‘You took them alive, we want them alive!’

In Mexico, the disappearance of 42 students has mobilized an entire country against a failing government. Andalusia Knoll reports.

© Andalusia Knoll

‘I am proud of all you who have lifted up my voice, my courage and my free spirit,’ echo the words of Alexander Mora Venancio, before a crowd of tens of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City.

‘I invite you to double the struggle, so that my death be not in vain. Take the best decision, but don’t forget me. Rectify if it is possible, but don’t forgive,’ continues Alexander’s letter, written by his father Ezequiel when he learned that some of the human remains found in Guerrero belong to his son.

Alexander was one of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in Guerrero, Mexico, who were abducted by municipal police in the city of Iguala, on 26 September 2014.

During this massive kidnapping operation, the police opened fire on the students who were travelling in a bus convoy, killing two of them, leaving another brain dead and killing three bystanders. The following day, another student was found dead near the site of the attack, with his skin torn off his face and his eyes gouged out.

According to the Mexican government, the police turned the kidnapped students over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which took them to a garbage dump in the nearby town of Cocula, supposedly killing and burning them, reducing their bodies to mere ashes, and dumping them in a nearby river.

The ashes were sent to an Austrian forensic lab and the first person whose remains have been identified is Alexander Mora Venancio. While students and local human rights group Tlachinollan are not convinced that Alexander was killed in the garbage dump as is believed, they do recognize that the government kidnapped and killed him and burned his body.

‘This is the life of one of our compañeros [friends], of a boy who wanted to be a teacher, who came from a rural area and had the hope to be someone,’ said fellow Ayotzinapa student Omar Garcia.

Along with the families of the 43 disappeared students, Garcia said they will not back down as President Enrique Peña Nieto wants them to.

‘It’s obvious that we take this with rage and with indignation and with stronger determination to keep fighting for justice, for the punishment of those responsible and to change these kinds of things that happen in our country,’ added Garcia.

The case of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students has struck a deep chord in Mexican society, motivating hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets, demanding that the rest of the students be returned alive, that Peña Nieto resign, and for an end to the collusion between drug cartels and government officials.

The phrase Todos Somos Ayotzinapa (We are all Ayotzinapa) and the number 43 have been plastered on cab and store windows, city walls and social networks. In fact, social media has played a key role in the protests, with people across Europe, North America, Latin America and even Asia joining in solidarity with the Ayotzinapa students.

Over the past eight years, Mexico has suffered from an elevated level of violence due to the failed war on drugs – over 100,000 people have been killed and over 40,000 have been ‘disappeared’.

The southern state of Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest, with a large indigenous population, has been especially hard hit. The direct involvement of Iguala’s municipal police and the allegations that the city’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, and his wife ordered the attack have left Mexican citizens with even less faith in their government’s ability to guarantee their security.

The assault on these students comes just three months after an army unit allegedly executed 22 suspected gang members in Tlatlaya, in a neighbouring state, and tried to fix the murder scene to make it look like a gun battle.

In the search for the missing students, dozens of clandestine graves have been upturned and none of the bodies contained within have been identified. President Peña Nieto has announced a new security plan, giving the federal government more control over local police forces, but few believe he is capable of improving the situation.

In a country where disappearances and assassinations are commonplace, one might ask why this one case has received such a level of attention and mobilization.

Partly, it’s because the Ayotzinapa Normal School has a long tradition of social activism and its own students are continually protesting against neoliberal education reforms and budget cuts which threaten the school’s existence. The students come largely from poor campesino [peasant] families, and if Ayotzinapa didn’t exist, many would not be able to access higher education.

It’s this dedication, from students and parents alike, to find their loved ones alive and their refusal to accept the government’s attempts to bury the case, which has inspired the tens of thousands of people to mobilize. The families even organized three cross-country caravans to raise awareness about the case.

Over two months have passed since the mass disappearance and the protests keep growing. In Guerrero, groups of teachers and students have burned down the state’s municipal palace and various other government buildings, and continually hold blockades of the highway leading to the tourist city of Acapulco.

Attempting to squash the movement, the Mexican government has responded with increased repression, beating and arresting protesters at demonstrations in Mexico City. In one particularly scandalous event following a protest on 20 November, the police arrested 11 people, accused them of terrorism and homicide, and threatened to have them disappear like those of Ayotzinapa. Following massive protests, the government released these detainees nine days later.

While the confirmation of Alexander Moro Venancio’s death increases the possibility that many of the other students also met a similar fate, their parents and fellow students say they will stop at nothing until they find the other 42 students. Their mantra is still vivos los llevaron, vivos los queremos – you took them alive, we want them alive.

Andalusia Knoll is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. You can follow her on Twitter.