Mexico's missing students: Search for justice reveals changing society

Last September, 43 college students went missing after a brazen attack on the buses they were riding in southern Mexico. Their families hold out hope that justice will eventually prevail. 

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
Clemente Rodriguez and his wife, Luz Maria Telumbre, hold a banner with a photograph of their son Christian Rodriguez, one of the 43 missing students, at their home in Tixtla, Mexico.

When Fernando Estrada Sámano talks about the night he witnessed security officials taking away a group of young students at gunpoint, he can’t finish his account without pausing to wipe away tears.

“I don’t know whether the families of those young Mexicans ever saw them again,” Mr. Estrada says. “And it makes me cry. Out of impotence, indignation, hopelessness. Out of ire.”

That incident happened in 1968 during a bloody crackdown on student protests ahead of the Summer Olympics. And there are parallels with the brazen abduction a year ago of 43 students at a teacher's college in southern Mexico, which will be marked tomorrow with protests here in the Mexican capital. No one has been held responsible in either case.

Then and now, Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed the country for much of the past century. Estrada, a former ambassador, says the party hasn't changed significantly. But he believes that society has, and that the public response to the disappearance of the 43 students holds out hope that justice will eventually prevail. 

“There is a basic difference between 1968 and today,” Estrada says. In the case of the 43 students "everybody talks about it. People are not allowing themselves to be intimidated or silenced, and that is one of the great changes this country has seen in the past decades.”

Despite more than 100 people detained in relation to this case, no one has been convicted, and the government’s investigation and explanation of what unfolded that night have been called into question by the victims’ families, as well as an independent team of international investigators. While civil society and academics have questioned government conclusions with authority, the parents of the students have toured the globe telling international audiences fearlessly that they believe their children are still alive.

'The perfect dictatorship'

Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa once described the PRI as “the perfect dictatorship," one known for backroom deals, rigged elections, its control of the media, and pacts with drug kingpins. The party ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, when it lost a presidential election. 

When President Enrique Peña Nieto successfully ran for office in 2012, his party said it had transformed itself and was led by a younger generation that deeply cared about democracy.

And in the first few months after President Peña Nieto took office, it seemed that the promises of change might just be true.

He was able to unite the leading political parties in a “Pact for Mexico,” and pass a number of constitutional reforms that had proved impossible under previous administrations. The government had international observers talking hopefully about the arrival of “Mexico’s moment” to shine.

“But then Iguala happened,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a noted historian in Mexico, using the name of the town where the students were stopped. “The PRI was caught off guard. And its new façade started to crumble,” he says.

The federal government was slow to respond to the crisis, and the investigation was botched, according to a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. After a six-month investigation with official cooperation, its findings called into question nearly all the claims made by Mexican authorities. It found that vital evidence was overlooked or tampered with; that theories presented as proof – such as all the students being burned in a massive pyre – were discredited; and learned that some suspects were tortured in custody.

“This is the same old PRI,” says Mr. Meyer. “The only difference now is the legitimacy of the system.”

Ratings hit the floor

He’s referring to approval ratings, which, he says, “can’t be rigged.” Peña Nieto’s ratings tanked after Iguala, making him one of the least popular presidents in nearly two decades. And it wasn’t just the mass disappearance: government officials and family members were accused of conflict of interest in their home purchases, and a top journalist and outspoken critic was pushed out of her job soon after exposing the scandal.

“When the PRI was in power before, they were basically able to control the country by reaching out from the top down,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a Washington-based think tank. “But, of course, society has changed a great deal,” he says, citing the emergence of a more independent media, the private sector, and a multi-party system. 

“We saw this most clearly with the response to Ayotzinapa, in terms of street demonstrations, but also social media, awareness of the facts, and a willingness to challenge the government,” Mr. Wood says.

“It’s something the government hadn’t considered. And [you] get the feeling it is really learning as it goes along.”

A downtown protest camp

On the edge of the historic Zocalo plaza, still sparkling with green, white, and red decorations from recent Independence Day celebrations, stands a cluster of tents. Inside, relatives of each of the missing students are fasting for 43 hours in the lead up to Saturday’s march, marking one year without answers.

Fathers with weathered faces lay on the ground, arms solemnly crossed. A handful of women are seated, needle pointing floral patterns. The room is somber, filled with a few quiet whispers.

"We are sure the kids are alive. Without scientific proof, we will continue to search for them alive.” says Felipe de la Cruz, whose son, Angel, was able to escape the attack last year by hiding behind one of the buses carrying the students. He called his father and told him what was going on, and watched in terror as a classmate fell to the ground, shot in the head. At the end of the night, six people were dead, 33 injured, and 43 disappeared. 

Mr. Cruz sees similarities with 1968, though he wasn't a part of that movement: targeting students, the implication of security officials, the government carrying on business as usual.

“But for us, time doesn’t matter. We’ve demanded answers for one year. And it could be 10 years or 100 years, but no matter, we won’t stop searching,” he says.

Family members met briefly with Peña Nieto yesterday for the second time since events unfolded in Iguala. They presented eight demands, including calls for a fresh, internationally supervised investigation of the night in question, as well as a review of those who led the government’s initial inquiry.

The president told the families that he would create a special prosecutor for all of the country’s disappeared, which measures more than 25,000 people since 2007, according to government tallies.

Although the parents have proven they won’t stand down, it’s been months since the last widespread street protest here. Turnout on Saturday is expected to be high, but demonstrations by students in the southern state of Guerreo this week have been violent and destructive, which could deter some from coming out.  

“An organized minority can always come out ahead of a disorganized majority,” Meyer warns. Until Mexicans can unite into a “real opposition,” their efforts will be “wasted political energy.” 

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