and forged evidence. The experts could speak neither with the arrested police officers, nor with the bus drivers.
All of those who had driven the buses that night are no longer working with the transportation company. One of the company’s employees told me on the phone that, after the night of the attack, they know nothing of what happened to the bus on which the troopers opened fire.
The findings of the five experts show that the violence of that fateful night cannot be justified. A colleague of the missing students was found dead the following day. His body was in plain sight, in the street, having suffered 64 fractured bones and the skin ripped clean off his face. The boy succumbed due to torture.
The IAHCR experts claim that the disappearances are orchestrated with help from the state: “The idea is for them to extend the terror onto everyone and anyone who might be sympathetic to the victims and make them believe they could be the next one on the hit list.”
The prosecutor’s office in Guerrero stated that the bodies of the students are located in a dump in Cocula, a municipality in the same state, where were found. Officials claimed that drug traffickers had killed the students, and then burned their corpses. After several tests and investigations conducted by international experts, it was proven that the bodies uncovered from the dump did not belong to the missing students.
In Mexico, the students’ disappearance sparked a wave of protests. This summer, hundreds of teachers took to the streets to counter the proposed educational reform which, among others, would shut down the rural schools. They asked for “an end to the bloodshed and the seizing of people”. But the night of September 26th had a sequel. Troopers fired at them with pistols and machine guns. Eight people died and 22 are missing.
I asked several people what they think happened with the students in Ayotzinapa. Most of them say it was the state – “Anyone can be the next missing person. After they kill us, they throw us in the sea, set us on fire or make us disappear as if it were an act of magic.”
Text by Andrada Lăutaru.
Cover, skulls and patience: Sorina Vazelina
Illustration: Alexandra Brăslașu
Editors: Sorina Vasile, Ștefan Mako, Lina Vdovîi, Andrada Fiscutean
Translator: Victor Bitiușcă
Amigos: Vlad Ursulean, Oana Moisil, Timea Honț, Delia Marinescu, Tiberiu-Mihail Cimpoeru, Valentina Nicolae, Ada Popescu
How was the subject born?
I went to Mexico in 2014, after getting my masters degree in social assistance in law. I had no idea where to go next. I worked for a year in Puebla, as a volunteer in an orphanage. I was there when the students went missing and it haunted me even after I came back to Romania. I had this recurring dream in which I was being shot in the head. Last December, I came back to Mexico for three months, to uncover the story of the 43 that went missing.