On September 26, 2014, forty-three rural college students from southern Mexico were forcibly disappeared in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. Allegedly abducted by municipal police officers as they attempted to hijack buses for a political protest, the federal investigation into the atrocity concluded that the youngsters were handed over to cartel gunmen who subsequently incinerated their remains at a local garbage dump.
Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, a figure with documented ties to organized crime, was arrested last November and charged with masterminding the attack. Gang members and municipal police officers have also been detained. Yet many questions regarding the tragedy remain unanswered.
In a two-part report, Latin Correspondent asks who the missing students were, who was responsible for their abduction, and what the event tells us about the climate of impunity in Mexico today.
Who were the 43 victims?
The 43 students were members of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa which trained young men to teach in rural regions of Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most impoverished states. Although it opened in 1926, the school became increasingly radicalized from the 1960s onwards and was long known as a breeding ground for guerrilla leaders and political dissidents.
The Ayotzinapa students of 2014 – known colloquially as Normalistas – were steeped in the mythology of such rebellions. They were members of the Federation of Socialist Peasant Students (FECSM) and closely affiliated with the Guerrero State Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CETEG) union, known as one of Mexico’s most radical labor syndicates.
The hijacking of buses and commandeering of highway tollbooths were common tactics by the Normalistas to raise money for what they considered to be their political activities. On this occasion, the students were looking to obtain transport for a trip to Mexico City to attend an annual protest march.
Their clandestine activities were also very much an initiation ritual for new inductees. One fact frequently lost in the debate over the tragedy is that the vast majority of young men who went missing were recently enrolled first-year students who had no idea why they were taken to the city of Iguala in the first place. They were led by senior students who also disappeared in the attack.
The motive for the abduction of the students is still unclear. Did Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca order police to attack the students because they threatened to interrupt a public event held by his wife? Did they mistakenly hijack a bus carrying a heroin shipment belonging to drug cartel Los Guerreros Unidos? Was one or more of the senior students mixed up with rival gang Los Rojos?
The doubts over the exact motive for the attack on the 43 Normalistas has led to a string of alternative theories as to what really happened in Iguala. These range from the plausible to the extremely dubious. Largely missing in the aftermath has been a debate over how Mexico moves forward amid startling levels of violence and impunity.