Voices from Ayotzinapa tell their story

December 17, 2014

Almost three months after their disappearance, the case of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teacher's college in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero continues to be at the center of political life in Mexico. A national movement for justice and an international solidarity campaign emerged and spread after the students' bus caravan was attacked by municipal police on September 26, leaving at least three dead on the scene, along with the abduction of the 43 students from the Rural Normal School "Raúl Isidro Burgos" at Ayotzinapa.

The families of the missing 43 and their fellow students have been demanding information and action from the federal and state governments--all the more urgently after various "discoveries" of unmarked graves that turned out to be the remains of other victims of violence. Earlier this month, the federal government's Office of the General Prosecutor (PGR) claimed that DNA testing had linked incinerated human remains to some of the students, but the families are distrustful of the authorities. An independent team of Argentinian forensic scientists says the government's evidence that the students were killed is inconclusive.

The protests in Mexico are causing political shock waves beyond Guerrero. Beyond the angry demand that the missing students be found and the perpetrators of violence punished, Ayotzinapa has become a catalyst for all sorts of social grievances.

In this interview conducted at the start of December at the Red Square courtyard of the School of Economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a parent of the one of the missing student and two fellow students talked to SocialistWorker.org contributor Héctor A. Rivera and Carmen Cohen, a representative of the Argentinian students union CAUCE-Corriente Universitaria Nacional.

Clemente Rodríguez is the father of Cristian Alfonso Rodríguez, one of the 43 disappeared students. Andres Catalan is a first-year student at the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School, and José Solano Ramírez is a fourth-year student.

WHAT IS origin of the Rural Normal Schools?

José: The Normal School at Ayotzinapa is named after Raúl Isidro Burgos, and its campus is in the ex-hacienda of Ayotzinapa. It was founded on March 2, 1926. Besides that date, June 18, 1938, is important because that was the founding of the Federation of Socialist Rural Students of Mexico (FECSM), which is the student union we belong to.

Historically, Normal Schools have suffered a lot of repression, including students being assassinated. The role of the 17 remaining Rural Normal schools is to provide a refuge to the sons of peasants. All of us at Ayotzinapa come from peasant backgrounds--many are from indigenous descent. We come from all the regions of Guerrero, and students from states across the country also study at Ayotzinapa.

Normal Schools are different from public schools. We have a boarding school model--we open 140 spaces every year.

From its beginning, the Normal School of Ayotzinapa has always been known as a den of guerrillas. We know the government says that because our great teachers, Lucio Cabañas Barrientos and Genaro Vásquez Rojas, are fellow graduates from the Normal School at Ayotzinapa. We still carry on their struggle.

Voices from Ayotzinapa, from left: José Solano Ramírez, Clemente Rodríguez and Andres Catalan
Voices from Ayotzinapa, from left: José Solano Ramírez, Clemente Rodríguez and Andres Catalan (Héctor A. Rivera | SW)

For example, the Normal School at Ayotzinapa has always been in solidarity with community organizations and student associations. Whenever there is a protest or a call for justice, we have always supported community organizations. We have never left their side.

WHAT ARE conditions like for schools like these today?

José: It's important to mention that Ayotzinapa and other Normal schools have a very small budget--that's why we fundraise. Which is what we were doing, or trying to do on September 26. The food budget for Ayotzinapa is 50 Mexican pesos (around $3.40) per student for daily rations at breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's what we have, and we've won that through struggle.

On December 12, 2011, the police shot and killed Jorge Alexis Herrera Pino and Gabriel Echeverría de Jesús in the highway to Acapulco while we were protesting to get the 140 spaces for the Normal School at Ayotzinapa. Every year, we have 800 applicants to the school. Since we don't charge application fees, many students from peasant backgrounds apply.

We always have to fundraise because we aren't getting government funding. Every year, we have to fundraise to get a budget for those 140 spaces.

So on December 12, 2011, we were asking for donations for those 140 places. Since then, on January 7, 2014, two other classmates were killed, and on September 26, 2014, three other classmates were murdered. That's seven classmates who are no longer in the school--seven students murdered by the state.

What happened on December 12, 2011, was truly sad because the ministerial police assassinated our classmates, and the state and federal police were also involved, but the government never mentioned the federal police--they didn't even touch them. The National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH)--or rather the "National Commission for Human Rights Violations"--demanded that such police behavior never be repeated. But on September 26, the same thing happened.

We are very concerned, because things remain the same. Every year, we have to ask for a new budget, and Ayotzinapa and the Rural Schools always run into problems. When we meet with the Department of Education of our state or talk to the governor, they tell us that they don't have a budget for us and they can't help us. So we have to protest because there is no other way to get funding.

In Mexico, you will not get your demands met unless you do something. That has become very clear to us.

As for forced disappearances, the authorities don't give a damn. They're not concerned. If education doesn't concern them, the forced disappearances they themselves orchestrate concern them even less.

CAN YOU talk about what happened on September 26?

José: On September 26, all schools were fundraising--and I mean all schools, because fundraising activity is collective. On September 26, our classmates went to the city of Iguala to collect donations because we needed money for academic activities. We have to go to other schools to conduct classroom observations, which are often far from our campus. We were collecting donations for these activities.

We were also thinking about coming to Mexico City for the October 2 demonstration that happens every year to commemorate the Tlatelolco massacre of students in 1968. Under the banner of the FECSM, all Rural Normal Schools have come to the demonstration.

At about 8 p.m. on September 26, our classmates called us and told us that a student had already been murdered. We had to react fast, so we immediately sent two Suburbans with students from the school.

That day, there were two attacks, one of them carried out by the local police. The 43 missing students were taken by municipal police. Others were killed on the scene. During the first attack, the 43 students were taken, along with Julio Cesar Mondragón Fontes, the student whose body was found flayed and without eyes the day after the attack. The second attack was carried out by unknown persons.

In the first attack, Aldo Gutierrez was shot, and he is currently in a vegetative state receiving medical treatment. In the second attack, Daniel Solis Gallardo and Julio Cesar Ramirez Nava were murdered. Julio Cesar Mondragón Fontes was taken by police during the first attack, together with the other 43, but he was found the day after.

WHAT WAS the government's response to the attack?

José: We still don't know why the Mexican Army didn't help our classmates. The base of the 27th Infantry Battalion is around the corner from where this happened. So we don't know why they didn't protect our classmates.

For us, it's clear that the municipal police took them, and so they must bring them back. The Office of the General Prosecutor should not claim that other people are responsible, because the police took them, and there is plenty of evidence.

The government has claimed that our classmates are dead. First, the attorney general of Guerrero claimed they were dead. Then, Ángel "Big Cheeks" Aguirre Rivera, the governor of Guerrero, claimed they were dead. Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam also claimed they were dead.

Back in 2011, the police did what Mexican authorities always do. The first thing they did was to remove evidence from the scene of the attack. The area wasn't even cordoned off, and the police themselves cleared shells from the ground and put them in their pockets. One of our classmates had an AK-47 planted on him--they made him fire it, and they tortured him.

So we were blamed for the attack, because supposedly, we had weapons. It seems that this time, they tried to do the same, but we weren't the only ones murdered. Bystanders were also killed. For us, it's very clear that all the authorities, the political parties and the politicians are associated with organized crime.

We don't know what will happen to us when things die down--when people are no longer paying attention. Perhaps we will be found in an unmarked grave as well. We don't know what will happen to us, but as Ayotzinapa students, we don't want this to happen again.

This might be our last battle, but we are not fighting for material things or for money. We are fighting for the return of our 43 classmates alive. We are fighting for justice for those who were murdered on September 26 and January 7 and December 12, 2011. And we are fighting for the truth. The truth must be known.

We must also fight for the rights of all the victims, because it's not just 43 disappeared students. There are thousands. What about those being found in unmarked graves all over Guerrero? We are fighting so that this does not repeat itself.

ANDRES, AS a first-year student at the Rural Normal School at Ayotzinapa and a classmate of the 43 disappeared, what has been like to study and to struggle with your classmates?

Andres: The 43 missing students are my classmates, and I knew most of them as students, and many of them like brothers from Ayotzinapa. Of the three who were murdered students, I got along well with Julio Cesar Mondragón. When we were out in the field working with a pick or a machete, we would spend more time together.

Among the 43 disappeared students, three of them were my roommates, and we knew each other well. I shared a room with Magdaleno Ruben, Israel Caballero and Jose Luis Luna.

It's not right that three of our classmates were murdered. And it's not right that the municipal police of Iguala took the other 43. The police took them--nobody else took them. We have evidence that the police took them, and so they must bring them back alive.

As students from Ayotzinapa, we'll continue to fight until we find them, and as my mate here said, we will not rest until we find our 43 classmates. We're not fighting just for them, but for the thousands of disappeared and for those murdered who have yet to see justice.

THIS QUESTION is for Mr. Rodríguez. You have a student at the Rural Normal School at Ayotzinapa?

Clemente: My name is Clemente Rodríguez, and my son Cristian Alfonso Rodríguez is among the 43 disappeared students. The last time that I saw him was September 24 when I dropped him off at school. We said goodbye like friends would, and I never imagined then that something like this would happen.

On September 26, they informed us that there had been a shooting in Iguala. I went to the school right away to try to find out what had happened, and we were informed that the students were attacked by the Iguala municipal police.

On the 27th, I went to Iguala with other parents to look for information. When we got to the prosecutor's office, there were a few students in custody. I asked them where the rest of their classmates were. Some of them told us that they hid under parked cars and saw how the police were loading up students onto police trucks. They saw the police beat them and take them from the scene.

That day, I went to the local jail because I was almost certain they were there. To my surprise, there wasn't anyone there--supposedly, the police didn't know anything about the students. So we went to look in the hospitals where three students were being treated.

We also went to the military base to look for them. There, they told us that the students deserved this. We asked them why they didn't go help them, to protect them--and they said they hadn't heard anything, and that they didn't know anything.

That's why so many parents are upset and angry--because the government hasn't given us any answers. Two weeks passed before the president could meet with us. When we met, he said he would do everything in his power to help us. We also asked him to send search parties, and more time passed before we could get these people on the ground.

We asked him to bring in an Argentinian forensics team, because we don't trust the people from the PGR. We don't trust any of the authorities, because they don't have answers.

Together with other parents, we went on search missions to various places where people had heard rumors about them, but nobody wants to give us any information. They don't want to tell us where they are. People are afraid.

Through this medium, we would like to ask that if there are people who know something, please give us information. Please tell us where they are, because we are desperate to find them.

For me, it's been difficult to even sleep. It's been two months since we haven't heard anything about our sons. But we know that the police took them, and the police have to bring them back to us alive.

For its part, the government has offered 100,000 Mexican pesos [about $7,000) to each parent of a missing student, since many of us are no longer working. I had to leave my job in water delivery. Other parents who live off farming have had to leave their harvests.

That is why we come to Mexico City to look for help. We have received a lot of help from students and from unions, and the majority of people also support us. We have also received a lot of help from outside the country--from the United States, Spain, England and Germany. You could say that the whole world is with us.

We would like our supporters to demand that President Peña Nieto return the 43 Normalistas.

WHAT ARE the expectations for the movement? How does the demand for the return of the 43 missing students fit in with other concerns about the corruption of the government and its state terror?

José: First of all, as Ayotzinapa, we would like to point out those who need to be held accountable. The first one is Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico. Others responsible for this situation are: Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam; Secretary of State Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong; Ángel Aguirre, the ex-governor of Guerrero, currently on leave; José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala; and Felipe Flores Velázquez, the head of security of Iguala, who is still on the run.

We don't know if the intelligence system of the PGR is working, but we aren't sure why the head of security of Iguala hasn't been caught. Perhaps because they have close ties to President Peña Nieto and the governor. Perhaps that is why they haven't arrested him.

In the caravans that we sent across the country--one toured the north, another the south, and one toured Guerrero state--we received a lot of support for the parents of the 43 students and the Normal School of Ayotzinapa.

Our goal is to make people reflect, and to change the situation of the country. First of all, we have to clear out the police, because they all have ties to organized crime. Local mayors also have ties to organized crime. This is the most important problem that we have in Guerrero.

Our caravans have received a lot of support from people, organizations and students. What we want is to build a national struggle to change the way things are.

Guerrero offers a clear example of how this can be done. In Guerrero, citizens are organizing popular councils and taking over local governments. Why are they doing this? Because as Ayotzinapa, as teachers unions and as community police movements, we can no longer allow politicians to return to power together with their police forces, as if nothing had happened. If we continue to allow it nothing is going to change.

The president said he wants to create a new police force called the "Policia Unica," and he recently put out a stupid 10-point program for national security. But these measures are useless for us--they are only useful to protect him and his cronies.

We want something else. We don't want the police to come back. We don't want the political parties to come back. We want autonomy. As Ayotzinapa, as free municipalities, as indigenous municipalities and as peasant municipalities, we want autonomy.

We can't allow things to go back to normal. If they come back, they will continue to steal from our communities, and they will continue to have ties with organized crime.

In Guerrero, 18 social justice leaders have been murdered. The authorities always blame this on organized crime, but we know that the Governor Ángel Aguirre is responsible. However, since he is a close associate of the president, he's never been investigated. This is the reality we are living in Mexico.

Municipal councils have already been set up in some places. Local communities must decide what they will do. The only police we can have in Guerrero is a community police, because that's the only police we trust. We don't trust the authorities who are supposed to protect us, because all they do is leech our taxes--and instead of giving us security, they give us extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, theft, land dispossession and school closures. We must put forward alternatives.

However, we won't be able to do this only as Ayotzinapa. We have to have the support of students united. We've always asked ourselves: What could we do if students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, from the National Polytechnic Institute and from the Autonomous Metropolitan University organized together? What couldn't we do?

That is one of our greatest concerns--that students in Mexico are asleep. They have yet to wake up to reality and see what is really happening to education and everything else we are being deprived of.

Through this interview, we would like to invite everybody to join in supporting the parents of the missing students. There are 43 mothers and 43 fathers and all of their children who have been affected by this, because they don't have answers. And as students, out of the 522 students from the Ayotzinapa campus, none of us have been given any explanations or answers about the whereabouts of our classmates.

We have to do something that brings about change. Besides our case, what about the Tlatlaya massacre, where 22 people were killed? What about the ABC daycare center fire disaster in 2009? These are just a few of the cases we could mention. But what about those who are responsible?

In Guerrero, after the 2011 killings, the attorney general of the state, Alberto Lopez Rosas, was demoted--his punishment was to become the head of the Department of Labor in Acapulco. He continues to be a public employee, and he comes out saying that there's nothing wrong in Guerrero and that tourism is doing fine. But the rest of society has been forgotten.

Our main concern is what to do next. If we don't draw in other organizations and grow big enough to launch a national movement, I don't know what will happen to us. All 500 students at Ayotzinapa and all the parents of the missing 43 are concerned about what will become of us.

We don't trust the authorities. In fact, we have to defend ourselves from the authorities, and we have to defend ourselves from organized crime--which in the end are the same thing. We have to protect ourselves from them because if nobody looks out for us, we don't know what will happen to us. That is our main concern.

At the same time, we must also continue to make our demands. We want the president to resign. We want the governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre, to be punished along with the mayor of Iguala and all other municipal government officials in cahoots with organized crime.

So we invite everyone to join us and the parents of the 43 students. Any support and any protests that people make are appreciated. We are so desperate that sometimes, we don't know what to do. We wake up and we go to sleep, and things remain the same. The government hasn't done anything to find them.

As Ayotzinapa and as parents, we've begun to draw in larger numbers, and many people approach us and tell us that their loved ones have also been disappeared--but they are afraid to say anything. That is the reality in Guerrero.

Just in the last two months, more than 300 families have provided blood samples to the Argentinian forensics experts because they don't trust the government to find the body of their relative. They're afraid that the PGR will give them someone else's body.

Together with about 200 families, students and parents from Ayotzinapa will be forming search teams to look for the disappeared. With picks and shovels and whoever we can, we will continue to look for those disappeared. But we look for our classmates alive, because they were taken alive. and they must be brought back alive. The PGR won't do anything, and to this day, they haven't done anything.

The support from society is what will help us. But we will not take the government's money. We won't even shake their hand. We don't want anything from them. We don't want hypocrites who come and tell us that they will put in place another 10-point program to improve the situation of states like Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

We ask Mexicans for support as well as from those whose families are victims of forced disappearances.

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