Students being arrested by the police and then just disappearing from the face of the earth. Mass graves with dozens of unidentified bodies being discovered. The government reassuring that light will be shed and justice will be done. Mothers and students in the streets demanding the re-appearance of their sons, friends, and loved ones.
It sounds like a forgotten page torn from Latin America’s bloodiest period — that of the US-backed dictatorships that tortured, jailed, disappeared, and executed thousands of left-wing activists using methods taught at the infamous ‘School of the Americas’, created and sustained by the US military.
Or, even more, they remind us of a dark page from the bloodiest times of Mexican history, when the government (firmly in the hands of the PRI dictatorship) waged war against the country’s own youth in the 1960s and 1970s; a period that became known as la guerra sucia — the “dirty war”.
However, it is 2014, and it seems that the aforementioned practices are back on the agenda with the — direct, or indirect — assistance of the narcos this time. Welcome to Peña Nieto’s Mexico.
The case is well known by now, however unclear the information about it remains. On September 26, a number of students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa, Iguala (in the state of Guerrero) were involved with a confrontation with the municipal and federal police. From the scarce information available, it seems that the students had gone to Iguala in order to “occupy” a number of buses — obtaining permission of their drivers, the students claim — to be used for their transportation to Mexico City for the commemoration of the October 2 Massacre of Tlatelolco, a practice not uncommon for the normalistas, as they are commonly known.
The lack of funds in their boarding school makes these and similar kinds of direct action — like the “hijacking” of trucks carrying milk and other food products — necessary. Once the students are back in their school, they normally return the buses or trucks to their respective owners. This time around, however, on the Iguala-Chilpancingo highway, the police blocked the buses and opened fire on them, killing six people (three students and three unfortunate citizens who happened to be in nearby cars and buses), while another 43 students simply… disappeared. The students were last seen being boarded on police trucks and were never to return again.
A few days later, a number of mass graves were discovered nearby, in which a number of bodies that had previously been tortured and most probably burned alive (by the narco-criminals, it seems) were also found.
It is still unclear whether the bodies found in the mass grave belong to the normalistas. The government has invited a group of Argentinian forensic experts to identify the bodies, and Mexico is holding its breath awaiting the results. However, the questions to be answered are stern: If the bodies belong to the normalistas, how did they end up in the narco‘s mass graves, especially since they were last seen arrested by the police? And if they don’t belong to the students, who do they belong to? And where would the 43 “disappeared” normalistas be, then?
Almost a month has passed, and the government has not provided any answers. Mexico keeps holding its breath.
The Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Boarding School of Ayotzinapa is not just like any other school. It carries a long history of struggles for social justice, and it happens to be the exact school were Lucio Cabañas — one of the greatest Mexican revolutionaries of the 20th century — had studied and had been a student leader, before starting his Party of the Poor (Partido de los Pobres) guerrilla army that shook Guerrero and Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Read Carlos Montemayor’s Guerra en el Paraiso to find out more about this incredible story.)
The Rural Normal Schools are not like the rest of the Mexican schools either. They are located in poor rural areas and they provide education for — and sometimes also awaken the political consciousness of — Mexico’s excluded: the impoverished, mostly indigenous, kids of the Mexican countryside. Some of the normalistas later move on to become teachers in rural schools or even to enter the most prestigious universities of the country to do postgraduate studies.
In her book México Armado, Laura Castellanos writes that, during and even before the guerra sucia, the students of the normales rurales had been protagonists of several struggles for social justice, very often joining some of the more than thirty rural and urban guerillas that chose the revolutionary road to social change at a time when all other roads seemed closed.
Arturo Gámiz and some other members of his group, who in a highly symbolic move for Mexico’s revolutionary left carried out an attack on the military barracks of Madera on September 23, 1965, were normalistas as well, while many other normalistas joined various guerrilla groups later on. The Rural Normal Schools of the time paid a heavy price for their students’ activism: they became the target of the ever-more repressive Mexican state. As Siddharta Camargo writes:
The students and graduates of the Normales Rurales became the perfect victims; their identity as sons of ‘campesinos’, their poverty, their political militancy, and their intellectual capacity transformed them into “a danger” in the eyes of an obsolete and ever-more authoritarian and repressive political regime.
And it seems they are still being punished to this day. For the same reasons.
Alive they took them, alive we want them back!
On October 22, Mexico took to the streets to demand the return of the 43 missing normalistas, as well as answers about the identity of the bodies discovered in the mass graves, and how they ended up there. “We are not all here — 43 are missing” and “Alive they were taken, alive we want them back” were the main slogans that shook Mexico’s squares from North to South. Several universities went on a 48-hour strike and some of them — including the UNAM and the UAM — declared an indefinite strike until the government provides some answers regarding the fate of the 43 normalistas.
Several acts of solidarity were also carried out in front of Mexican embassies and consulates all over the world, while on Thursday the European Parliament is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the disappearance of the 43 students and demanding justice to be done.
Meanwhile, Mexico is still holding its breath. The rest of the world is, too. And they demand answers.
Because We Are All Ayotzinapa.