On September 26, 2014, forty-three rural college students from southern Mexico were forcibly disappeared in the city of Iguala, Guerrero.
Allegedly abducted by municipal police officers as they attempted to hijack buses for a political protest, the federal investigation into the atrocity concluded that the youngsters were handed over to cartel gunmen who subsequently incinerated their remains at a local garbage dump. Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, a figure with documented ties to organized crime, was arrested last November and charged with masterminding the attack. Gang members and municipal police officers have also been detained. Yet many questions regarding the tragedy remain unanswered.
Who were the 43 victims?
The 43 students were members of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa which trained young men to teach in rural regions of Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most impoverished states. Although it opened in 1926, the school became increasingly radicalized from the 1960s onwards and was long known as a breeding ground for guerrilla leaders and political dissidents.
The Ayotzinapa students of 2014 – known colloquially as Normalistas – were steeped in the mythology of such rebellions. They were members of the Federation of Socialist Peasant Students (FECSM) and closely affiliated with the Guerrero State Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CETEG) union, known as one of Mexico’s most radical labor syndicates. The hijacking of buses and commandeering of highway tollbooths were common tactics by the Normalistas to raise money for what they considered to be their political activities. On this occasion, the students were looking to obtain transport for a trip to Mexico City to attend an annual protest march.
Their clandestine activities were also very much an initiation ritual for new inductees. One fact frequently lost in the debate over the tragedy is that the vast majority of young men who went missing were recently enrolled first-year students who had no idea why they were taken to the city of Iguala in the first place. They were led by senior students who also disappeared in the attack. The motive for the abduction of the students is still unclear. Did Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca order police to attack the students because they threatened to interrupt a public event held by his wife? Did they mistakenly hijack a bus carrying a heroin shipment belonging to drug cartel Los Guerreros Unidos? Was one or more of the senior students mixed up with rival gang Los Rojos? The doubts over the exact motive for the attack on the 43 Normalistas has led to a string of alternative theories as to what really happened in Iguala. These range from the plausible to the extremely dubious. Largely missing in the aftermath has been a debate over how Mexico moves forward amid startling levels of violence and impunity.
The Mexican government moved incredibly slowly to investigate the case of the missing Normalistas and by the time they did, any conclusive DNA evidence had likely perished. Investigators later recovered plastic bags containing bone fragments and ash from a nearby river. Forensic experts in Austria have since positively identified two sets of remains. Yet a long-awaited report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released September 6 questioned the attorney general’s conclusion that the bodies of the students were incinerated at the garbage dump. The result is that scientific evidence proving all 43 victims were killed at the site is unlikely to ever be found.
Regardless of the students’ fate, an even more pressing issue is why the investigation into the atrocity was so weak. By the admission of the federal government, Mexico boasts an “impunity rate” of 99 percent. The phenomenon is particularly common in cases in which the victims are poor and marginalized. In many ways, the Ayotzinapa tragedy was merely symptomatic of a wider malaise.
Corruption on all sides
Investigations by both journalists and authorities revealed extraordinary levels of corruption within the administration of disgraced former mayor José Luis Abarca, including accusations of nepotism, embezzlement and collusion with organized crime. Notably, Abarca was a close ally of ex-governor Ángel Aguirre who resigned in the wake of the tragedy. Authorities have yet to follow up the Iguala case with an investigation into wider abuses of power in Guerrero. In January, the attorney general’s office reported that at least thirteen municipalities in the state were effectively controlled by organized crime, yet no prosecutions have been made.
Meanwhile, a key element missing from coverage of the atrocity has been the incredibly opaque financial management of the Ayotzinapa school. Although the institution is routinely portrayed in the press as a hotbed of radicalism, it was funded to the tune of US$3 million per year by the centrist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Nobody appears to know how the funds allocated to the college by the government of Guerrero were spent. The murky coalition of political parties, teacher unions and state officials who controlled the college have likewise gone unpunished.
It would appear that the lessons from Ayotzinapa have yet to be learned. Local elections in Guerrero in June were plagued by violence while organized crime continues to dominate the region. The hope that widespread protests in the wake of the tragedy would lead to a moment of reckoning for the country appears to have faded, though for the family members of the victims, the struggle continues.