Nationwide marches in Mexico demand answers in case of missing students and mass graves

Thousands of residents in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas demonstrated against the killings and disappearances of students from the Ayotzinapa teachers' college. (Photo: Miguelon/ImagenArte)

In Mexico, 43 students from a teachers’ college are still missing after a double ambush by local police and armed men in the small city of Iguala. Many of the students were last seen alive in police custody. The town’s mayor and police chief – both accused of ties to organized crime – are on the lam. Over the weekend, investigators discovered a series of mass graves containing 28 bodies, sparking fear that the students are dead. Demonstrators marched throughout Mexico this week, demanding authorities make good on promises of a serious and thorough investigation. From Oaxaca City, FSRN’s Shannon Young reports.

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The now familiar chant of “they took them away alive and we want them back that way” echoed in marches across Mexico this week, as demonstrators called on authorities to continue searching for the 43 missing students. The killings and abductions by security forces have touched a nerve in a country already ravaged by years of massacres.

Carrying a sign that read “even if it costs me my life, my son, I will defend you,” a market vendor who gave only her first name, Lucia was one of thousands who attended a solidarity march in Oaxaca City on Wednesday. She said that as a mother, she wanted to send a message of support to the parents of the disappeared students and let them know that they are not alone.

The “normalistas,” as the teachers in training are known here, vanished after two incidents in which municipal police from Iguala opened fire on buses, killing three students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college and three bystanders. Some of the students fled while police apprehended others.

Guerrero state authorities have arrested 22 Iguala police in connection to the killings and have stated that a drug trafficking organization infiltrated the local government and police force. Investigators exhumed a series of mass graves near Iguala over the weekend, finding 28 bodies reportedly burned beyond recognition.

According to the state attorney general of Guerrero, 17 of those bodies may belong to the students, but parents aren’t convinced, nor do they trust state authorities to carry out a thorough and impartial investigation.

Melitón Ortega, father of a missing student, says the parents don’t believe the bodies pulled from the mass graves belong to their children. Through a human rights organization, they have requested the help of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. The parents want the internationally-recognized team to carry out an independent, credible investigation and are publicly calling on the state government to give the forensics specialists access to the remains.

Political finger-pointing has intensified as the scandal around this case grows. President Enrique Peña Nieto addressed the issue for the first time on Monday, more than a week after the disappearances, in a four-minute speech to the press after which he took no questions. Federal officials are now suggesting that the crime falls under to the jurisdiction of state authorities, because homicide is not a federal offense in Mexico. In turn, state authorities have shifted blame onto local officials allegedly colluding with a criminal gang with next to no name recognition prior to the massacre.

Speaking at a press conference in Mexico City, Omar Garcia, a normalista who survived the ambush in Iguala, says all three levels of government should be held responsible.

“The federal government has launched a campaign to distract media attention from the disappearances in Iguala on September 26th,” asserts Garcia. “They’re trying to make the population and national – as well as international – public opinion believe that organized crime was behind the disappearance of our colleagues. For us, that’s not the issue at stake. For those of us who were present during the events, know they were taken away by local police. This isn’t a case of organized crime, it’s a government problem…and that’s who we hold responsible for the enforced disappearances of our classmates.”

Enforced disappearance by security forces is a crime under international law. While global human rights organizations have documented a spike in enforced disappearances since the militarization of the so-called drug war, the case of the shootings, abductions and mass graves in Iguala is perhaps the clearest and most high-profile yet.

Signs blaming the government for a campaign of state-sponsored terror were easy to spot in this week’s nationwide marches. And groups openly opposed to the structural adjustment reforms approved since Peña Nieto took power are concerned that the attacks targeted students at a teaching college known for leftist militancy and hit by austerity measures.
Aquilino Cruz is a member of Oaxaca’s teachers’ union, which led national protests last year against the president’s education reform.

“This state-sponsored crime can be interpreted in the context of the neoliberal economic model in Mexico which no longer wants free secular public education but instead aims to devastate our country and turn education into a for-profit commodity,” he says. “Practically what the neoliberal economic model wants is to exterminate the country’s poor small farmers in rural and urban areas.”

As for the crimes in Iguala, 30 people – mostly local police – have been arrested and transferred to a state prison. The searching for graves apparently stopped after the discovery of 28 bodies over the weekend. State investigators say DNA tests will take up to two months to confirm if any of the bodies are those of missing students. In the meantime, parents of the 43 students are using all the means of public pressure at their disposal to keep the case from lapsing into the pervasive vacuum of impunity for which Mexico has become infamous.

UPDATE: Thursday afternoon – after the production of this story – the Attorney General of Mexico announced the arrests of four more suspects linked to the case and the discovery of four more mass graves near the city of Iguala. As of Friday afternoon, the government has not released official information about the number of bodies in the four new graves.

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