When Mexican authorities violently intercepted a convoy of buses carrying students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Guerrero state last week it inevitably evoked memories of that infamous night last year when 43 of their classmates disappeared at the hands of local police officers.
Six people were killed when the police began firing on the students’ buses and other vehicles outside the town of Iguala on September 26, 2014, while the missing 43 are believed to have been massacred shortly afterwards. The surviving students have clashed frequently with the authorities since then as they demand the safe return of their classmates, but the confrontation on November 11 was arguably the worst since that fateful night.
It unfolded in almost identical fashion, with the students commandeering means of transport to ensure they could attend a demonstration, only for police to chase, intercept and then repress them.
This time there were no deaths but eight students were hospitalized and at least 12 more were injured after police beat them and fired tear gas into their vehicles. Another 13 were arrested for allegedly stealing gasoline from a pipeline in Guerrero, although they were released just hours later.
“They pointed guns at us”
Carlos Martínez, a 20-year-old trainee teacher at the Ayotzinapa college, told Latin Correspondent that 130 students had gone to find fuel in order to ensure their missing classmates’ parents would be able to travel to a demonstration in the tourist resort of Acapulco to demand the safe return of their children.
Martínez, who was travelling at the front of the convoy, said his bus was intercepted by police at a toll booth. Upon disembarking to initiate dialogue, he said, “They pointed guns at us, but we told them we didn’t want violence, we just wanted to get past.”
At that moment, state and federal police and the Mexican army intercepted the other buses behind them, he said: “They smashed the windows and fired tear gas into the buses. Some of us managed to escape into the hills and return to the school, while some were arrested and others were hospitalized. Some fractured their arms and legs upon leaping from the buses.”
Footage posted online showed the moment state police officers pulled up alongside the speeding buses, smashed the windows with their batons and then fired tear gas canisters inside.
One of the victims, who was subsequently photographed with blood streaming down his face, clearly had a press pass and camera hanging from his neck. Another student told the Mexican press that the police initially prevented the wounded from receiving medical attention.
The Guerrero state government later issued a press release alleging that the students threw rocks and even a grenade from their buses, leaving seven police officers injured. No evidence was presented to substantiate this claim.
Guerrero’s government secretary, Florencio Salazar, confirmed the students arrested during this “unfortunate confrontation” had been released, although they could still face charges for allegedly stealing 34,000 litres of gasoline.
Some 30 students were reported missing in the aftermath of the confrontation, but all eventually made it back to Ayotzinapa the next day.
Students deny links to organized crime
The incident came just days after Mexico’s interior secretary, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said the authorities were investigating possible links between the students and organized crime.
The allegations were sparked by a Mexican newspaper publishing a recording of a phone conversation that supposedly revealed student leader Omar García admitting he knew there were gang members among his classmates.
Denying these allegations, García told Latin Correspondent, “It’s a media tactic to discredit us. Even the human rights office of the federal attorney general’s office says there’s no evidence to support it.”
The government sanctioned the attempts to defame him and the physical attacks on his classmates “partly because of the (demonstrations) that we’re carrying out and because we haven’t stopped our movement after more than a year,” García added.
Martínez also affirmed that the students have “never associated with or been infiltrated by members of organized crime”.
Both he and García attributed the heightened tensions of recent weeks to changes in local government, with Héctor Astudillo beginning his term as governor of Guerrero last month.
“When we took office the current governor adopted a strong stance against our campaign for the safe return of our classmates. He’s been totally inhumane and insensitive to our situation,” Martínez added. “He wants to paralyze our movement.”
Mexico reopens investigation into missing 43
Despite last week’s violent clashes, the classmates and parents of the missing 43 went ahead with planned demonstrations in Acapulco at the weekend to demand their safe return.
Over 100 suspects have been arrested in connection with the disappearances, including dozens of police officers, the mayor of Iguala and his wife, and many alleged members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel.
According to the government, corrupt police officers handed the students over to members of the cartel, who murdered them and then incinerated their bodies over a large but rudimentary bonfire in a nearby rubbish dump.
However this version of events has been widely discredited as scientifically impossible by independent forensics experts and investigators from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The Mexican government eventually agreed to reopen the investigation last month.