“We are here to say that the struggle around the 43 students is a live struggle, it is alive today, and it’s not something that’s staying in the past and that they’re dead. This is a live struggle.”
Speaking at a low-key media conference at the University of London’s Senate House, the words of Román Hernandez, a human rights defender from the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre in Guerrero, Mexico, summed up the spirit of fearlessness and defiance that has come to characterise the Ayotzinapa movement for truth and justice, now evolving into an international platform for change. The event in London marked the final day in a month-long European ‘caravan’ that sought to raise awareness of – and build solidarity around – the 43 disappeared students of the radical Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero.
“We want you to realise that the so-called ‘historic truth’ released by the government is a media truth, an official truth, which does not imply that it is a historic truth,” said Román, describing how media coverage of the disappearances had diminished since they made international headlines last year.
From Reuters to the Associated Press, the official version of events has been so widely repeated as to have practically established itself as fact: on the night of 26th September 2014, having just finished their first week of classes, 43 teacher-students were abducted by local police in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, never to be seen again. Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, are accused of masterminding the abduction. The students, according to official reports, were handed over to a local cartel, Guerreros Unidos (“United Warriors”), who summarily executed them and cremated their remains at a garbage dump. After uncovering a mass grave of unknown victims who were entirely unconnected to the incident, investigators located some ashes containing DNA traces of one of the missing students. This evidence – along with the confession of a gang member – apparently substantiates the entire official story. Case closed.
But for the families of the victims, questions remains unanswered, justice remains unserved. Despite assurances from the highest levels – including a magnanimous invitation by the President for the families to come visit him at his palace – they and their supporters remain outraged. As a symbol of Mexico’s broken justice system, its institutional corruption, and above all else, the hundreds of thousands of lives extinguished in a long and grotesque drug war (a war whose trail of blood and dollars leads straight to President Peña Nieto’s door) Ayotzinapa has become a powerful rallying point.
Composed of just three activists – one human rights advocate, one survivor of the night of the 26th September, and one father of the disappeared – the Ayotzinapa Euro-Caravan, supported and funded by European collectives, has been one small part of a wider movement that has already dispatched several other caravans to the highways of Mexico, the United States and wider Latin America.
“We are all there, all of us parents of these students, we’re in full fight and we’re united there together in Ayotzinapa. We demand that the government return our 43 sons. We’re not going to let the government off, we’re going to demand, demand, demand, until they return the students… There is no justice in Mexico – and even less if you’re a campesino.”
Speaking in London, the testimony of Eleucadio Ortega, the father of missing student Mauricio Ortega Valerio, was emotional, personal, and raw. He described his life as a farmer in the mountains of Guerrero, where his family grew coffee and corn and whatever else was needed. Although nature provided, life was hard, and so he always encouraged his son to pursue his education through primary and secondary schools. In high school, Mauricio studied carpentry for three years. He could build doors, windows, ‘just about anything’. After he graduated, to the delight of his family, Mauricio decided to enrol in the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa. On the 26th September, said Eleucadio, Mauricio was disappeared by the state:
“What is happening in Mexico is that the Mexican government is behind disappearances. It is behind attacks. It is behind killings. So here I am, a representative of the parents of the 43 students and we are united and in full fight until they return our sons to us. The Mexican government thinks we’re going to give up, but we’re not going to give up. We not going to give up and we’re not going to shut up until they return our sons.
“We’re all there, all of us parents of the 43 students, we’re all waiting for them to come back… We had to leave behind our work at home and in the fields. And so the coffee beans just sit on the bush. I haven’t been able to harvest them because I’m at the school. And we cannot leave the school because we are waiting there for the return of the students. And I repeat, we demand that the Mexican government return the students.”
Omar García, a 24-year-old Ayotzinapa student who survived the attack and third member of the Euro-Caravan, reiterated his companions’ convictions:
“While some will continue to speak on behalf of the murderers, we will continue to raise the voice of the victims… We’ve always been clear saying it three times or 43,000 times, it was state. What we say is not part of an ideological position. It’s not because we’re closed to other ideas and don’t admit that there are other possibilities. But all of the investigations say that it was the police who detained the 43 students…
By omission or intention, the Mexican armed forces have responsibility… They put a lot of emphasis on our stories of struggle. In truth, 30,000 people have disappeared from Mexico over 10 years, they’re not all from Ayotzinapa. This is something that’s happened to rich people, to poor people, to men, to women, to young people, to old people. It can touch anyone. The evidence is generalised – this has happened to people involved in making soap operas, it’s happening all over the place, outside people’s houses, it’s not something that you have to look very far to see. And this is all possible because of the activities and corruption of politicians, of public officials, and their complicity with organised crime.”
Thanking his European hosts, Omar highlighted the success of the caravan in not only raising awareness of Ayotzinapa, but in bringing together disparate groups in solidarity. In Mexico, a conspiracy of silence has fallen on some sections of the mass media, with others attempt to smear and discredit the caravans. By contrast, their experiences in Europe, whilst underreported, were largely fruitful: in the Netherlands, a group of academics have promised to pressure their government over Mexico’s human rights abuses; in France, a movement is growing to requesting Hollande does not give honours to Peña Nieto when he visits Europe on 12th July; in Germany, activists are campaigning to prevent the flow and sale of weapons to Mexico.
Román Hernandez added:
“We’ve been everywhere from a squat where families and migrants share two metre by two metre rooms all the way to the University of Leiden in Holland. Civil society here in Europe is with Ayotzinapa and they have made that known to us. It’s clear that they’re not going to make it easy for the Mexican government to impose its version of history regarding the 43 students…
“The very fact that we three have been able to be in 18 cities in 13 countries during these last weeks means there is a lot of transformatory capacity… We’ve come to realise that people who have been working in other struggles – for the rights of migrants against dispossession, of resources, against fascism in Europe, and so on – they are also in the struggle for Ayotzinapa…”