As the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of forty-three students from rural Mexico passes, questions remain about the culpability of the Mexican government in the crime and its subsequent cover-up. Now, with a new President and a special government commission, there’s hope the truth might be revealed.

Nestled within a small, lush valley in south-central Mexico roughly halfway between the coastal resort town of Acapulco and Mexico City, the humble city of Iguala occupies a special place in Mexico’s political history. It was here, in 1821, that the leader of Mexico’s independence movement Agustín de Iturbide proclaimed Mexico an independent monarchy through the Plan of Iguala, putting an end to the drawn-out Mexican War of Independence. It was here, too, that the country’s national flag – the Flag of the Three Guarantees – was designed and hand-sewn, and where conservatives, led by de Iturbide, and liberals, led by the military leader Vicente Guerrero, came together to foster a vision for a united and forward-thinking nation.

In recent years, however, the modest city in Guerrero state has become known for something much darker – an incident that violently illustrates how far the country has strayed from its original vision of national peace and unity. On September 26, 2014, a group of unarmed students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College travelling in five buses was brutally attacked by police and unidentified gunmen. Three civilians and three students were killed, and forty-three others were kidnapped in what’s since become known as the Ayotzinapa case. None have been recovered.

It’s easy to understand why the sudden disappearance of forty-three people would generate concern and intrigue, but considering the context of Mexico’s bloody recent history it seems almost surprising that it has remained on the national and international agenda. 2018 was Mexico’s bloodiest year to date, with over 33,000 officially recorded homicides; furthermore, between 2007 and 2018 approximately 37,000 people have been reported missing. These figures are likely far below the actual numbers. Meanwhile, there have been outbreaks of cartel violence even in the previously sedate tourist hotspots around the Yucatan peninsula. Given their proximity to Americans and other Western travellers, these incidents received mainstream media attention. It’s a cruel irony that amid the much-celebrated conviction of the head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, earlier this year, the murder crisis in Mexico has significantly worsened. With politicians and the criminal justice system firmly in the pockets of drug cartels, it’s left to journalists to demand a response from the government, and raise the attention of international human rights bodies.

Anabel Hernandez has done so with startling bravery – a former reporter with Proceso Magazine and the author of Narcoland:The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfather sand A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students. Hernandez revealed many of the details in the El Chapo trial, including bribes paid to high-ranking members of the federal government. Similarly, her dogged pursuit of the missing students paved the way for two international inquiries, contributing to the pressure on new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to form a Truth Commission investigating the disappearances.

‘Formal justice is very slow, and sometimes, in Mexico, it never arrives,’ Anabel explains via Skype in early 2019. ‘At least in Mexico there exists a powerful investigative journalist that is able to arrive at the truth.’

Of course, many journalists pay a high price for lifting the lid on crime and corruption in Mexico. Human Rights Watch reports that over 100 journalists were killed in the country between 2000 and 2018, and 25 reported missing. Last year the UN Human Rights Committee reprimanded Mexico for its poor record for protecting journalists, following the findings around the kidnapping and torture of Lydia Cacho, the high-profile reporter who exposed paedophile and sex trafficking operations involving prominent businessmen and politicians. The publication of Hernandez’ book on the missing students led to further threats and intimidation. She recounts how, at an event at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in 2016 – the largest book fair in Latin America – her bodyguards noticed a group of eight men following her. This incident followed a spate of others, including one in late 2015, when a group of people broke into her empty apartment in Mexico City and placed a framed photograph of her children face-down in a prominent position – an obvious threat. While she managed to remain in Mexico during her reporting on the drug lords, the Ayotzinapa case forced her out of the country, taking up a Fellowship at Berkeley. She returned to Mexico to complete her book, but once again found herself in danger on its publication in 2016.

‘It’s very dangerous for me to be in Mexico,’ she explains with a note of despondence. ‘I have had to go away… for a second time, and that’s why I’m in Europe now.’

Of all her investigations Hernandez singles out the Ayotzinapa case as the most dangerous. Her book illustrates a perfect storm of drug money, endemic corruption, authoritarianism and hubris, forming a damning portrait of a governmental elite who view the rural poor as expendable, and vastly underestimated the power of investigative journalism.

September 26, 2014

Much of Hernandez’ work on the Ayotzinapa case involved a forensic analysis of a three-hour window on the night of the event. In the days leading up to it, a group of students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa planned to hijack buses to travel to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlatelolco Massacre – a 1968 incident in Mexico’s so-called ‘Dirty War’, where armed forces fired on innocent protestors, killing hundreds. Hijacking buses is apparently quite common in Mexico, often involving paying drivers to deviate from their normal route. While an annoyance, it’s peaceful and largely tolerated.

Roughly one hundred students left Ayotzinapa in two buses at approximately 4:30pm on September 26. They then acquired three more buses in Iguala and left for Mexico City at 9:20pm. At this point, the buses were separated into two groups, one taking the wrong exit and becoming stuck in traffic in central Iguala, and the others heading towards the highway. Police intercepted the bus in Iguala and showered it with gunfire, and at roughly the same time stopped the buses leaving town using teargas.

Nearby, armed men intercepted and attacked a sixth bus carrying players from a local soccer team. A fifteen-year-old player, David José García, the bus driver Víctor Manuel Lugo and a passenger in a passing taxi, Blanca Montiel Sánchez, were shot and killed.

At midnight the students held an impromptu press conference to a gathering crowd and journalists. Armed assailants fired into the crowd, wounding two students, Daniel Solis Gallardo and Julio Cesar Ramirez, who were later found dead. An additional student present at the press conference, Julio Cesar Mondragon, was found killed and brutalized the next morning – his face partially skinned, and his body and head badly beaten. In the course of the evening, forty-three of the remaining students were taken from the site, and have not been seen since.

In their initial response, state and federal government officials blamed municipal police, arguing that they had used ‘excessive force’ re-acquiring the buses. This theory was repeatedly pedaled in government statements until, on November 7, then attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam and the head of the Criminal Investigation’s Agency, Tomás Zerón, called a carefully managed press conference to put forward the so-called ‘historical truth’. According to this ‘official’ version of events, the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, ordered the municipal police to apprehend the students to stop them from interrupting a political event hosted by his wife. After the initial assault, the forty-three students were then passed to a local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, who subsequently murdered them and burned the bodies in a garbage dump in Cocula. To substantiate his claim, Karam played videos of one of the alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos confessing to the killings, and detailing how they disposed of the students’ bodies.

The story failed to silence skeptics. In the weeks after the attacks Hernandez visited Iguala and spoke with locals.

‘I have learned as a journalist over twenty-five years that the common people have a lot of information,’ she says.

After some digging, she discovered C4 – an Iguala-based control centrefor municipal, state and federal authorities, headed by the army, and designed to share information to better coordinate responses to crime and social unrest. Hernandez obtained documents and reports from C4 revealing that the students had been monitored since leaving Ayotzinapa. She also heard testimonies from surviving students and witnesses that the federal police were present during the attacks, and that plain-clothed gunmen were involved in the shooting.

This directly contradicted the government’s official line that it had been municipal police, acting solely under the orders of the mayor of Iguala, who ordered the attacks that night. For Hernandez, it was clear that this was a deliberate cover-up, and that innocent people were being framed.

On December 14, 2014 Hernandez published her article ‘The True Night of Iguala’ in Proceso– one of the first explicit challenges to the official account. She revealed that the students were travelling in five buses – not four, as had been claimed by officials – and confirmed through an interview with radio operator José Natividad Elías Moreno, that the reports coming in to C4 were provided to the army, federal police and other members of law enforcement. Proceso also published mobile footage taken by the students during the siege – amid chaotic scenes of shouting and gunfire, the students allude to the presence of federal police. In addition, she established that the event held by the mayor’s wife, which the students were apparently intent on disrupting, had been over for more than an hour by the time the students arrived in Iguala, and also that the initial suspects arrested showed evidence of torture.

With growing international awareness of the case, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, by agreement with the Mexican government and representatives of the disappeared students, appointed an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, by its Spanish acronym) to investigate the incident independently. In September 2015 it published a report detailing their research and initial conclusions, confirming much of Hernandez’ reporting and identifying additional instances of torture and inconsistencies in the testimonies of alleged members of Guerreros Unidos. Crucially, they also published findings from an expert in fire research, Dr José Torero, who concluded that any fires around the time in question at the Cocula waste dump would not have been sufficiently large or intense to have incinerated the bodies of the missing students.

These revelations raised serious questions about why the Peña Nieto administration was so intent on a false narrative of the night’s events. In response, protests have been regularly staged at the Zócalo, or main square, in Mexico City, directly outside the presidential palace. In scenes reminiscent of the 1968 protests – ironically the events the students were en route to commemorate – Mexicans marched in their thousands, shouting in unison and carrying banners admonishing the government for its handling of the case. In October 2014, at one of the earliest demonstrations, a group of protestors co-opted a corner of the square and painted on the concrete in huge, right-angled white lettering: ‘Fue el estado’ (it was the state). Even before the investigations it was clear that many suspected the government was involved in the attack.

The Normalista Identity

The burning question in this is case is why a group of poor, unarmed students posing no serious threat to the state were treated so brutally by the authorities. While there’s still conjecture about the assault’s motivations, it’s clear that the students’ identities as ‘Normalistas’ was relevant. Since being established in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s, Normal schools have occupied a politicised place in Mexican society, with their commitment to providing free, secular education to poor indigenous populations rankling Reactionaries, and sparking persecution from the Catholic clergy. Subsequently the schools became more overtly ideological, with the influence of Marxist-Leninist teachings helping to create a distinct, socialist Normalista character that championed the intrinsic value of rural labour, and resisted the excesses of state authority. This ethos was galvanized in turn by the incident in the 1968 Tlatelolco incident when students protesting the Mexican Olympics and the government crackdowns on labor unions and farmers were shot and killed in their hundreds. At the Ayotzinapa school itself, the expression of this political ethos is clear to see. As Hernandez recounts in A Massacre in Mexico, the walls are adorned with proclamations of revolutionary fervor, with portraits of Lenin and famous Zapatistas – members of a revolutionary group formed in the 1990s who have staged demonstrations and taken up arms to champion indigenous rights – as well as a quote attributed to Che Guevara: ‘If I lead, follow me; if I hesitate, push me; if I am killed, avenge me; if I’m a traitor, kill me.’

Despite this zeal, Normalistas never posed a serious threat to the state; but they remained on the government’s watch list. Hernandez’ investigation ascertained that a document handed over in the transition between the Calderon and Peña Nieto administrations in 2012, some relatively minor demonstrations by the Ayotzinapa students were listed second on a list of Mexico’s most pressing national security concerns. Extraordinarily, the cartels did not rate a mention. When I ask Anabel about this revelation she becomes noticeably more animated:

 ‘In Mexico… the government, the army, the police… are very conservative. So, this monitoring of the school was more about ideology than a tangible risk. When these rebel students become teachers and go back to their communities, they… give conscience to the people. They learn not just to read and write, but also they learn about their rights, and they start to protest when the government tries to abuse them. These young people were not servants of the government, and that’s why this conservative government considered them a risk. Just for that. Just because they were able to make a positive change in their communities.’

The Truth Commission

During his presidential election campaign, AMLO pledged to initiate a special inquiry to investigate the students’ disappearance. This promise resonated with his broader narrative of tackling corruption and social reform – a tactic that clearly differentiated him from the unpopular Enrique Peña Nieto of the conservative Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico as a ‘perfect dictatorship,’ in the words of Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, for the majority of the twentieth century. While AMLO’s brand of left-wing populism was attractive to voters – one of his commitments was to take a 60% paycut and reduce taxpayer-funded perks for elected officials – there remained doubts about the extent to which he could feasibly purge the government of links to organised crime.

AMLO has now been in power for just over a year. While the truth commission hasn’t reported any new findings, a significant development in the case came in September, when one of the state’s chief suspects and alleged member of Guerreros Unidos, Gildardo López Astudillo – or ‘El Gil’ – was released from prison after a judge ruled that the evidence tying him to the attacks had been obtained by torture, and was therefore inadmissible. The official overseeing the commission, Alejandro Encinas, reacted to the decision with dismay, labelling it ‘outrageous’ that a key suspect should be freed, and calling for a subsequent investigation into the judge’s finding. In a public statement, he affirmed that the practice of torturing suspects – while unfortunate – was widespread, and should not justify acquittal. However, Hernandez is certain that it was correct:

 ‘The judge ordered his release because he didn’t find any proof that implicates him in the case,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘Some months ago someone that supposedly was part of that attack showed me a photograph of El Gil, the person who was supposedly behind this, and it was not ‘this’ El Gil,’ she says.

This latest incident provides an insight into the difficulty of navigating the moral quandaries of the Mexican judicial system, where the desire for justice intertwines with endemic corruption and brutality. On the Truth Commission itself, Hernandez is positive about the extra government resources devoted to finding the students, with searches reportedly being undertaken in 200 different locations throughout Guerrero. However, she has concerns about the willingness of those involved in the Commission.

‘They are not doing research about the truth. They are not trying to get new information from the witnesses who were there that night in the streets… If the Mexican government is waiting for the truth to come walking through their door, that will not happen, and this is why the relatives of the students are a little disappointed, because they expect more.’

The Truth Commission presents a complex new phase of the Ayotzinapa case, where some in the government earnestly work towards justice, while others impede it.

‘I really believe that Alejandro Encinas wants to find the truth,’ Hernandez explains. ‘But what you have to remember is that he is not the Fiscal [Attorney General]. The Commission can ask the Attorney General [to cooperate], but if the Attorney General, Alejandro Gertz Manero, doesn’t move then nothing will happen. This new government has to consider that many people who know the truth and covered up the truth and participated in torture…are still inside the government.’

So, Why Did the Attack Happen?

The best clue lies in the attack on the local soccer team. The bus they were riding was operated by Castro Tours, and was similar in appearance to the white and green Estrella de Oro buses that were targeted most violently. It was from the two Estrella de Oro buses that the forty-three students were apprehended. This raises the prospect that it wasn’t so much the students who were the motivating factor, but the vehicles themselves. The GIEI conjectured that the attacks could have been intended to reclaim a significant amount of heroin destined for the US. Hernandez has substantiated this claim through a drug cartel source, learning that two of the buses were carrying hidden caches of heroin valued at roughly US$2 million. The source also confirmed that Iguala was a key port for heroin trafficking, and that the head of a powerful cartel operating in the region – ‘El Capo’ – had paid off members of the army, multiple levels of police and local politicians. When informed that the students had hijacked one of the buses, he then ordered an officer in the army to retrieve his consignment, precipitating the initial interception of the buses leaving Iguala. Having stopped the buses, and identified which ones were carrying the stash, they then removed the blocks of heroin. It was only when the soldiers realised that the students knew what was happening that they decided to take them away to prevent witnesses. The attack was the consequence of a failed operation gone wrong, as the army and the police scrambled to retrieve the cargo and cover their tracks. According to Hernandez the Capo was displeased with their efforts:

‘I never meant for so many fuckers to get killed, they overdid it,’ he is quoted as saying.

While violence is integral to Mexican organised crime, it’s generally considered that public murders are bad for business. Operating under the radar with the support of law enforcement is a more profitable modus operandi. On the balance of evidence, gleaned from two international inquiries and the mountains of information uncovered by Hernandez’ investigation, the spectacle of violence that took place in Iguala that night only makes sense in light of two key realities of the modern Mexican state. One is the entrenched influence of organised crime in Mexico’s political and judicial system. Despite great efforts that have apparently been made to fight the drug war in Mexico – including billions of dollars provided by the USA in the Merida Initiative – the cartels’ influence has only increased, as many have gained a foothold in electoral politics and law enforcement: in the lead-up to the 2018 election over 100 politicians and electoral candidates were murdered. This inhibits substantial investigations, and compromises legal institutions. As a result, many organised crime groups – and corrupt figures in government and law enforcement – operate with impunity.

The second factor at play is the patent disregard for civilian life which permeates the institutions of Mexican society, and particularly for the lives of rural, poor, and indigenous communities. If Hernandez is correct, the brazen violence of the Ayotzinapa case must be understood through the prism of the authoritarian and violent culture which pervades the government, the police, and the army. This culture that can be traced back to the 1960s, when hundreds of peaceful protestors were murdered by government forces in the heart of Mexico City.

The Ayotzinapa saga is a bloody example of the wider homicide crisis that plagues Mexico. In the years since, as families of the victims have waited for justice, tens of thousands more civilians have been slaughtered across the country. The sheer volume of bloodshed means that we often don’t hear about these victims. At the same time, the war on drugs has become a lucrative spectacle for Hollywood and popular streaming platforms, as productions like SicarioBreaking BadNarcos and Ozark translate the Central American drug trade into mass entertainment – feeding one distorted capitalist ecosystem with another.  

This apparent disconnection between the sensationalised image of Mexico and the tragic realities of cartel violence and state-sanctioned brutality greatly troubles Hernandez.

She’s also critical of the high price Mexico pays for the world’s addiction to amphetamines, and how those in places like the US, Europe and Australia fail to comprehend how the global drug trade disproportionately punishes those at the coalface.

‘This violence exists not because Mexicans went crazy one day and decided to kill each other,’ she exclaims. ‘It is because there is a huge market for drugs around the world… and this harms the poorest and most fragile people in Mexico. Every person who consumes illegal drugs has a responsibility for these massacres.’

It’s a point she drives home repeatedly in the hope that her tireless work will bring justice for the families of the forty-three students and help to create an environment where these brutal events cannot happen again.

From her post in Europe, Anabel continues working on the case, returning to Mexico periodically – most recently in August – to gather new evidence. Her visits are typically fraught with danger and logistical difficulties.

‘When I go back I have to be very careful for my security, but for me the most important thing is the security of my sources,’ she says.

‘I have bodyguards in Mexico, but I have to come up with creative ways to escape from them, and still be safe, to talk with my sources in a secure place. And so it’s almost impossible, very complicated, and very sad. No journalist in the world should work in these conditions.’

At present, she says she is in possession of sensitive information that, if verified, could provide a crucial twist in the case. Until then, she will continue to raise awareness of this tragedy and what it reveals about the sad reality of contemporary Mexico. A reality which reminds us of our complicity in remaining silent, ignorant and apathetic about the horrific transformation of a country she evidently adores.

‘The disappearance of the 43 students seems very far away, but it is not,’ Anabel asserts, her voice growing calmer and more reflective. ‘The international community has a responsibility. They need to open their eyes.’

Dylan Bird

Dylan Bird is a freelance journalist and broadcaster at Triple R FM.

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