CRF Blog

The Disappeared

by Bill Hayes

In The Disappeared for California Sunday Magazine, John Gibler tells what happened on September 26, 2014, when 43 Mexican students went missing.

 Although it was neither an isolated event nor the largest massacre in recent years, what occurred in Iguala has struck at the core of Mexican society. Perhaps it was the scale of the violence, or the sheer brutality, or that the victims were college students, or that the perpetrators were mostly municipal police, or that the mayor of Iguala, his wife, and the police chief were probably behind the attack, or that the state and federal governments were deceptive in their investigation and callous in their treatment of the mothers and fathers of the murdered, wounded, and disappeared. Whatever the cause — and it was likely a combination of all these reasons — it is impossible to overstate the effect of the attacks on the country. Mexicans speak of Iguala as shorthand for collective trauma. Mexico is now a nation in mourning, and at the heart of that grief are those 43 families on the Ayotzinapa basketball court and their agonizing demand: Bring them back alive.

Every year, 140 first-year students arrive at the all-male Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College from some of the most economically battered places in the hemisphere, where elementary schools are often single-room, adobe structures without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. These are among the most committed youth of their communities for whom the system says there is no place: The ones apparently destined to enter the lowest ranks of the drug-warring armies or to scramble across the Arizona desert and pick bell peppers in California or wash dishes in Chicago. The teachers college, known as Ayotzinapa, offers them a different route: a profession. Ayotzinapa says to them, “You belong here.”

Tuition and board are free. The state government provides a meal budget that amounts to $3.70 per student per day, which usually means a diet of eggs, rice, and beans. The students do all the cleaning, tending, and a large part of the cooking. The first-year dorm rooms are windowless concrete boxes with no furniture. As many as eight sleep to a room, laying out cardboard and blankets for bedding. Some fasten empty milk crates to the walls to use as dressers.

Rural teachers colleges were created after the Mexican Revolution to promote literacy in the countryside. By the mid-1900s, they numbered as many as 36. In 1969, the federal government closed numerous schools, and now only 14 remain. Ayotzinapa was founded in 1926, and, like all the colleges, has a long tradition of left-wing student organizing. Murals on school buildings depict not only internationally renowned revolutionary figures like Che Guevara and Zapatista rebel Subcomandante Marcos but also ’70s-era guerrilla leaders Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, both Ayotzinapa graduates. Several murals memorialize two students who were killed by police in 2011 during a protest demanding an increase in the school’s enrollment and meal budget.

One of the most common “activities,” as the students call their actions, is commandeering buses. Traveling to observe teachers in rural areas is an essential part of the curricula, but the school has never owned many vehicles or had a budget to rent or acquire them. (In early September, the college had only two buses, two vans, and a pickup truck at its disposal.) The students have long secured transportation by heading to nearby bus stations or setting up a highway blockade, boarding a stopped bus, and informing its driver and passengers that the vehicle would be used for “the educational purposes of the Ayotzinapa Teachers College.”

Government officials decry the students’ actions as outright robbery. The students insist they are not thieves and that they always “reach an agreement” that includes payment. The bus drivers don’t abandon the vehicles; sometimes they camp out at the college, with meals provided, for weeks and occasionally months. When the students block highways, they typically do so at tollbooths. [more]