In Mexico, 43 students missing for eight years: not forgotten and still making headlines

By now, you might not remember the murders and forced disappearances of the “normalistas” – education  students who were training to be rural teachers in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. 

On the night of Sept. 26, 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked in Iguala, Guerrero, after they had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City for a protest over the Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of student protesters at Tlatelolco plaza in Mexico City.

In Iguala, six people – including three students – were killed in the assault, 25 were injured and 43 students were abducted and presumably murdered later. Leading suspects are members of the Mexican army who worked alongside municipal officials and drug-traffickers who were trying to move opium gum (or semi-processed heroin) on one of the buses that was taken.

As the eighth anniversary approaches, a series of events reveals more about what happened as well as efforts by people tied to the former government of Enrique Peña Nieto to maintain the cover-up. 

Left: La Jornada front page today: protests over judicial decisions, military cover-up. Right: remembering the 43 students in Tepoztlán, Morelos, December 2014.

First the news:

  • On Aug. 18, the report of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice (appointed by the current government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador) published its report, stating that the students’ disappearance was a “state-sponsored crime.” The report accuses Col. José Rodríguez Pérez, commander of the 27th infantry battalion located in Iguala, of giving the order to murder the missing students. He was arrested on Sept. 15.
  • By pointing to army collusion, the new report denounced the version offered by 2015 by the Peña Nieto administration that the students were killed by a local drug gang after being abducted by municipal cops acting on the orders of Iguala’s corrupt mayor, and that their bodies were incinerated at a dump in the nearby town of Cocula – which is not to say that those officials do not share part of the responsibility for the crimes. Following the report, Peña Nieto’s  attorney-general, Jesús Murillo Karam, was arrested for obstruction in administration of justice in the case. Another official whose arrest has been sought, Tomás Zerón de Lucio,head of Peña Nieto’s Criminal Investigation Agency, left Mexico and is hiding in Israel
  • Among the many stories that emerged from the report is that of one of the students, Julio César López Patolzin, a former soldier now revealed to have been an army spy infiltrated into the school. Even though he was in touch with his supervisors up to the night of the disappearances, the army made no effort to extricate him from among the other students, making him a victim along with the others. 
  • Despite the truth commission report, a judge assigned to the case by the former government has ordered the release of at least 121 police officers and government officials previously charged, including some of the municipal officials and accused drug-traffickers. The district court judge, Samuel Ventura Ramos, is located in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (in northeastern Mexico, close to the U.S. border).
  • Federal prosecutors are now bringing charges against the judge, and President López Obrador demanded Friday (Sept. 23) to know why the cases are not taken up again. “What has that to do with justice? Who chose that judge? And why is the Ayotzinapa case, which has to do with Guerrero, attended to by a judge in Tamaulipas?”

What does all this mean?

When looking at the news these days, it’s important to keep in mind that part of the game plan of globalized capitalism is to show the state as ineffective, whether against the COVID pandemic, inflation, or protecting human rights and public security.

In Mexico, where the present government is attempting to transform the system into one more amenable to the impoverished majority, economic power and some instruments of political and judicial power are still held by old elites. 

Moreover, the system as implemented over the past 30 years has made the students and their cultures redundant, wrote Alejandro Nadal of the Centre for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico. Industrialized agriculture is privileged over traditional small-holder farms. “That is to say, there is no place for campesinofarmers who aspire to a dignified life in freedom. The youth of Ayotzinapa rebelled and the established powers responded,” Nadal wrote in La Jornada.

And, who are those powers? Again we see, as we have repeatedly over the past two decades of a stepped-up “war on drugs,” we see the collusion of a drug cartel (this one is called Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors) with politicians and other state actors.

“The war on drugs has never controlled drug trafficking and has always been about social control,” wrote Laura Carlsen, director of the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. “Now it’s Mexico’s youth that are paying the price of that duplicity.”

I lived and worked in Mexico from 1994 to 2000. I was based in the city of Cuernavaca, about 90 km south of Mexico City in the state of Morelos and about 50 km north of the border with Guerrero. We frequently visited a Nahua Indigenous community near Taxco, Guerrero. If you take the libre (the two-lane, non-toll highway) towards Acapulco, you pass through Iguala.

During those years, I made several visits to the city of Tlapa in the eastern part of the state. I came to know the Tlachinollan human rights centre and once spent an afternoon near Olinalá talking with a group of rural teachers. Their option for the poor was absolute and inspiring.

The students reflected the context from which they emerged and to which they would have returned as teachers: impoverished and exploited rural Mexico. Their work was heroic.

The latter paragraphs of this text are adapted from a piece I wrote in a previous Unwrapping Development blog format in October 2014, days after the disappearances.

On murder and a birthday cake: Reflections on Colombia’s search for peace with justice

In human rights work, one’s first duty is to those who are harmed. But once in a while, one of the murderers says something that seizes attention as it reveals again the full banality of evil.

On July 19 in northern Colombia, the former professional solider Álex José Mercado asked forgiveness from a young woman for the murder of her father, saying: “The day that he was turned over to me (for killing), he had gone out to get a cake for your birthday.” In another moment, he said that he was not worthy to ask forgiveness from family members, but could only ask for pardon from God. “I lent myself to murder innocent people,” he said. He was 19 at the time at the time of his crimes.

This occurred during a hearing in Valledupar of Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (referred to in Spanish as JEP). It’s the transitional tribunal that was set up to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes committed during six decades of armed conflict between the FARC-EP guerrilla fighters and the Colombian state. This hearing focused on the  falsos positivos, the false positives, that occurred just in the northern departments of Cesar and Guajira. In the country as a whole, Colombia’s armed forces kidnapped more than 6,000 young men, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas, and then tried to pass them off “successes” in its war on “terrorism.”

Others spoke for the victims: 

Left: Pedro Loperena, representing the Wiwa Indigenous people, said: “The economic aid policies of those who gave funds to the military forces must also be re-evaluated, because those resources were used to carry out these misdeeds.” Right: Daniela Rodríguez, spokesperson for the legal representatives of the victims and in the name of the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), asked that the “centrality of the victims, their desires and expectations, be drives these proceedings.”

When he spoke about aid to the Colombian military, Loperena was polite and understated the problem:

This chart from U.S. civil society organizations shows more than two decades of U.S. aid to Colombia.

Over decades, the U.S. and Colombian governments have successively painted the war as: first, a war against communism; then, a war against drugs; and now, a war against terrorism. But the war in Colombia had its roots in the same struggle that has gone on in Latin America since the time of the European Conquest: the struggle by small farmers, Indigenous people and urban workers for land, social justice and basic human rights.

In the face of a peace process that has had limited support (and sometimes overt opposition) from the Colombian state, headed these past four years by Ivan Duque, that these tribunals continue to function is a triumph

One of the hardest parts of achieving a peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas was to find language about how to manage crimes committed by state and non-state actors during the conflict. The two sides began negotiating in Havana in November 2012. The agreement on transitional justice and reparations was achieved in 2015 and the full peace accord signed in December 2016. The former adversaries agreed to a form of transitional justice, creating special tribunals to judge crimes committed by both members of the FARC and by state agents. 

It is not an amnesty, despite former president Álvaro Uribe’s characterization of the accord. In fact, that was what was avoided. Under international law that has come into force since the South African transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, a full amnesty would not be legal. 

In November 2019, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz (Ecumenical Table for Peace) presented its report, “Blood of Martyrs, Seeds of Liberation,” to the chair of Colombia’s Truth Commission, Fr. Francisco de Roux SJ. In presenting the report, Omar Fernández acknowledged that it was not possible to encompass all of the many Christian martyrs of this long war: the team focused on those whose pastoral work represented the Church of the Poor.

Another triumph in recent weeks is the publication June 28 of the report of Colombia’s Truth Commission. Speaking July 14 to the United Nations Security Council, commission president Fr. Francisco de Roux said  that Colombia has demonstrated that those wounded by war can come together to build peace, happiness and “produce a tomorrow where there is hope”.  Over the last four years, the Commission has heard from more than 30,000 individuals and bodies and reviewed over 1,000 reports from victimized communities. He urged  the international community to give Colombia “nothing for war.”

Top of the list of recent triumphs is, of course, is the election of a new president, Gustavo Petro, and vice-president, Francia Márquez. Like the truth commission, Petro has criticized the U.S.-led war on drugs. The truth commission has urged Petro to lead a global conversation on changing drug policies, with a focus on regulation over criminalization.

Petro and Márquez will take office on Aug. 7, and already there is talk of capital flight – in effect, a boycott of Colombia by rich investors, including Colombians who already have one foot in Miami. The road ahead – ending the alliances of military forces with paramilitary death squads and drug-traffickers, ending the practice of assassinating leaders of social movements (at least 145 in 2021), protecting rain forests and reducing the grotesque gaps between wealth and poverty – will be difficult as evidenced by this long (and nevertheless incomplete) list of U.S.-sponsored coups and invasions launched against left leaders in Latin America. 

People at greatest risk need ‘politics of friendship’

Away back in May of 2007, David and I were driving toward the Mexican border on Highway 77 near Victoria, Texas, when we noticed flowers and signs by the side of the road. We stopped and soon realized we were at a place where people were remembering a tragedy.

On May 14, 2003, 19 migrants died here after a driver abandoned a trailer truck that carried as many as 100 people.

We remembered them last week as news came that 53 migrants had died after the trailer in which they were being carried had been abandoned off Interstate 35 near San Antonio, Texas. 

That incident came only three days after 23 African men lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach Europe by trying to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla from neighbouring Morocco.

Politicians have tried to excuse their culpability in all of these deaths by blaming them on “human smugglers,” but the true problem is migration policies that are inhumane – “criminal,” said an editorial in Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper.

Back in 2003, the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski (now the archbishop of Miami) said the deaths in Victoria were the result of a “flawed and inhumane” border policy. 

“It is time for our elected officials to acknowledge that the border blockade strategy our nation has pursued since 1993 is a flawed and inhumane policy,” he said in a written statement issued a day after the tragedy. (His comments were published by National Catholic Reporter on May 30, 2003, but the article is no longer available on line.)

Politics of friendship

As I thought about the migrants who died last week, it seemed to me that many people in the wealthier countries of the global North lack empathy with people faced by extreme levels of violence and poverty in the global South. 

And then a line from José Cueti (psychologist, author and columnist at Mexico City’s La Jornada daily newspaper) caught my eye: 

“Lo real es que no existen las políticas de amistad hacia los más necesitados.”  Or, fairly literally: “What’s real is that politics of friendship towards those in greatest need do not exist.”

So then I found myself in a fairly deep dive into the thinking of Jacques Derrida on politiques de l’amitié. That led to Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti, where he proposes “a better kind of politics.” The politics we need, he argues in chapter 5, “is a politics centred on human dignity and not subjected to finance because ‘the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem.’” And finally I read a comment by the Argentinean-Mexican philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel where he proposes the concept of solidarity as a way to overcome contradictions and limitations that occur in some uses of friendship and fraternity (including not only the limited gender sense of the latter).

Empathy. Friendship. Fraternity. Solidarity. We don’t have enough of any of those, and we fail to allow those values to inform our politics, much less our refugee determination policies. Instead, greed limits our human response to the tragedies that lead people into the back of a trailer, or on to a rubber lifeboat in the Mediterranean, or over a wall between Melilla and Morocco.

Immigration policies that do not allow migrants to present a refugee claim are part of the problem, and I have frequently decried economic development practices that augment poverty, violence and desperation in countless countries around the world.

Consider the choices (or lack of them) that might have driven your ancestors to migrate.

A few words about a book that might help you understand better the limited choices facing huge numbers of people.

John Vaillant, The Jaguar’s Children. (Knopf Canada, 2015).

Most North American writers get Mexico wrong. Vaillant gets it mostly right. He even grasps México profundo—the people, places and stories that are distant from official Mexico. He gets inside the faith of the people—that practice of Christianity that is woven together with the spiritual traditions of Nahua, Zapotec, Maya and many other Indigenous peoples.

Here is a novel that speaks specifically of Indigenous Mexican’s profound relationship with corn and the threat they feel from industrial agriculture and its genetic modifications, terminator seeds and exclusion of all that is valuable in the shameless search for profit.

If you can’t afford to buy the book, or you’re too impatient to wait for a library copy, or you think that you don’t read novels: go and stand in a bookstore or a library and read chapter 24. Here, concisely, is all the horror of what is going on in Mexico and Central America these days: the free trade schemes that destroy traditional agriculture, decimate rural communities and drive hundreds of thousands of migrants into the cities and across the northern border.