EDITOR’S NOTE: Parts of this article are adapted from John Washington’s foreword to A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students, by Anabel Hernández (Verso, 2018).
In the fall of 2014, a group of Mexican students commandeered passenger buses in the small city of Iguala, Guerrero. They took the buses—an established, if, to the locals, annoying practice—to travel to Mexico City to commemorate the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, in which Mexican soldiers and police gunned down hundreds of innocent protesters.
But on that fall night in 2014, another massacre was in the making: local, state, and federal security forces hunted down the unarmed students, shot and killed six people, injured dozens, and disappeared 43. After the disappearance—as news of the slaughter began to break across the world—the government tampered with evidence, fabricated false stories, lied to the world, and brutally tortured the innocent men and women on whom it tried to pin the attacks. Tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets, chanting, “¡Fue el estado!”
They were right, it was the state, and the demonstrations pushed the administration to the brink of collapse. Four years later—after weathering the storm with obfuscation, hollow promises, and the distraction of other scandals—the Mexican government remains in contempt of truth and in contempt of life, 43 students remain disappeared, and the families continue to search both for their sons and for the truth.
Though the incoming administration of president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador heralds much promise, the victims’ families don’t want promises; they just want their sons.
The students killed and disappeared that night were Ayotzinapa normalistas, studying at the all-male Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Rural school in the small community of Ayotzinapa. The system of normal schools, based in pedagogy developed in 17th-century France, was initiated after the Mexican Revolution to train teachers in remote and mostly indigenous areas that the government had long neglected—and continues to neglect.
Situated in areas of extreme poverty, the normal schools—offering free tuition and board—stand out as enclaves of opportunity and empowerment, offering viable alternatives to the local youth who want to remain in their communities. The other options include succumbing to the centripetal maw of Mexico City, signing up as pawns in the drug trade, or crossing the Arizona desert into el otro lado, where they would become prey for another violent paramilitary organization—the US Border Patrol.
For decades, the normal schools, though underfunded, politically undermined, and occasionally shuttered by the state, have been struggling to continue offering self-empowerment, indigenous pride, and the basic staples of education and community ethics to populations often relegated to the cultural and economic fringes of Mexican society. It wasn’t only these students who were attacked that night—authorities were trying to silence their community’s very way of thinking, being, and even speaking.
Today, over half a century since the beginning of the Dirty War that left thousands of Mexicans killed and disappeared, the pretext for Mexico’s military presence in the streets is no longer to quash rebellion. Today, the pretext for unleashing the failed and failing state violence machine is the so-called Drug War, which, throughout Latin America and the United States, overwhelmingly targets poor, brown, and black people.
But this is still only pretext. A new book by Anabel Hernández, Massacre in Mexico, reveals that as Peña Nieto was assuming the presidency in 2012, the transition team listed as one of its top national-security priorities—even above the heavily armed paramilitary drug cartels—the Ayotzinapa normalistas. How could a bunch of students pose more of a national-security threat than cartels that wield as much firepower as some standing armies? The answer is that the students actually did pose a threat, but not to national security. They threatened, rather, to derail the extractive, exploitative, despoiling agenda that successive administrations had been carrying out across Mexico’s poor and indigenous communities for decades.
It is a hallmark of our era that capital flows across borders. So do guns. And so do drugs. Though our country has been meddling, to varying degrees, in Mexico’s domestic politics for over a century, the most recent US efforts, carried out in the name of the War on Drugs, have wrought unprecedented carnage on both sides of the border: The opiate scourge now ravaging US cities, though kindled by global pharma companies, is now being fed in large part by the same Mexican communities that have become increasingly reliant on drug production and trafficking as a result of the destabilizing effects of NAFTA and US foreign policy.
The US government escalated its security funding to Mexico in the mid-2000s, shortly before Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in an effort to mask over what many consider a stolen election, unleashed a brutal crackdown, Operation Michoacán, in his home state. Desperate to convince the Mexican populace of his legitimacy, Calderón pounded his fist and deployed the Army into the streets. The Mérida Initiative, for example, modeled after a similar paramilitarization of Colombia, was a whopping weapons-coupon and torture-training package from the US government that boosted Mexico’s security forces as they nationalized the Michoacán strategy and channeled the drug trade to the cartels in cahoots with the government.
Over the past decade, as a direct result of US addiction and binational violent interdiction efforts, more than 200,000 Mexican civilians have been killed, at least 30,000 have been disappeared, and some states have become littered with mass graves. It is at least possible—if ultimately unprovable—that the very weapons wielded by police and the Army against the students that night in 2014 were purchased through Mérida Initiative funds.
Though there are tens of thousands of murders a year in Mexico, it is not every day that state forces disappear 43 students. What was it about that night that provoked such a crackdown? The most likely explanation, as described to Hernández by one of the key informants for her book, is that the students had unwittingly commandeered a bus carrying a load of heroin worth a couple million dollars. That heroin was likely on its way north to Chicago, or some other hub city, where it would then be distributed to Columbus, Wilmington, or Terre Haute—these communities that have been equally ravaged by addiction and the state’s violent crackdown on addiction. The syringes plunged in the United States have turned Guerrero into the hemisphere’s primary area of poppy cultivation and a state rife with homicide.
In 2017, there were 2,500 murders, or nearly seven a day, in Guerrero alone. Across the country, there were over 29,000 murders. Meanwhile, in the United States, over twice as many people died from drug overdoses, mostly from opioids. As large-caliber rifles and violent policing continue to be one of the state’s—both Mexican and US—consistent answers to poverty and addiction, more poppy blooms will dot the hills of Guerrero, more loads will head north on buses, and more communities, on both sides of the border, will be laid to waste.
One of the students disappeared in 2014 is Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño. I spoke with his father, Antonio, the day before he raced in his fourth New York City Marathon on November 4. Though he only planned to run half, and was dealing with an injury, he ended up completing the full route in 4:06:47, all while wearing a bright green shirt with the number 43 on it. He is also one of the founders of Running for Ayotzinapa.
Antonio has been living in New York, working as a plumber in Brooklyn, since 2000—but despite being far from his family, he’s kept close with them, and, for the last four years, has been a vocal critic, on this side of the border, of Mexico’s handling and mishandling of the massacre. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
How did you decide to come to the US?
I was what’s called “economically expelled” from my country. I came to give my family a better life. I stayed in touch with them though, stayed close to them from here.
Could you tell me about your son?
Antonio is now 24 years old. He entered into the Ayotzinapa Normal School in 2014, just a few months before what happened. He passed the physical exam, and was helping in social services, volunteering in the community. He had already been traveling to different parts of Guerrero. They were planning to go to Mexico City for the anniversary of ’68. Nobody imagined what was going to happen, though I knew that Ayotzinapa was under pressure.
How did Antonio decide to go to the Ayotzinapa Normal School?
It was between moving to Mexico City or going to Ayotzinapa. He could be close to his family there. He has a daughter, too. The repression was constant, though. The federal police, the military, they’re the ones who took our kids. The government had been working on getting rid of other rural schools. They don’t want us to wake up, to be politically conscious. The government tries to seed terror into the villages so they don’t stand up for themselves. Ayotzinapa was always a strong school. Lucio Cabañas [revolutionary leader of the Party of the Poor and Peasants’ Brigade Against Injustice] went there, and stood up for the repression of the indigenous people. Cabañas rose up. He said, No more. It’s not rebellion today, but just a standing up for yourself.
When did you find out what happened?
We heard that something happened right away, but we weren’t too worried. I didn’t get too scared at first. My daughter said there were some problems. Then I saw on the web that they killed somebody, and then it was chaos. I called my son right away, sent him messages. But he never responded. His phone rang though, kept ringing. We didn’t know what happened. We hoped they would come back, that they were in hiding in the mountains. That they would come back to us. But no.
When was the last time you spoke with him?
A few days before [he was disappeared] I told him about a race I ran in Brooklyn, sent him some photos. Texted him. It was a five-mile race in Bay Ridge. We know we’ll talk to him again. I don’t want to say it was the last time. We’ll find him.
What was the government’s response? Did they address the families?
The government came and offered us money so we would stop looking for them, so we would be quiet. But we are not going to be quiet. We are not going to rest. Our strength comes from our children. The Mexican consulate here contacted me, but I didn’t want to go. I said that if they had information about my son I would talk, but otherwise I don’t want to talk to them.
Were you scared to talk to them?
No, I don’t have fear. Our fear got taken away with our sons.
Does running help you?
It’s a platform we use to bring attention to the issue. Running has helped me, but I’m not training as much right now. People told me to go to therapy, but I went running instead. It helps you think. Everything you do, you do for your boy, for his classmates. We’re not going to rest. We’ve found something in exercise. This big fight is for them, to show the other face of Mexico. Because Mexico has spent so much money on its image, but we show another image of Mexico. We’re showing the other side: the repression, the assassinations, the journalists killed. Anabel [Hernández] had to leave Mexico because of threats. And it’s not just students and journalists, it’s women, regular people. My Mexico, lindo y querido, beautiful and loved, is also a Mexico of the disappeared, of extortions, and of murder.