What Lies Behind the Murders of 43 Mexican Students?
They were organizing for a peaceful protest. Why did they die?
September 26, 2014 was a big night for a group of Mexican students on their way to becoming teachers at the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the southwestern state of Guerrero. They had already accomplished so much, chosen out of more than 600 applicants to enter a noble profession.
Tradition called to them: they would take over the busses in town. Their all-male teacher’s college had a long tradition of political radicalism.
The annual bus trip to Mexico City for the student protest was to be a night of celebration, camaraderie, and a chance to see family for a much-needed break from school.
But 2014 was the year this tradition changed forever. There is still no credible, official explanation as to why.
The night turned, inexplicably, to violence and terror for these young men who only dreamed of a job that would finally lift them out of poverty.
Changing times for Mexican teachers
In 2014, the Mexican government of President Nieto viewed the Teachers’ Union as too powerful as well as corrupt. The Mexican government paid the Union — in effect, the Union leader — and he or she doled out teacher pay to whoever was considered deserving.
And now, the Union President was wealthy, owning multiple houses and consolidating more and more power as time went on.
Not only was the Union corrupt, according to Nieto, but teachers themselves were able to sell their positions, deciding who to pass them onto. In rural outposts, teachers either inherited their jobs through family members or purchased them.
Nieto wanted to change this. The teachers felt otherwise. Their annual protest would have a secondary focus: to speak against Nieto’s attempt to undermine the Union.
Nieto proposed instituting a test for all teachers. Knowledge of teaching and the subject matter would determine who would become employed and who wouldn’t.
The teachers, rightly, were averse to change. If the Union was torn down, they and their families would suffer. Years of education might be for nothing. They had every reason to be concerned.
After six years, it still isn’t clear if Nieto’s plan to eviscerate the Teacher’s Union had anything to do with this crime. The official story is that, mysteriously and with no logical explanation, the local drug cartel decided to murder 43 young men then obliterate any trace of their existence.
In any case, events on that long September night in 2014 are believed to have veered away from the usual trip to Mexico City beginning around 8 pm.
A joyous night turns dark
The town of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, is one of the most impoverished and violent places in a country known for poverty and violence. While Guerrero is also home to the resorts of Acapulco, most of the state is rural, poor, and infested with drug trafficking.
It was in Iguala where the 100 or so students found two more buses — the first two from Ayotzinapa were already full. Their usual night of “bus hijacking” — a time-honored custom of taking over buses, then using them to transport more students, was in full swing.
They would board as many commercial busses as they could, while bus drivers and police customarily stepped aside (sometimes in quiet solidarity).
Once they had secured the busses, they would travel to Mexico City as a group of proud protestors. In the city, they would be marching to memorialize a student massacre from 1968.
Bus companies, police, and bus drivers knew the drill. The driver stayed on the bus and drove it to ensure that students returned his vehicle— and themselves — safely home. But this night, the first driver locked the students inside the bus after they reached the Iguala main bus terminal.
An hour later, around 9:15 pm, more students arrived at the bus terminal and let their peers out of the “bus jail.” They already had brought two buses and now the group commandeered three more — in total, they drove out of Iguala in five buses on their way to the country’s capitol city.
Three buses chose the northern route and two took the southern one, each group planning to merge onto the Beltway that looped around the city.
Roadblocks and gunfire
Before they reached the Beltway, however, police cars began following the north-bound buses and firing warning shots. The students ignored them and even began throwing rocks. A ricocheted bullet hit a student, who received a minor wound.
The violence only intensified. The police began firing on the buses, while students hit the floors. Despite the danger, the students told the drivers to stay on course.
It was now well after dark on a cloudy night that would soon turn rainy. The northbound buses encountered a car blocking the highway entrance, stopped, and exited their vehicle. They attempted to overturn the car that blocked their path forward.
As the students filed out of the buses, nearby police opened fire. The young men scurried to hide behind one bus, which later revealed 30 bullet holes.
At 9:48, the students made a call for an ambulance: Aldo Gutierrez, 19, had been shot in the head.
Three others who were wounded, or in one case suffered an asthma attack, managed to get out of harm’s way. They were transported via ambulance to a nearby hospital (and, later, were some of the few surviving witnesses).
The police removed the remaining students from one of the buses, packing them into police cars and speeding off. None of these individuals is known to have survived.
The southern route
Two buses had taken a southern route, but the police coordinated an attack on one of them as well. They blocked the road, then shot tear gas inside to evacuate it. These students, too, were held at gunpoint and forced into police vehicles.
The fifth bus was able to escape entirely. Students in the other busses, under attack, called the fifth bus and told their friends what was happening.
Although this bus, too, was stopped by police, these young men had an advantage: they knew they might be killed. So, they ran into the safety of the woods at their first opportunity.
Other victims fall to the police
The violence spread out to other vehicles and, especially busses. A soccer team returning from a game at around 11 pm was targeted. Attackers fired on their bus after it had left town, killing the driver and one of the players. The gunfire also hit and killed a woman riding in a taxi nearby.
Seven people from the soccer team were wounded in the attack. They attempted to get help at a nearby Mexican Army battalion but were told there was no help, what happened wasn’t the army’s responsibility.
Municipal police (from Iguala as well as the nearby town of Huitzuco) set up more roadblocks. Two more civilian motorists were injured by gunfire.
An investigation by an expert panel noted that the multiple roadblocks suggested a coordinated effort by police.
When first hearing the story of the “43 disappeared” it appears to be a mystery. But many witnesses to these crimes lived to report what happened. That night, witnesses began congregating in the streets near the abandoned busses and exchanging information. An impromptu news conference began.
At the northern beltway entrance — where the three busses had been attacked — teaching students began to gather. They were joined by journalists, teachers, and other citizens.
The group tried to figure out what had just happened. They, too, would be targeted.
From the New York Times coverage:
About 12:30 a.m., a white sport utility vehicle, and a black car drove by [where people had begun to gather], their occupants taking photos of the gathering. Some [inside the cars] were wearing bulletproof vests and hoods. Some witnesses said they also had seen a police car in the area.
Fifteen minutes later, the vehicles returned, and three men jumped out and fired on the news conference from close range. Two young men were killed, and other people, including students and teachers, were wounded.
Survivors and wounded sought help, but despite calls to authorities, they were unable to get assistance for at least an hour. An ambulance finally showed up. By 3 a.m., the rain had begun to pour down. Two murdered young men lay in the street near the northbound Beltway entrance. The rest of the group had dissipated, either to hide or seek help for their injuries.
Victims and remains
Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected to the Presidency on December 1, 2018. He has made it his number one priority to investigate the student killings. It was in his political interest to do so. The official version is that the students were all “mistaken” for a rival drug cartel gang.
Families of the victims remain skeptical. They are jaded after living in a country where corruption runs rampant on every level of the government, but many are also bitter that these crimes have remained unpunished six years later.
As of July 2020, evidence has revealed the remains of three of the students. Most of the physical evidence is only bone fragments, but DNA testing has come to the rescue. The Institute of Genetics in Austria identified Christian Alfonso Rodriguez Telumbre, most recently, as one of the 43 disappeared.
Six years before, and just a few months after the students’ disappearance, a bone fragment about 2 centimeters long came to the surface. It was determined to belong to 19-year-old Alexander Mora Venancio.
Born to farming parents, Mora began his education as a teacher to escape a life of rural poverty. He was one of seven siblings and known as quiet and well-mannered. Like many boys in his town, he played soccer almost every day. He was well-liked by girls, who called him a true “gentleman.”
Guerrero has had continual protests from its citizens, who are demanding this crime be solved and someone is held accountable. After protests on October 23, 2014, the governor of Guerrero resigned. The mayor of Iguala, and his wife, were implicated. Both fled to Mexico City where they were later arrested for an unrelated murder.
Despite the evidence and work of international expert panels, there have been no indictments and no trial, athough authorities have arrested over 80 people. As recently as June 2020, a local cartel leader known as “El Mochomo” was arrested in connection with this case.
Motives, details and experts
The theories about why the killings occurred center around ties between police and organized crime in the region. While the police-cartel connection is well known, however, it does not explain the motive.
The official explanation, from the Nieto government, was that the students were massacred in a garbage dump by organized crime members. While some evidence suggests this could be true, there are big holes in this theory.
According to part five of a five-part New Yorker piece covering the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43, there are two big problems with the garbage dump theory. To burn 43 bodies in one night would have required a very large fire — more vast than the available space at the dump. Second, people who lived in Cocula reported it rained that night, making a large fire even more unlikely.
The explanation of a “mistaken identity” motive also defies common sense. Clearly, the attack was well-planned an involved both police and cartel members, who were working together.
Moreover, cartels are not known to burn their victims.
The official story, that the cartel believed the students to be part of a rival gang, and therefore murdered them to secure their territory or protect their business interests, is laughable.
A more likely explanation, and one that aligns with reports from witnesses, is that the police were working with cartel leaders associated with Guerrero Unidos (“United Warriors”) when they rounded up the students. And police did not act alone or spontaneously.
The government — local, state, and/or federal — targeted these students. They believed they could murder all of them and completely hide the evidence. They were confident, based on hundreds of cases before this one, that they were above the law.
The army, too, is a likely suspect. Army soldiers from the nearby base denied help to wounded students and witnesses, turning them out of an army clinic that night. The nearby base also has a large trash incinerator. Family members of the murdered 43 have reported that their cell phones’ last location was at this army base.
Despite attempts by the Mexican government to whitewash this horrific crime, the evidence has not stayed hidden. The witnesses have not remained in the shadows. The families have not quieted down.
The official story is incomplete, but it goes like this: once the police handed the 43 to the cartel, gangsters murdered them at a garbage dump. Cartel workers then spent two to three hours burning the bodies in a pit. After incinerating all evidence, they collected whatever remains they could find, bagged them, and dumped them into the San Juan river in Cocula.
A recovered text from one of the gang members read, “We turned them into dust and threw their remains in the water. They [authorities] will never find them.”
An anonymous caller led investigators to the final resting place of the 43, about a half-mile from a garbage dump, in the town of Cocula.
The fragmented bones of Christian Telumbre, along with the remains of Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, and Mora Venancio, were found.
They probably were not burned there, but they were more than dust. In their DNA, Christian, Jhosiviani and Mora held the names of their brothers in arms, their families, and the poor people of Mexico.
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