Ayotzinapa: Chronicle of a Forced Disappearance — Anna Kingsley

The streets of Paris were the site of a show of national and international unity, as more than one million people and forty world leaders marched together in what was described as an act of defiance against terrorism. Printed sheets and banners featuring three words, Je suis Charlie, were ubiquitous, lofted high above the heads of the crowd in memory of the seventeen people that were killed by gunmen in the city last week. The slogan has now become an emblem for the right to freedom of speech and expression –– that most abstract of liberal utopias –– after cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed led to these revenge killings at the office of satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, followed by an anti-semitic attack on a kosher deli.  Whilst the world grieved these losses, and both the European right and left were busy trying to push their own readings of the event, Mexico was still mourning its own “terror” attack, that led to the forced disappearance and probable massacre of forty-three students by municipal police in conjunction with narcotraffickers in the south western state of Guerrero over three months ago. Mexican President Peña Nieto was quick to offer his condolences to France via Twitter, but it took almost ten days for him to publicly acknowledge the atrocity in his own homeland. What does this say about the value of human life in Mexico? When violence is normalised, crimes go unpunished and the right to freedom of speech is stifled by a prevailing narco-terror made possible by the rich and powerful, the lives of Mexican citizens seem to be deemed less “grievable,” as Judith Butler might suggest. Society is now applying pressure and endeavouring to find its voice in spite of the danger, but like France, it also needs the world to stand united with it. Nonetheless the likelihood of this is improbable given the fact that thousands have already died in the space of a decade and yet a status quo prevails.

A political crisis is intensifying in Mexico as citizens continue to take to the streets, advocating justice for the forty-three students. Although protestors call out “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (alive they were taken, alive we want them) the prospect of their return was blighted by the forensic identification of Alexander Mora Venancio, one of the students, whose charred remains were exhumed from a site near to where the forty-three were seized . It is reported that on the 26 September 2014 three buses carrying approximately ninety students from Ayotzinapa Rural School travelled north to the town of Iguala in order to solicit funds for a forthcoming protest march to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico City. Their arrival in Iguala coincided with an official political ceremony presented by the mayor’s wife, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, who was seeking to assume candidacy from her husband. Fearing disruption to the event, the mayor, José Luis Abarca, is said to have instructed the town’s police force to intercept the students by whatever means necessary. Later that evening, the students were ambushed at gunpoint, killing six and injuring others. Some managed to flee, but the remaining forty-three were then herded into police patrol vehicles, driven outside Iguala and handed over to the presiding local drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos. They have not been seen since. One of the students that fled from the scene, Julio César Mondragón, was found murdered in the street the following morning. He had sustained brutal injuries to his body; his eyes were gouged and skin peeled away from the face to reveal his skull. Such torture inflicted is a modus operandi used by the drug cartels and this audacious display of Mondragón’s slain body is a narcomensaje that betrays their direct involvement in the attack.

In the immediate aftermath, national protests erupted, with citizens mobilising en masse, outraged by the events in Iguala and demanding that the Mexican federal government act to bring those responsible for the disappearances and murders to justice.  Faced with the burgeoning unrest engulfing the country, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam deployed the federal police to conduct investigations and enlisted the external expertise of an Argentinian forensics team, renowned for their work recovering and identifying remains of those murdered during the last Argentine dictatorship. Many of the town’s police force were arrested for their complicity with organised crime, along with the mayor and his wife, who initially fled from Iguala to be later captured in Mexico City. A week later, it was announced during a press conference that three members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel had been detained and had confessed to murdering all forty-three students by gunfire, before dismembering then burning their bodies in a pyre of tyres, petrol, diesel and plastic that is claimed to have lasted for 14 hours, at a remote hillside location on the outskirts of the town. The detained are alleged to have directed investigators to the site where they disposed of the incinerated ashes, however, whilst in search of the missing students, mass graves containing at least twenty-eight murdered bodies were discovered in the surrounding area. Graves, often branded narcofosas, continue to be unearthed, but none of the exhumed have been identified as the missing students. If not the students, then who do these bodies belong to?  Whoever they may be, their discarded remains reveal the precarious reality for those inhabiting the state of Guerrero, which has long-suffered from drug-related violence.

The exact motivations behind the students forced disappearance and massacre have yet to be fully determined. Official accounts provided by Attorney General Murillo Karam have been met with scepticism, and discredited by scientists who suggest that to burn all forty-three bodies the fire would have required a greater amount of accelerants and more manpower to remove all the ashes from the clearing within the stated timeframe, especially as it had rained heavily that evening. The exhumation of the ashes is also suggested to have been hampered by police malpractice and disorganisation before the arrival of a foreign forensics team. The latest exposé published in Proceso, entitled “La historia no oficial” has refuted the government’s claims that it was unaware of the attack. According to investigative journalists, Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher, who gained access to police files and testimonies, the federal authorities were directly implicated in the ambush, having monitored the students’ activity that day. They also claimed that is was likely the police tortured witnesses into falsifying statements. As expected, however, the government has deemed this atrocity a “local” issue and has deflected blame onto organised crime and select individuals from the municipality, notably the mayor and his wife whom had familial links to the Guerreros Unidos cartel.

But why victimise these young, unarmed future teachers? Students from Ayotzinapa Rural School commonly known as normalistas, have long been stigmatised by the Mexican government and authorities due to their ardent leftist political principles that they have historically embraced since the Mexican Revolution. Established in the 1920s, Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural School is an academy that seeks to educate those from the most impoverished, rural, indigenous communities, remaining faithful to the educational pledges of the 1910 Revolution. Regarded as a “cradle for guerrilla fighters,” the murals inside the school walls feature legendary icons such as Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, Che Guevara and Karl Marx that reflect its resolute position at the forefront of activism and social movements. Present and past political administrations have spoken of closing down the academy, one of the few remaining rural normal schools in the country, as it does not conform to Mexico’s present-day neoliberal educational or economic models. The desire to dismantle the institute and thwart its activism has seen its students targeted in the past –– as journalist John Gibler has commented, the atrocity of the 26 September was, to a certain extent, a “massacre foretold”. In December 2011, two Ayotzinapa students were assassinated by Mexican militia during a protest that blockaded the main highway between Mexico City and the western beach resort, Acapulco.

What happened on the 26 September 2014 is not an isolated incident. Violence, torture, extortion, kidnappings and murder are commonplace across the nation’s states: statistics indicate that 100,000 citizens have been killed since 2006, the year PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, was sworn into office and immediately waged a war on drugs in the country. The increased militarisation of 50,000 troops to the streets of Mexico only served to amplify what is already termed as a “culture of violence”, brought about by narco battles for territorial control over drug routes. It was during this turbulent period that Mexico was named the most dangerous country in the world and the U.S.-Mexico bordertown of Ciudad Juárez recorded graver mortality rates than contemporary warzones. Although kidnappings in Mexico are rife amongst narco communities, the specific practice of enforced disappearance is, in actual fact, an archetypal state tactic that dates back to the Dirty War of the 1960s and 1970s, an era that witnessed the disappearance of activists, students, marginalised communities and other leftist dissidents. What the loss of the forty-three students has ultimately exposed is the confluence of state terror tactics and narco-violence, revealing the ever-present corrupt relations existing between the echelons of power and drug cartels. For the past century, Mexico has become increasingly synonymous with corruption. The collusion between political officials and drug cartels has cultivated an environment of systemic impunity which permits crime to continue unabated and grants perpetrators a carte blanche to do as they wish, operating above the law. In such an environment, murder and extreme brutality has become a normal part of society.

This complicity is a widely discussed topic and often leads to the question –– is Mexico a “narco-state”? To engage properly with this question would require more scope and context, but there is a definite interdependence between the government, authorities and the narcotics industry, which is capitalist by nature. When the Mexican economy is bolstered by an annual $35bn worth of revenue from narco-trafficking, cartels are afforded a certain degree of power, which comes at a fatal cost to civilian life. The structure of a cartel functions similarly to that of the political system, as Carlos Monsiváis wrote, “tienen su ejército, sus propias policías, su equipo de inteligencia, sus propios financieros con los que estudian el mercado” (they have their army, their own police, their own intelligence services, their own financiers with whom they study the market). Perhaps above all, the ruling governance in the country is that of a “necropolitics“, which is characterised by scenes of death. Philosopher, Achille Mbembe, coined this term in relation to colonial occupation, and referring to the apartheid in South Africa, the struggle between Israel-Palestine and even the Nazi regime, but his writings about sovereignty and society are particularly applicable to the context of Mexico. Mbembe theorises that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. To exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power.” The lives of the innocent teaching students of Ayotzinapa were taken from them by the powers that are supposed to protect them, their existence, along with many others in Mexico, has proved to be expendable.

The public indignation over the recent atrocity is, in part, a culmination of social discontent that has been brewing beneath the surface. A massacre of twenty-two young people in Tlatlaya, carried out by the Mexican military a matter of months prior to the students’ disappearance still troubled public consciousness. Dissatisfaction has previously been contained or even suppressed by a finely-engineered PR strategy implemented by the current President, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his PRI government that took office in December 2012. Peter Watt, co-author of Drug War: Mexico, characterises the PRI’s strategy as a “politics of distraction,” whereby the government selectively publicises information and diverts attention away from the persistent drug-related killings taking place on a daily basis across the nation’s states. Over the past eighteen months Nieto’s administration have delayed releasing statistics concerning rates of violence; deflecting criticism by focusing attention on the very public capture of infamous drug kingpins such as El Chapo Guzmán, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and Hector Beltran-Leyva. The heavily monopolized Mexican media favoured these spectacular moments of law enforcement prowess, and pushed out the more complex story of the day to day violence in the country.

Off the back of a polished PR campaign to attract new foreign investment to Mexico, Nieto’s rise to power was hailed as the “Mexican moment”. Time magazine declared him to be the man “Saving Mexico”, in light of the country’s growing economy. It is somewhat ironic that only a few days before the attack on the students, Nieto received the World Statesman Award. This “moment” has proved to be as fleeting as the word itself suggests, effigies of the President are now being burnt in the street and many are demanding his resignation. Mexico’s government has plummeted at full speed into crisis and faces the wrath of its people who now question its legitimacy, and have taken to publicly denigrating its politicians, scorning them with the rallying cry “fue el estado” (it was the state).

In true Mexican spirit, marches have proved a central form of protest. Solidarity shown amongst the population recalls the spectres of Mexico’s past social movements such as the Zapatistas, #Yosoy132, the Indignados movement and Tlatelolco that have all sought to give voice to the people, to redefine and remould Mexican citizenship. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been saturated by users adopting the #Yamecanse (I’ve had enough) to show a united disapproval of the government’s inadequate response to the case, appropriating the tactless quip made by Murrillo Karam at the end of a press conference because he was tired of answering questions about the students. Media coverage of the disappearance has spread worldwide, countering the government’s PR myths, and serving to both publicise and galvanise Mexico’s rhetoric of grief, a rhetoric that has now extended into the domain of artistic expression. Art, specifically portraiture is currently being conceived by national and international painters, illustrators and artists who endeavour to memorialise this atrocity into the global consciousness. As Peter Watt stated, during an ABC radio broadcast, “these students have become symbols” and are now representative of a nation that has lost so many to violence.

Many questions remain unanswered and only time will provide a response. What next for Mexico? How can the country move forward after the forced disappearance of the forty-three students? Is it on the brink of a revolution little more than a century after the last? Its political transitions to democracy have proved less than democratic, but that is hardly surprising, as Watt suggests “what meaning can democracy really have in a country governed for and by the rich?” If Mexico is to evolve then politics must be prepared to relinquish the status quo or even the laissez-faire approach and extricate itself entirely from the narcotics industry. But with so much personal profit to be made and the scale of its importance to the economy, can the narco-state really be disassembled? And as long as this relationship stays intact, so will the disposability of civilians in Mexico remain, like those tragically lost in Iguala.


Anna Kingsley researches violence and femicide at the U.S.-Mexico border in visual culture at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Image: ¡Vivos se los llevaron vivos los queremos!, by Zeroincondott★, Creat.ive Commons Licence