On the evening of November 9, 2014, Mexico City’s Zocalo was on fire.
The Zocalo has housed the Mexican government since the days of Moctezuma. It watched the fall of Cuauhtemoc and the coronation of Iturbide, the execution of Maximilian, and the arrival of Zapata’s and Villa’s brigades. And two years ago, it watched hundreds of Mexicans gather to protest for 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero.
The 43 young men were training to be teachers at the Escuela Normal Rural Rafael Isidro Burgos, a rural teacher’s college known to be an active political force in its community. Its students attend classes under murals of Che Guevara and Lenin, and they walk halls where Lucio Cabañas, a Mexican guerrilla leader, once rushed to class. On the evening of September 25, a group of students commandeered buses to travel to Iguala to fundraise for their annual trip to Mexico City to commemorate the victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. During the early hours of September 26, three of these students were murdered, and 43 were never heard from again.
The Mexican public knows little about what happened during these bullet-torn hours. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, at the time headed by Jesús Murillo Karam, issued a 2015 report detailing that the students were handed over by a corrupt local police force to a drug gang, which killed them and burned their bodies in a landfill located in Cocula. The report emphasizes that neither the federal police forces or the Mexican military were involved in the events.
This account has been designated the “factual truth” by the Mexican government. But in February 2016, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team stated that the government’s version of events was scientifically impossible. There is no way that 43 bodies were burned in the Cocula landfill–the process would have taken days and the smoke would have been visible for miles. The team also investigated witness medical records and found that many witnesses suffered new injuries while under state custody. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI by its Spanish acronym), entrusted with the case by the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, reports similar findings. Their investigations also report that many witnesses claim to have seen the military involved in the events of that night.
Despite month-long efforts and detailed investigations, the GIEI was not able to come to a conclusive answer as to what happened the night of September 26. Its members expressed that their investigative efforts were thwarted at multiple levels of the Mexican bureaucracy. But, the GIEI did come to the conclusion that the Office of the General Prosecutor failed the victims of Ayotzinapa.
Mexico is a country of buried history and forgotten stories. It’s capital is built over the ruins of Tenochtitlan, where he Templo Mayor once stood, there is now the Metropolitan Cathedral, its stones silencing the empire that lies beneath it. The story of Ayotzinapa runs the risk of being buried along with all of Mexico’s erased past, forced underground to lie among nameless corpses and empty bullet shells.
The most frightening aspect of the Ayotzinapa tragedy is that it is a familiar narrative, a story Mexico has lived before. A story of young students scattering in fear and panic at the sound of gunfire. A story of mothers marching through Mexico City’s streets searching for their son’s corpses. And a story of a government who cannot listen, who seems to only be able to speak with triggers, who buries corpse after corpse, hoping the bones will never turn up.
In order to understand the significance of what occurred in Guerrero, these bones must be dug up to piece together the skeletons of corruption and paranoia that have haunted Mexico for decades.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, by its Spanish acronym), held Mexico in an authoritative fist for more than 70 years, enforcing its regime through rigged elections and media censorship. The PRI stunted Mexico’s democratic growth, turning labor unions into political machines through extensive patron-client systems, abusing and monopolizing the country’s economy, covering up its corruption scandals through strict media control, and making of Mexico what Mario Vargas Llosa described as “the perfect dictatorship”.
The PRI left Mexico with severe political wounds, the deepest and bloodiest of which was the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.
On the eve of the 1968 Olympic games, a group of protesting students were fired upon in Tlatelolco plaza. The protesters had gathered to condemn the deaths of several high school students after the Mexico City riot police stormed a school to break apart a student brawl. The Mexican government, trying to appear composed before the international community, dealt with the protests aggressively, shooting at the gathered crowd and sending in military tanks to disperse them. Ten days after the massacre, Mexico City was humming with the spirit of the Olympics, welcoming athletes and spectators from across the word, feigning an ambiance of peace and unity. While the world celebrated, the victims’ families were putting up posters of their sons’ faces. Amidst crowds of jubilation, they conducted funerals with no corpses to bury.
According to governmental accounts, the students were acting violently and had begun to shoot at the armed forces sent to control the situation. The Mexican government reported a total of four deaths and twenty injuries, but witness reports describe dozens of bodies being carted off. Despite the discordance between state and witness accounts, the Mexican government refused to open an investigative case on the matter. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office reviewed the case. Evidence unearthed during the investigation revealed that the government had stationed snipers to shoot at the military forces, opening up an excuse to act forcefully towards the crowd.
Today, the total number of deaths is still unknown, as are the names and faces of most of the massacre’s victims.
The tragedy of Tlatelolco is that Mexico allowed itself to forget. It allowed the blood and bullet cases to be swept out of sight. It allowed the events that unfolded in the plaza to fall into silence. Students became bloodstained estimates, their faces and names buried somewhere in the cemetery of Mexico’s memory.
Ayotzinapa was a grave reminder that although it has been more than four decades since the massacre at Tlatelolco, Mexico still carries the same wounds and fights the same monsters. Just like in 1968, in 2014 the Mexican government failed to provide answers or justice for the violence, and refused to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation, instead piling layer upon layer of misreports and empty press statements over the truth.
In 2000, the PRI lost the presidential election for the first time since its founding in the 1930s. The National Action Party (PAN by its Spanish acronym) entered power with President Vicente Fox at its head. For many, PAN’s victory on the eve of a new century promised the beginning of a new political era for Mexico, an era of transparency and democracy in which Mexico would heal from the wounds the PRI had left.
But that was not to be. In 2006, PAN President Felipe Calderon took power. Shortly after being sworn into the presidency, Calderón declared war on organized crime, plunging the country into a decade long conflict that continues to haunt it.
Calderón’s approach to the drug war was a militarized one. Under his command, Mexico deployed 50,000 soldiers against the forces of various DTOs across the country. The effort also involved the Mexican navy and federal police forces. Calderón’s aggressive strategy was met with equally brutal tactics by the DTOs, whose power-struggles amongst themselves and against the state forces increased Mexico’s homicide rate by 260% between 2007 and 2010. Cities became battle grounds as civilians were caught in the cross fire of a war that did not pertain to them.
In addition to the atrocities committed by the DTOs, the Mexican military also engaged in war crimes, to the extent that Felipe Calderón could be considered a war criminal. The human rights violations of Mexico’s drug-war are defined by impunity. More often than not, human rights violations against civilians go unreported and uninvestigated, and in cases where they are brought to trial, corruption and the controversial implementation of military jurisdiction allow the perpetrators to walk free. The civilian outcries against human right violations are silenced by the forces of corruption and impunity.
Even before the war on crime commenced, the Mexican military and federal police force was an unstable institution with soldiers that were underpaid and undertrained. Calderón deployed 50,000 soldiers into a battlefield far beyond their capabilities and training. Soldiers were not limited to acting as snipers and combat forces. Rather, they were also in charge of patrolling civilian communities and participating in local legal systems, situations they were not trained for. In addition, police and military forces often fell into the jaws of cartel corruption. Underpaid and undertrained soldiers and police members often opted for the offers of the DTOs who promised solid salaries and safety. Thus, the local units who were supposedly protecting civilian populations failed to properly intervene against DTO raids and violence, and even participated in these attacks, as was the case in Ayotzinapa with local police force. Essentially, the civilian population was left forgotten in the ravages of the armed struggle.
The Mexican government claims that 90% of drug war related deaths pertain to criminals involved in the struggle, but data compiled by Human Rights Watch reveals their claims to be false. Many victims are civilians with no involvement in the drug trade whatsoever. Nonetheless, Mexican media often paint a criminal image of victims erasing their narratives and essentially denying that there have been any victims at all.
Like the victims of Ayotzinapa, the victims of the Mexican war on drugs are numberless and nameless, corpses carted away in the morning after nights of shootings and panic.
In 2014, during the first stages of the Ayotzinapa investigation, Mexican authorities stumbled upon multiple corpses that did not belong to the 43 missing students. The unidentified bodies were a stark reminder that the violence of Ayotzinapa was not an isolated case. There have been countless Mexicans who have never been heard of again.
Mexico is a country of forgetting. Of burying, and silencing and covering up. The victims of Tlatelolco were silenced by the jubilant cry of the Olympics and the international interests of the Mexican state. The victims of the drug war are shrouded by false headlines and a flawed justice system. And, Ayotzinapa, it seems, will also be buried under empty press releases and flawed investigations.
The crowds gathered on November 9, 2014 chanted the names of the 46 students from Ayotzinapa, but they also rallied in defense of all the forgotten names and faces buried in Mexico’s history. For students whose bodies were carted away from Tlatelolco plaza, for mothers without bodies mourn over, for citizens who received empty trial rulings, and for those written away as criminals by the press. For all the covered bits of truth, and for all the names, so that, one day, they can be unearthed as well.