United in horror and rage, thousands of students, academics, human rights groups and other elements of civil society came together this week to condemn the disappearance and likely murder of dozens of students in Mexico.
As previously reported, 43 students went missing after police attacked them two weeks ago, killing six unarmed civilians and wounding another 25 just outside the town of Iguala, in the southwestern state of Guerrero.
After a week-long search, using information given by detained suspects linked to local organized crime, state authorities exhumed 28 bodies from six freshly covered graves near Iguala last Saturday.
Forensic experts said it could take weeks or even months to identify the badly burned bodies, but several members of the local Guerreros Unidos drug gang who are now in custody confessed to taking 17 of the students to the site where the graves were found.
Dismayed by the government’s inability or unwillingness to locate the missing students, hundreds of unarmed vigilantes swarmed into Iguala on Tuesday to help look for them. The vigilantes, who banded together last year to defend their rural towns from drug cartels, said they would do a door-to-door search of the area.
New graves found
But on Thursday, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced the discovery of four more mass graves filled with charred bodies, likely those of the other 15 students.
Municipal, state and federal authorities have been widely criticized over their handling of the incident. It took more than eight days for the federal government to launch an investigation into the missing students, by which time the mass graves had already been discovered.
After days of silence, President Enrique Peña Nieto belatedly addressed the issue this week, describing it as “shocking, painful and unacceptable” and vowing to punish those responsible.
As the level of corruption in the local government became impossible to ignore, Peña Nieto dismissed Iguala’s entire police force and sent federal agents to enforce law and order.
The 34 suspects arrested to date include 22 members of the Iguala police force, while both the local mayor and the Iguala police chief fled town after warrants for their arrest were issued and are now fugitives.
Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife are thought to have close ties to Guerreros Unidos, and on Monday members of the gang hung banners threatening retaliation if the 22 imprisoned police officers are not released.
“You have 24 hours … then we begin to name the people in the government who support us,” one banner read.
Days later, banners were found in nearby Acapulco accusing Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero of links to organized crime, an allegation that he was quick to deny. Both Abarca and Aguirre, who has rejected calls for his resignation, belong to Mexico’s left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
The victims of the massacre were all male activists in their late teens or early twenties who came from poor families across rural Mexico and were studying to become teachers at Guerrero’s histrorically radical, left-wing Ayotzinapa college.
They had been soliciting donations in Iguala to fund future protests and had reportedly commandeered three local buses – a common and apparently tolerated tactic in the area – to take them back to Ayotzinapa before they came under fire by the police and armed gang members.
The cause of the attack has not yet been determined, but the Ayotzinapa college has historic links to guerrilla movements in Guerrero and the Mexican authorities have long considered it a source of trouble. The students have often complained of government repression, and in 2011 two students from the school were shot dead by police on a nearby federal highway.
Worldwide solidarity marches
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Chilpancingo, the Guerrero state capital, on Wednesday afternoon to demand justice and condemn those responsible for the killings, while other marches took place in Mexico City and dozens of other states across the country.
In total, there were demonstrations in more than 60 cities in Mexico and other countries across the globe, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Germany, Norway, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The massacre seems to have galvanized opposition to the Mexican authorities, with prominent academic John Ackerman describing it as a “crime against humanity” and warning that “the country may be headed towards a rerun of the ‘dirty wars’ of the 1970s, in which the government hunted down and killed or jailed thousands of activists.”
Human rights organizations were also vocal in their criticism of the Mexican government over the level of impunity in the country.
“Mexico’s efforts to address the large number of cases of enforced disappearances and abductions throughout the country in recent years have been marred by inexplicable delays and contradictory public statements,” Human Rights Watch wrote this week in an open letter to Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong.
Human Rights Watch noted that the Mexican government admitted in August that more than 22,000 people have gone missing in the last eight years — and according to official statistics, none have been found.
Incredibly, “no one has been convicted of an enforced disappearance committed after 2006, according to official information,” Human Rights Watch added, affirming that this represents “a human rights crisis of major proportions for Mexico.”