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Having toured 18 cities in 13 countries, the ‘Euro-Caravana 43’ human rights caravan ended its journey in London last Tuesday 19 May, marking the occasion with live music and dance in the main quad of the University College London. The caravan, whose purpose was to build European solidarity around the case of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students, consisted of three participants: Omar García, a student who survived the police attack on 26 September 2014 that spirited away his classmates; Eleucadio Ortega, a parent of missing student Mauricio Ortega Valerio; and Román Hernandez, a human rights defender from the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre in Guerrero. The caravan successfully brought together activists working in areas as diverse as Palestine, Colombia, Turkey and the UK. After a day of lively meetings and debates, more than a hundred participants gathered on the steps of the Neo-Classical Wilkins’ Portico to express their solidarity for the missing students, and to enjoy a series of performances. Performed by Cambridge-Mexico Solidarity, the jaguar dance featured in this video is a contemporary re-imagining of a pre-Columbian rite: in Mexico, as a primordial symbol beloved by warriors and shamans, the jaguar has always been associated with bravery, strength, and dignity.

“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.”

 Eleucadio Ortega, father of Mauricio Ortega Valerio
Eleucadio Ortega, father of Mauricio Ortega Valerio

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…”

Omar García (left) and Román Hernandez (right) at a solidarity meeting in London.
Omar García (left) and Román Hernandez (right) at a solidarity meeting in London.

More than 40,000 protesters swept through the streets of Guatemala City yesterday, Saturday 16 May 2015, to vent fury over the nation’s unfolding corruption scandal, which is set to become the country’s most severe political crisis since the end of the civil war in 1996.

Converging outside the National Palace, the protesters called for the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina, as well as jail time for his former Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti, who resigned last week after her former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, whereabouts unknown, was implicated as a ring-leader in the infamous ‘La Linea’ crime syndicate.

The syndicate is thought to have defrauded the state of millions of dollars by accepting bribes in exchange for lowered import duties. Guatemala’s current and former tax chiefs are suspects in the scandal, which is believed to involve at least 50 private citizens and public servants.

The protests, which were staged simultaneously in several parts of the country, were not organised by any single group, but appeared to evolve organically through decentralised social media networks. It drew crowds from diverse quarters of civil society, most significantly, the middle classes.

“Given the history and on-going reality of repression and impunity in Guatemala, this is a very courageous display of citizen action,” said Grahame Russell, director of the human rights NGO Rights Action in a recent newsletter. “Repression is a very real reality in the coming days and weeks as a growing number of people overcome their fear and peacefully take to the streets to express their indignation at so many generations of corruption, exploitation, repression and impunity.”

The protest marks the end of a tumultuous week for the government, which many suspect of involvement in the scandal at the highest levels. On Monday, the Associated Press announced it had obtained recordings of wire-tapped telephone calls between businessman and fugitive Luis Mendizabal, various Guatemalan lawyers, and suspects, including some of the 27 currently in custody. Mendizabal’s boutique clothes shop, ‘Emilio’, is believed to have been a meeting place for the fraud ring.

The wiretaps mention ‘the No 2’, ‘the lady’ and ‘the R’, which prosecutors believe may be a reference to the former Vice President, who is currently not under arrest, but has been ordered not to leave the country. The Associated Press noted a conversation on April 16 where Mendizabal told detainee Javier Ortiz that he will soon be free.

“Blanca Stalling is behind it and they have very good communication,” he said.

Judge Blanca Stalling Davila, a Supreme Court justice, was quick to deny any involvement in the scandal, suggesting that perhaps Mendizabal had confused her with her sister, Judge Marta Sierra Stalling. According to prosecutors and a UN investigative commission, Judge Sierra Stalling accepted payment for the release of three suspects on bail, including Oritz. All the suspects have now been returned to custody along with the five lawyers alleged to have paid the bribe.

On Thursday 14 May, Guatemala’s congress selected a new Vice President, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, from three nominees submitted by President Otto Perez Molina. Maldonado was a constitutional judge, former Cabinet minister and ambassador, described by the President as an ‘exemplary Guatemalan’.

“I ask for the support from the entire country … all those who want to join the effort to bolster and deepen our democracy,” said Perez Molina.

In fact, Maldonado was one of the three judges on the country’s five-member Constitutional Court who ruled in favour of annulling the genocide conviction of dictator Efrain Rios Montt in 2013.

Against the backdrop of general elections later this year, the crisis continues…

Photo credits: Comité de Unidad Campesina
Photo credits: Comité de Unidad Campesina

The award-winning 'Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians’ screened in London last night to a full house.

Two indigenous Huichol shamans from western Mexico met a packed lecture theatre at the University of London’s School of Asian and Oriental Studies (SOAS) last Tuesday night, where the audience enjoyed a screening of the intimate and urgent ‘Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians’.

Playing rustic violins and guitarritas – sacred instruments that are ever-present in Huichol ritual life – Enrique Ramírez Ramírez and Juan José Ramírez García entered the stage attired in traditional Huichol costumes, including white trousers and tunics embroidered with emblems of their culture: peyote, maize and deer. The audience was invited to participate in a ritual blessing that called on the five Huichol cardinal points before the film’s director, Hernán Vilchez, opened the screening.

Shot between the rugged sierras of the Huichol homeland and their five places of spiritual pilgrimage, the Last Peyote Guardians proved to be a fascinating and ambitious odyssey into the complex cultural landscape of Mexico’s ‘purest’ indigenous people. Known as the Wixárika in their own language, the Huichol claim pre-Toltec ancestry and an unbroken living tradition said to be more than two millennia old. Unlike many other Mexican cultures whose cosmovisions were diluted or destroyed by overzealous Catholic missions, the Huichol guard a form of untainted pre-Columbian mysticism rooted in the worship of land and nature. Pantheistic and animistic, their spiritual life orbits around the collection, cultivation, consumption, and reverence of Lophophora williamsii – the hallucinogenic peyote cactus native to Mexico, whose visions teach, bond and connect the Huichol with their ancestors and guardian spirits.

During its two hour running time, The Last Peyote Guardians supplies an astonishingly personal document of Huichol cultural life, including scores of startling scenes never before captured by outsiders. Punctuated with otherworldly songs, chants and ritual dances, footage of an all-night peyote vigil dedicated to the light of dawn marks the stunning visual climax of Vilchez’s highly aesthetic work.

Such images are entirely thanks to a collective decision by the greater Huichol community to open their doors to the media in an effort to raise awareness and solidarity. Starting in 2011, the Mexican government has granted some 78 mining concessions in and around the ore-filled deserts of Wirikuta, an ecologically diverse stretch of arid wilderness sprawled at the foot of the sierras near the crumbling colonial town of Real de Catorce. Here, the desert’s the fragile cacti garden is the land where the beloved peyote blooms – the holiest of holy sites in the annual Huichol pilgrimage.

Thus the Last Peyote Guardians is not simply a treasure of anthropological inquiry, but a vital record of social and political struggle. Bolstered by an army of experts and interviewees on all sides, Vilchez explores a thorough and almost sprawling range of themes as he narrates the Huichol’s efforts to protect their ancestral heritage: the economic benefits of mining versus its environmental impacts; the sacred and profane in the pursuit of profit; the destructive nature of neoliberal economics; sustainable development; modernity and cultural tourism; to name a few. At the end of two hours, viewers are confronted with their own contribution (or lack of) to the state of the planet – what are you doing for nature, asks Vilchez.

The screening in London last Tuesday was not without problems: the start was delayed by 30 minutes due to a technical hitch, and later, less than half-way through, a tripped fire alarm caused the entire building to be evacuated until the fire brigade arrived (‘there are strong energies in this city’, joked Vilchez, adding that the previous night’s screening had had to be cancelled due to a technical problem). Nonetheless, the audience remained patient to the end, when they were rewarded by a Q and A with Vilchez and José Ramírez.

Questions ranged from ‘do you let foreigners take the pilgrimage’ to ‘what are the best ways to support you in your struggle?’ One of the most intriguing responses came from Ramírez as he explained why, according to Huichol thought, nature had bestowed humanity with powerful plants such as peyote.

“It is like food and water.” Said Ramírez, translated into English by Vilchez. “Five days without that and you don’t have energy. Spiritually, it gives you the essence… these are the tools the earth gives us to connect to the essence… to realise that we are all temples, each one of us, we are temples…

“This is the seed of the essence of what is contained in the earth. The plants come from this essence, all the plants of certain use. The bees are carrying pollen and fertilising the flowers and bringing all this mixture of herbal knowledge that is contained in the earth. The peyote and the other sacred medicines are like the essence contained and concentrated. They are very old plants.

We are connectors, antennas between the sky and the earth… for humanity there are no frontiers, we are all one. There are no borders and we all have to check that from our own temple… each one of us is important in this big network.”

Huicholes in London. Source: www.facebook.com/HuicholesTheLastPeyoteGuardians
Huicholes in London. Source: www.facebook.com/HuicholesTheLastPeyoteGuardians

Vilchez and his companions have a few more stops on their UK tour, including a Stonehenge ceremony on Thursday 14 May and a screening in Leeds on Friday 15. For the latest news, see their website, http://huicholesfilm.com/en/ or their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/HuicholesTheLastPeyoteGuardians. If you can’t make it to a live event, the documentary is also available to watch online: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/huicholesfilm