Ayotzinapa’s Survivors Will Not Stay Silent
More than five months after 43 of their classmates were kidnapped in southern Mexico, two students are keeping their memory -- and struggle -- alive.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Gamaliel Cruz is 21-years-old, friendly, stocky, and good-natured, with a smile that flickers as he speaks. He’s also lucky to be alive.
Cruz sits in a cramped and dusty room in Tijuana next to his friend, Uriel Alonso Solís, a telegenic 19-year-old with high cheekbones and olive skin. They are describing the night of Sept. 26, 2014, when six of their classmates were killed and 43 forcibly disappeared — and, most presume, murdered.
The two were part of a group of around 100 young men traveling to Iguala, a town near their southern Mexico school, to raise funds for a trip to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of a police-led massacre of students in 1968. They were also planning to demonstrate at a local political event. Police intercepted their buses as they were pulling out of the station.
“Suddenly a convoy of federales arrived and attacked us right away; they started throwing tear gas; we all ran and looked for stones and sticks because we knew we would be fighting,” says Cruz. “But we never imagined that … they would kill our classmates.”
Cruz and Solís are students at the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, or Ayotzinapa for short, a teacher training college. With the disappearance of 43 students last September, the name also became synonymous with police and state violence in Mexico.
The kidnapping triggered demonstrations across the country, prompted international scrutiny, and led to a wave of arrests and political resignations including, late last month, that of Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. While the news of the students’ disappearance was still in the headlines, the government promised a thorough investigation. But the promises, like the protests, are waning.
Cruz and Solís are in Tijuana as part of a small delegation of Ayotzinapa students traveling across Mexico to tell the story about what happened that night and to keep their classmates in the news. The two look exhausted, and they say they have been sleeping only two or three hours a night, fielding calls and press requests and leading protests in every city they visit.
“It’s been months,” says Cruz. “We want justice for our classmates, the ones who were disappeared and the ones who were murdered.”
The police who attacked the buses on Sept. 26, 2014, did so on the orders of Iguala’s mayor. The students thought they might be arrested, as they had been before. Instead, without warning, police began to shoot.
“They started to fire on us, hitting us with bullets,” says Solís. “They shot one compañero in the mouth, and then they shot two others dead. I hid behind the bus for six hours even though it was raining, and that is how I and the rest of us survived.”
Solís watched from behind the bus as gunmen pushed his classmates into trucks at gunpoint. That was the last time he — or anyone else — saw them. The survivors searched for their missing classmates for days, eventually returning to Ayotzinapa. Some stayed at the college. Others, terrified, returned to their family homes. One student’s body was found the next day. His eyes had been gouged out and his face had been cut off. The others had to identify him by his clothes.
In the weeks after the attacks, marches and demonstrations attracted crowds of thousands all the way from Iguala in the south to Tijuana in the north. They have since slowed to a trickle. The pressure for change from within Mexico seems to be slackening, too, which is one of the reasons Ayotzinapa students are now traveling and speaking around the country: to bolster popular support to continue a criminal investigation into the murders and disappearances and to change Mexico’s blood-spattered political system.
Solís has been one of Ayotzinapa’s most outspoken students since September. He seems full of energy, despite his exhaustion from nonstop travel and days filled with marches and speeches. He grins at Cruz and flashes a quick thumbs-up to people lining up to take photos with him at a rally. When he takes stock of the relatively meager crowd that has shown up to support him, he looks briefly downcast. Then he lifts a bullhorn to lead a chant and his energy returns.
Mexico’s normal schools — of which Ayotzinapa is one of 16 — were set up by the government in the 1920s to provide access to higher education in impoverished rural areas. They are also known for a tradition of radical activism, sparked and nurtured by anger at the country’s social inequality and racism against Mexico’s indigenous population. Students come to the schools not only to learn how to teach, but also to get an education in political engagement, fighting for issues like better treatment of teachers and more state funding for education.
Last September was not the first time Ayotzinapa’s students had been attacked. In 2011, Cruz was part of another bloody conflict, in which two students were shot and killed by municipal and federal police after they blocked a highway to protest for more funding for normal schools. One friend was shot twice in the head and fell dead in the street.
“Suddenly we saw a big pool of blood … we yelled at the police, letting them know that they had already killed a classmate and they needed to stop shooting, but they did not stop. So then, you know that divider you see on the roads? A classmate, Jorge Alexis [Herrera], he tried to jump over it and suddenly, he also received two rounds to the head,” says Cruz, who evaded the police by hiding in the hills.
Ayotzinapa students went to the media as soon as they could in September so that they would not be demonized or dismissed as troublemakers or liars. They also went to look for their missing classmates. “The next day we waited at the district attorney’s and at different government offices, and we never found them. We checked the jails and there was nothing,” says Solís.
It’s been more than five months since the students at Ayotzinapa have seen their classmates. No one has heard from them since they were abducted. While there is no consensus on who took them — with the state blaming gangsters and protesters blaming the state — most agree that they are most likely long dead. But both Solís and Cruz say they have no doubt the 43 students are still alive, despite widespread claims that their bodies were burned in an Iguala garbage dump. Solís asserts that is impossible.
“It was really raining hard on the 26th and the 27th, making it difficult to set something on fire,” he says. “More so if you are using tires to light the fires — it’s a lie.” Not only that, said Solís, but a team of independent investigators from Argentina hired by Mexico’s government to investigate say they have not been allowed access to the area in which the students’ bodies were supposedly burned, and that the remains they did analyze could have come from anywhere.
Solís says that because of this, he and the rest of the normalistas from the Ayotzinapa school instead think that their classmates are being held somewhere, alive, as part of the state’s ongoing campaign of misinformation about what happened in Iguala. They say the state is fully responsible for what happened, from the orders to get rid of the students to their abduction, which Solís and Cruz say was carried out by the Mexican army.
That gives them the motivation to continue to push for lasting change in Mexico, a country where echoes of dirty wars reverberate in its countless disappearances and mass graves. In Iguala, 14 people were murdered in one week in late February alone. “This struggle is not only about Ayotzinapa, but the entire country and the entire world,” says Cruz. “Really, it’s not only about the 43 people who disappeared, but the probably thousands around the country.”
A report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture unveiled this week found that torture is common in Mexican police stations and prisons, and that the authorities act with impunity. Another U.N. report, released in February, sharply criticized the country’s handling of what it calls “enforced disappearances,” directly referencing the vanished students and strongly recommending that Mexico put new legal frameworks and a central database in place to help people search for missing people.
Solís says knowing it is not just about his classmates gives him and Cruz the motivation to keep fighting and petitioning for change in Mexico. And the two say they remain optimistic that change will come. He says people are still invested in the students’ struggle to bring national and international attention to Mexico’s murders and disappearances. Later this month, the families of some of the Ayotzinapa students who were kidnapped and killed will travel around the United States — a trip they’re calling the Caravana 43 — to bring international attention to the problems with Mexico’s military and police.
“We were surprised that people are backing us even though it has been months, and many might say that we should resign ourselves and stop organizing marches, but here we are,” says Solís.
The marches may be crowds of dozens or hundreds rather than thousands, but people are still coming out to take part in them. On this March afternoon, Solís and Cruz lead about a hundred people to Tijuana’s military base, where soldiers stand at attention in full riot gear, but do nothing as protesters paper the base’s gate with photos of the missing students.
After the demonstration ends, the small crowd of protesters drifts off in all directions. The car that dropped them off at the beginning of the march pulls up to collect the Ayotzinapa students. Those left in the crowd surround them to say goodbye and wish the students well as they travel back to Guerrero. Solís looks at the few dozen people still around him before he and Cruz hop into the car. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “We’ll keep fighting.”
Photo by Brooke Binkowski