FOR THE DEAD, THE DISAPPEARED, THE CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND.
Ayotzinapa is a small village, located near the town of Tixtla, in a remote and mountainous region of Guerrero, a state in the south of Mexico. Though best known in the U.S. for its Pacific coast port city of Acapulco, a famed tourist resort since the 1950s and 1960s when stars like John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Lana Turner flocked there, Guerrero is a poor state, and Ayotzinapa lies in one of its poorest regions.
The village is built around a teacher training school. Its construction dates to 1933, when a colonial-era hacienda was transformed into an institution that aimed to educate the isolated, low-income population of rural Mexico. It was one of a network of “normal schools” imbued with a vision of social justice rooted in the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). These schools were tasked with educating their students in both literacy and politics: ultimately in creating students who could transform their society. Ayotzinapa’s alumni include two 1950s graduates—Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez—who became famous leaders of agrarian guerilla insurgencies during the 1960s and 1970s. The school today celebrates this tradition. Its buildings feature murals of Marx and Che and its entryway bears the inscription: “To our fallen comrades, who were not buried, but seeded, to make freedom flourish.”
Much of the radical energy of the 522 students (all male, between eighteen and twenty-four years old, many of Indian descent) goes into preserving the school itself. It has been widely believed that the authorities want to shut it down, along with the other sixteen rural teachers’ schools, despite the fact that roughly a fifth of Guerrero’s 3.4 million citizens do not know how to read or write. Students are given one peso a day (about seven U.S. cents) for their personal expenses, and the funds allotted for meals and housing are skimpy. To survive, the students grow much of their own food, raise chickens, look after dilapidated buildings, and share bare rooms containing more occupants than beds.
Periodically they head into nearby cities and towns to botear—or “pass the can”—to raise money for the school. They also hold demonstrations to push for more funding, and for the creation of more jobs for those who obtain their degree. In 2014, allotments were trending down, and the students were up in arms. “If we don’t demand things, nothing comes,” said one nineteen-year-old student. “We just get leftovers.”
Occasionally they have “borrowed”—forcibly commandeered—commercial buses from national companies. The state doesn’t provide enough vehicles, and it’s a long walk to the schools in remote hill towns where they do their practice teaching, or to the cities where they go to fundraise or demonstrate. More aggressively, they have used the buses to blockade tollbooths along the superhighway that runs from Acapulco north to Mexico City, the nation’s capital; at these temporary barriers they chant protest slogans and demand contributions from infuriated drivers. As these buses (and their drivers) have always been returned, the authorities, to the annoyance of the companies, have basically tolerated the practice.
On Friday afternoon, September 26, 2014, at the end of the second week of classes, roughly a hundred students—almost all freshmen—went on an expedition. Details of the trip’s purpose, its progress, and even its horrific outcome are still unclear, which is amazing considering the national, indeed global attention that has been riveted on it. Nearly every aspect of what happened that day is contested—partly due to the usual Rashomon effect of contradictory witness accounts, partly due to incompetence, corruption, and lies. There is no universally accepted account of what happened to those students during that day—particularly to forty-three of them. The following Introduction draws on the findings of many independent journalists (among them surveys by John Gibler and Esteban Illades), the recollections of student participants, the confessions of alleged perpetrators, and the evidence and analysis presented by official investigative bodies. It is “a” history” —not “the” history—of that 48 hour period, and, as we will see, has been subject to challenge.
On September 20, 2014, at a conclave attended by students from the network of normal schools, it had been agreed that on Thursday, October 2, students from various institutions would assemble at Ayotzinapa and from there travel together up to Mexico City, 240 driving miles to the north. There they would attend a demonstration held each year to commemorate the students massacred during a demonstration in 1968. The convoy would need approximately twenty-five buses, and the Ayotzinapans promised to “borrow” them all. On September 22, a group of students drove down from the hills and headed west on a valley road for about ten miles, to Chilpancingo, the capital city of Guerrero, which sits on the Acapulco–Mexico City highway. There they took possession of two more buses. But on a return visit the following day they were repulsed by federal police. On September 25 they headed to a less well-defended locale, and returned with two more. But this left them far short of their goal, and they decided to dispatch a much bigger contingent the following day.
The task was turned over to roughly a hundred freshmen, who had only been at the school for two weeks, barely enough time to get their hair cropped (an initiation ritual). The short-haired task force would be commanded by eight seasoned second- and third-year veterans of former bus-fishing campaigns. The students headed north in two buses toward the city of Iguala (population 118,000). Before arriving, the leadership, headed by Bernardo “El Cochiloco” Flores, decided to split up. One bus swung right onto a road heading east toward the town of Huitzuco (population twenty thousand) and parked at a roadside restaurant, a likely pit-stop for buses heading toward Iguala. The other continued north, halting short of the city at a highway toll booth, where the Ayotzinapans succeeded in snaring an Iguala-bound passenger bus. Coming to terms with the operator, ten students boarded this third vehicle, and headed on to a bus terminal in the city center, arriving around 8:00 p.m.
There the youths encountered two unpleasant surprises. First, after the passengers had disembarked, the bus driver went off to apprise the bus company, saying he’d be right back, but he didn’t return, and the students discovered he’d locked them in. The inexperienced youths, panicky, called El Cochiloco in his bus outside the city, who immediately headed to their assistance. In the meantime the students had broken the windows and exited. The second surprise was that municipal policemen had arrived and were heading toward them with guns drawn and cocked. At just this moment, the first fifty reinforcements arrived; minutes later another thirty brought them to their full and formidable complement of ninety or so, armed with rocks grabbed on the way. The police decided to retire. But something unusual was clearly afoot. There was a long history of bad blood between the Iguala police and the radical students, but gunplay, though not unheard of, was not customary. What the students didn’t know (though there are conflicting opinions as to who knew what, when) was that the police were on hyper-alert because there was a massive public event underway a few blocks from the station, being run by Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa.
The mayor and his wife were not people to trifle with. Abarca was closely linked to a violent drug trafficking gang, the Guerreros Unidos (“United Warriors”), which had been a military arm of the once powerful Beltrán Leyva Organization. When the latter collapsed in 2009, leaving the Guerreros to their own devices, they took over the production and processing of opium paste (the base for making heroin) and shipped it directly to Chicago, secreted in commercial passenger buses. The Guerreros Unidos supplemented this income stream with collateral criminality, notably kidnapping and extortion, both in Iguala itself—where they were notorious for donning masks at night and grabbing people on the street and giving them an hour to come up with $1000—and throughout Guerrero. They also did battle with other fragments of the progenitor Beltrán Leyva cartel, notably a gang called Los Rojos (The Reds), for control of the drug trafficking business in Guerrero. Their incessant shootouts, which filled mass graves in the countryside, helped drive the state’s murder rate to sixty-three for every one hundred thousand inhabitants, approaching that of Honduras, the homicide capital of the world.
Abarca’s principal connection to the Guerreros came courtesy of his wife. Pineda came from a family of drug dealers—her father and three brothers had worked with the Beltrán Leyva Organization in its heyday, then became Guerrero warriors (two brothers died in battle in 2009). Federal police opened a case against María de los Ángeles herself in 2010 for “delitos contra la salud” (drug trade–related crimes), but dropped it for reasons unknown.
Abarca had started his business career as a sandal salesman in the local market, but had a meteoric rise. Using mysteriously assembled funds, he became a major property owner, acquiring real estate, jewelry stores, and a shopping mall (the land for which was donated by the Ministry of Defense after intense lobbying on Abarca’s behalf by officials of Guerrero state). He snared the mayoralty in 2012, despite warnings that putting him in office meant turning the city over to organized crime. (One of those protestors was found dead a few weeks after Abarca assumed office). The new mayor proceeded to stuff eleven relatives onto the city payroll. He made his cousin Felipe Flores chief of police, and it was generally believed that the department was now a de facto branch of the Guerreros Unidos, who, in addition to extorting the citizenry, used Iguala as a base for their drug trafficking, and provided the mayor with muscle when needed.
In May 2013, Abarca had turned them loose on local activist Arturo Hernández Cardona, who had led a demonstration in Iguala by aggrieved farmers and miners. According to witnesses, Abarca arranged the kidnapping and torture of Hernández Cardona, and then showed up personally to inform the victim, “You fucked with me, so I will have the pleasure of killing you,” just before shotgunning him to death. The Ayotzinapans, who had had close ties with Hernández Cardona, demonstrated in front of town hall. The local Catholic bishop, Raul Vera, called for an investigation into the killings. He even took the case to human rights organizations in the U.S.—but the authorities decided the mayor was constitutionally immune from prosecution, and nothing was done. Impunity had been formalized. “Butchers have come into power,” Bishop Vera said, and indeed it is very hard to discern where the state ends and the criminals begin.
It is even harder in the case of the mayor’s wife. When she and her husband came to municipal power in 2012, it was María de los Ángeles herself who, according to one of the gang’s leaders, became Iguala’s “key operator,” the organizer of the city’s dark side. In her daylight role as first lady, however, Pineda loved to play Lady Bountiful. She had endless photos taken of herself posing with the beneficiaries of her benevolence. And on September 26, 2014, she was due to give her annual report as president of the local chapter of the National System for Integral Family Development, a state-funded organization. According to many observers, she also intended to use the occasion to launch a campaign to succeed her husband as mayor. The ceremony, held in the downtown Civic Plaza, was to be followed by an open-air party. To ensure an imposing audience, they brought in four thousand acarreados, poor people rewarded for attending and applauding. This gathering was in full swing when word arrived that Ayotzinapa students were once again in town, possibly intent on ruining her big day. The imperious first lady—stylistically a cross between Marie Antoinette and Maleficent (the Disney villain)—spewed abuse about the students, with whom she had crossed swords before: “filthy,” “criminals,” “hustlers,” and “profiteers” were among the sputtered adjectives. Then either she or the mayor gave the order to “Stop them, contain them, and teach them a lesson.”
Meanwhile, back at the terminal, the massed one hundred students discarded the bus with broken window and commandeered two new ones. Sure that the police would be back, they decided to get out of town as fast as possible. The caravan of now four buses proceeded north on a main north-south street, through thickening traffic, heading straight for the Civic Plaza.1 It seems like they intended to make a right turn just before it, and head east to an entrance to the periférico, the circumferential highway that would take them back to Ayotzinapa. Only one bus was able to do so before police cars began pouring into the area. The remaining three vehicles had no choice but to plow straight ahead, past the Plaza, where the event was just breaking up, and make for another entrance to the highway. The police gave chase, running behind and alongside them, shooting in the air, until other patrol cars cut in ahead of the procession, just before the on-ramp, forming a barricade and boxing in the three buses.
Then they began shooting to kill. They were joined in this by reinforcements dispatched by the police department of the neighboring town of Cocula, which was even more a creature of the Guerreros Unidos than was the Iguala department. In addition, two unmarked cars showed up, out of which stepped some masked men in black commando outfits, almost certainly Guerrero members, who began firing bursts from semi-automatic weapons. Several students were killed or wounded, and twenty-five to thirty were rounded up (principally from the last bus in line) and driven off in police vans.
Others scattered into the night, seeking shelter. Some were succored by householders—one elderly woman took in a group of students, a “gentleman” rescued another group—others were spurned. One contingent of students carried a wounded comrade to a nearby clinic. A doctor agreed to call an ambulance. Instead he phoned the army. The 27th Infantry Battalion had a garrison at Iguala, in part to deal with thugs like the Guerreros Unidos, but they proved anything but helpful. Around midnight they showed up in full battle gear, lined the students up against a wall, took their data and photos, confiscated their cell phones, and threatened to turn them over to the municipal police, saying, “You had the balls to stir things up, so have the balls to pay the price.” In the end, however, they let them go.
All these in flight from the blocked column of buses were profoundly fortunate compared to another of their colleagues, Julio César Mondragón, known as “El Chilango,” meaning he came from Mexico City, an unusual home town for an Ayotzinapan. Sometime during that dark night he was captured by persons unknown. They tortured him, gouged out his eyes, ripped the skin from his face, then shot and killed him and dumped his body in the street.2
In the meantime, the lone bus that had gone off on its own suffered the same fate as the ambushed trio. Intercepted just before reaching the highway and making their escape, they were surrounded by police, who began shooting at them. Some of the students shouted out they were not criminals, but students, thinking perhaps they’d been misidentified, to which the police responded, “We don’t give a fuck!” Others gathered rocks to throw, but with the arrival of more patrol cars, they broke and ran. Some escaped, two were killed, several were wounded, and around ten of them were captured and bundled into police cars.
At roughly the same time, in a quite different part of the city, another bus, also full of youngsters, was shot up by the police, thinking they were Ayotzinapans. They were in fact soccer players from Chilpancingo, in town to play against Iguala, and having won their match, were on their way home to celebrate. Two aboard the bus were killed (the chauffeur and one of the passengers) and several were wounded. The police, realizing their mistake, called an ambulance.
At that point the police had killed six and injured twenty-three.
Throughout all this mayhem, Guerrero’s Governor Ángel Aguirre was receiving phone calls from state officials reporting on the shootings in Iguala. It’s not known whether the governor talked with the mayor, but he had talked that day with the mayor’s wife (with whom, people say, he was having an affair; Pineda also appears to have channeled funds into Aguirre’s gubernatorial campaign). In the end, the governor decided against intervening in the police assaults; it was not in his jurisdiction, he would say.
The mayor would claim to have been entirely out of the loop that evening. He allowed as how he had heard that students were disturbing the peace downtown, but insisted he had only ordered the police not to respond to their “provocations.” While the bus shootings were happening, Abarca argued, he could not have been involved, as his wife’s post-event party was in full swing: “I was dancing,” he said, and even reeled off the ditties he and his wife had danced to. After which he had gone home and slept soundly. In fact he and Pineda were on the case throughout the night, with ten calls registered from his cell phone and twenty-five from hers, the last of which was placed at 3:00 a.m.
Also burning up the wires that evening was Gildardo “El Cabo Gil” López, the number two man in the Guerreros Unidos, whose particular remit was as liaison with the Iguala and Cocula police departments. El Cabo Gil arranged for the captured students to be sent to his home in Loma del Coyote, a village west of Iguala on the road to Cocula. He in turn contacted his superior, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, the reigning boss of the Guerreros Unidos. The message he texted said that “Los Rojos are attacking us!”—adding yet another layer of complexity to the swirling events of the evening. El Cabo Gil was perhaps especially sensitive to possible incursions by Los Rojos, his father having been killed by the rival gang, but it’s hard to see how he could have come by that notion in this instance, given that the police with whom he was in touch were under no such delusion. In any event, Casarrubias returned a BlackBerry message: “Stop them, at any cost.”
At this point, control of the operation was transferred to the gangsters. The police departments delivered two groups of students, some thirty that had been captured at the caravan, another ten who had been rounded up at the second confrontation site, and then departed. The students were tied up with rope or wire, and packed into two pick-up trucks, a Nissan Estaquita and a 3.5-ton Ford. Most were piled on top of one another in the Ford; the five who didn´t fit were laid out in the Nissan. Then the trucks, flanked by a sixteen-man motorcycle escort, headed toward Cocula, then branched off on a bumpy dirt road that led to a garbage dump, arriving between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. It was drizzling—no more than seven millimeters accumulated during the night—and it was dark, the only lights being those of the trucks and motorcycles.
The sixteen gangsters dragged the students from the trucks onto the ground near the edge of a ravine. Roughly fifteen of them had died en route, apparently from asphyxiation. Roughly thirty were still alive, crying and screaming. These were then, according to one of the confessed perpetrators, “interrogated.” The Guerreros claimed they demanded to know if the students had a Los Rojos connection, which they of course denied, until under beatings and torture one cracked and “confessed,” after which, around 2:00 a.m., they were shot, one after another. (We do not know if all were killed before the final stage; one can only hope so.)
Then the bodies were heaved down to the bottom of the ravine, where they were stacked, like cordwood, in alternating layers. The resulting tower of bodies was doused in diesel fuel and gasoline, and set on fire. The blaze was kept burning through the night and into the following afternoon of Saturday, September 27, perhaps fifteen hours or so, by feeding the flames with whatever inflammable materials happened to be in the dump—paper, plastic, planks, branches, tires—and with a continuous supply of diesel fuel ferried in by motorcycle. Finally the bodies were reduced to ashes and bits of bone, which were then pulverized. “They’ll never find them,” El Cabo Gil texted to Casarrubias.
Before concluding this narrative, we must note it is being challenged by those who propose a counter narrative which is even more horrible than this one. It argues that the students were in fact captured by the army, taken to the battalion’s barracks, and there killed and burned in the military’s professional grade crematorium. Proponents do not advance a scenario that lays out how this came to happen—presumably it would have involved a transfer not to gangsters but to soldiers—and their hypothesis, as they acknowledge, requires accepting that an elaborate cover-up ensued at the highest levels of government.
This is not inherently implausible. The army has long been at loggerheads with leftists; indeed decades ago they were responsible for the killing of Ayotzinapa guerilla graduate Lucio Cabañas, but only after he had humiliatingly held out against several years of massive military campaigns. More recently, they’ve been accused of using excessive and indiscriminate force against civilians, including torture, and specifically of committing a particular massacre and then altering the crime scene to cover up their culpability. There’s also the question of how a narco municipality managed to exist with an army garrison in town.
It’s possible to imagine that they arrested those they considered as dangerous radicals, perhaps just to “teach them a lesson,” and then, when they realized admitting this might be politically problematic, decided to eliminate the students and pin the blame on gangsters. Federal authorities also have a dismal track record when it comes to admitting official wrongdoing, and conceivably could have participated in a cover-up, which included torturing the captured gangsters into taking the fall.
This scenario has been adopted by substantial numbers of Mexicans, and crowds have been demanding the military open the barracks to inspection. We do not find this narrative persuasive, given the large number of people who would have had to participate in such a mammoth conspiracy, and the as yet complete absence of evidence for such an approach. But if it should prove to be true, and the military and the federal state were responsible for this particular mass murder, the ramifications would be immense. And even if it’s not, the conviction that it might be suggests how profoundly alienated much of the population has become from the established order.
All of these horrific details of the gangster-run massacre only emerged six weeks later, after key participants were caught and had confessed. In the interim, from September 27 on, with the students’ fate as yet unknown, a hunt got underway to find the vanished forty-three, spurred by the students’ distraught parents who desperately hoped their children had been “only” kidnapped and hidden away. “They Took Them Alive, We Want Them Back Alive” became the endlessly chanted demand.
On September 28, all 280 members of the Iguala Police Department were brought in for questioning, after which twenty-two were held. Of these, sixteen, found to have used firearms, were arrested and sent to a maximum-security prison, charged with aggravated murder.
On September 29, Mayor Abarca denied having any involvement in the police attack. Nor did he admit to the “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”–style injunction to “teach them a lesson.” The next day, however, the mayor requested and received a thirty-day leave of absence, and immediately skipped town with his wife and his cousin, the police chief.
On October 4, searchers combing the countryside near Iguala discovered three mass graves containing the bodies of twenty-eight people (later revised to thirty-four). But on October 14 it was declared that DNA analysis proved none were the missing students. Who they were was a new mystery, soon compounded when more mass graves turned up, containing an undetermined number of bodies. Other families now came forward to demand investigation to see if their disappeared relatives were among those whose bones had been uncovered. (“Six mass graves,” wrote one appalled columnist, “and they still haven’t found the right mass grave.”)
The next day, October 5, a 250-person federal police contingent—the elite National Gendarmerie—removed all the Iguala police from office and took over their duties. October 6 saw shockwaves and protests rippling out from the vigil at Ayotzinapa that the parents had begun to keep. President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose initial response to the incident had been muted (on September 30 he’d said the state of Guerrero should assume responsibility), addressed the nation, promising to expand the search and bring the perpetrators to justice. Students who had escaped the initial police shooting held a press conference and described the attack on the buses. A guerrilla group from Guerrero—the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which dates to the mid-1990s and has been largely inactive in recent years—YouTubed its solidarity, promised to take action, and called on the public to enact “popular justice.”
On October 8, students from the school led their first large-scale demonstration, and solidarity protests were held the same day in Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels, and Manchester, England. On October 13, masked protesters stormed and burned a state office building in Chilpancingo. On October 16, there were student strikes around the country, and Peña Nieto declared finding the students to be a priority of his government. Within days, the federal state dispatched special police forces to take control of thirteen other gangster-ridden municipalities in Guerrero. Thousands of security forces scoured the countryside, using horses, vans, tanks, helicopters, motorboats, and diving gear. At the state level, in Acapulco, thousands of students, teachers, and machete-wielding farmers called for the resignation of Governor Aguirre over his handling—or non-handling—of the case. That same day on a highway near Mexico City, federal forces captured Casarrubias, the top-ranking member of Guerreros Unidos.
On October 22, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced that, according to the gangster’s confession, the mayor and his wife had indeed ordered the interception of the buses. Later that day in Iguala, as thousands marched peacefully demanding the missing students be returned alive, dozens of masked protestors broke away and firebombed City Hall. In Mexico City over fifty thousand demonstrated, peacefully.
The next day, October 23, Governor Aguirre stepped down, pressured by his party and public opinion. He was not, however, accused of any culpability. On October 27, authorities arrested four other members of the Guerreros Unidos. They directed attention to the garbage dump, which was cordoned off by the army and navy. Forensic teams arrived to investigate the scene.
On October 29, parents of the students had a five-hour meeting with Peña Nieto at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, and then held a press conference at a human rights center in the city. One father, declaring, “We are not sheep to be killed whenever they feel like it,” asserted he had come to demand the children be found “because I am a citizen of Mexico, and I have rights.”
On November 4, the mayoral couple was tracked down by federal police, hiding in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City. Abarca admitted he had been collapsing under the strain. Pineda, haughty as ever, disdainfully ordered the police arresting her to “Take your hands off me” before adding, “How dare you!” Both were imprisoned. None of the couple’s responses to questioning were released.
Finally, on November 7, Attorney General Murillo, having met with the parents first, held a somber press conference at which he presented the findings to date. Drawing on the confessions of several who had participated in the mass murder, he laid out the story whose essential lines we have presented above. He also added a disturbing postscript to the atrocity.
After the fire had burned out, the executioners were told to cool and pack the remains—ashes and bone fragments (the latter first smashed to powder)—into large black plastic garbage bags and to dump the contents in the nearby San Juan River. The first, and seemingly least experienced, flung two bags, intact, off a bridge into the current below. His colleagues explained they were supposed to empty the bags into the river, and this was done with all the remaining ones. But the error allowed Navy divers to salvage some remains. The parents, not trusting Mexican officials, demanded that attempts to glean some DNA information from these tiny bits of bone include, as independent agents, a team of forensic experts from Argentina, who were grimly experienced in tracking the remains of those disappeared by the dictatorship. Material was also sent to the world-class laboratories at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. For the moment, Murillo said, the students were still officially categorized as “missing,” and the case remained open.
In December the Austrians announced that DNA found on one of the bone fragments was that of Alexander Mora Venancio, one of the Forty-Three. The Argentinian forensic team accepted the analysis, but noted that as they had not been present when the remains had been discovered, they could not ratify the government’s assertion that the burning had taken place at the dump.
In January 2015, Attorney General Murillo Karam declared the case closed, arguing that no new information had been unearthed that would require revising the official narrative. Many of the parents insisted that, given the absence of any forensic evidence as to the fate of forty-two of the forty-three missing students, their sons might still be alive. They called for turning the case over to an international criminal tribunal.
The story of the Ayotzinapa students has shaken Mexico profoundly. Immense demonstrations have taken place all across the country. Students at universities and technical schools have been particularly vociferous, appalled at the fate of their fellow students, but artists, actors, writers, lawyers—one trade and profession after another—have also marched in solidarity. Catholic bishops have spoken out (as has Pope Francis). Over the six agonizing weeks from massacre to unmasking, hope faded but anger grew, and with it the size and fury of protests against municipal, state, and federal authorities. Not only have individual politicians been discredited to a remarkable degree, but the leading political parties have also been bitterly denounced. The PRD, the major left opposition party, has been badly tarnished, as both Abarca and Aguirre ran for office on their ticket. Peña Nieto’s ruling PRI party has been attacked for its belated concern with the students’ fate, and more broadly for its inability or unwillingness to crack down on criminality; huge citizen assemblies have called on the president to resign. Most of these protests have been peaceful, but some have flared into violence, as when the doors of the Presidential Palace in Mexico City were set ablaze, or when Acapulco International Airport was seized. This led critics to denounce the disorder, and to dismiss the Ayotzinapans themselves as radical troublemakers not worth all the uproar. But the overwhelmingly predominant responses have been shock, shame, sadness, and outrage.
This reaction is something of a mystery. Not because the massacre does not warrant such responses, but because it is only the latest in a lengthy sequence of horrors. Apart from the identity of the victims—poor rural youth determined to improve themselves and their communities by becoming teachers—there is not a single aspect of the killing spree, and the nexus of corruption and criminality that spawned it, that has not been commonplace in Mexico’s recent history.
Mass murder (in one instance producing three hundred corpses); grisly torture (one victim’s face was skinned and sewn onto a soccer ball); collusion between mayors, governors, and militarized drug traffickers; rampant kidnapping and extortion; police on the payroll of cartels possessed of vast drug profits available for bribery; the wholesale arrest of police departments; a criminal justice system that all but guarantees criminals impunity from prosecution; the inefficiency or disinterest of higher political officials; and even the eruption of protests from civil society—all these have been routine in the last dozen years.
Forty-three bodies? Since 2000, more than one hundred thousand have been killed. Mass graves? Tens of thousands have been disappeared, many likely moldering in such pits. Horrific executions? Roughly two thousand of the hundred thousand suffered death by decapitation.
So, why now the nationwide explosion? In part, it was the militant determination of the parents not to let this latest atrocity get lost in the endless slipstream of murder and mayhem. In part it was precisely because of the long train of abuses that had preceded it—the patently metastasizing cancers of corruption and criminality—of which people had finally had enough. “We are angry because this is not an isolated event,” said one woman demonstrating on behalf of the Forty-Three. “Many of us are parents and we see very ugly things in this country that we want to fight.”
This is a book about that long train of abuses. It seeks to provide readers, especially those in the U.S., with a general context, without which this particular outrage is largely incomprehensible. Much of our story will focus on what is generally known as the Mexican Drug War, a phenomenon conventionally dated from 2006, when the Mexican military was sent into action against powerful drug cartels exercising effective control over vast stretches of Mexican territory. Most Americans know that something horrible has been going on below the Rio Grande during the past decade (2006-2015). They have seen the occasional stories detailing blood-drenched massacres, the capture of drug kingpins, the murder of journalists. They may have read U.S. State Department Travel Warnings alerting them that murder and kidnapping await the unwary (and the wary as well). But it has been difficult to get a grasp on the drug war’s extent or nature.
It is our contention that just as the story of the Forty-Three needs contextualization, so does the drug war itself. We suggest that it, too, is inexplicable if one scrutinizes only the narrow time frame in which it is customarily confined. That decade has a lengthy and complicated backstory that needs to be situated in the preceding century (1914-2015) of which it was the sanguinary dénouement.
In addition, we argue that the very term “Mexican Drug War” is profoundly misleading, as it diverts attention from the American role in its creation. Americans understandably view the blood-drenched bulletins from below the Rio Grande as dispatches from a different world. They are reports from a distant battlefield, limning a Mexican Drug War—presumably a conflict of Mexico’s making, hence Mexico’s responsibility alone. But we believe the term to be a misnomer, as the complex phenomena to which it refers were jointly constructed by Mexico and the United States over the last hundred years.
Americans are probably aware that the vast bulk of illegal drugs consumed in the United States—cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine—arrive from Mexico. Some are also aware that the vast bulk of weaponry used by drug cartels in their battles with each other and with the Mexican state flows south from the U.S.A. But what is perhaps less appreciated is how much the present situation dates to America’s long-ago coupling of a voracious demand for drugs with a prohibition on their use or purchase. Just as the prohibition of alcohol in 1919 summoned American organized crime into being, along with hyper-corruption of politicians and law enforcement, so its even earlier proscription of narcotics in 1914 (which, unlike the ban on alcohol, was never repealed) spawned a drug-trafficking industry in Mexico, the enormous profits from which were used to corrupt Mexican politicians and law enforcement.
Mexico was not a helpless, hapless victim. Powerful forces within the country profited hugely and happily from supplying gringos with what their government forbade them. But when the U.S. began bullying its neighbor into trying (and failing) to interdict the torrent of drugs moving across their joint border (something it had been unable to accomplish itself), it led, eventually, to the “Mexican Drug War,” which would cost tens of thousands of Mexican lives and spur an explosion of corruption and criminality.
These assessments underlie the organization of this book. We will first undertake an overflight of a century of U.S./Mexico relations, setting the commerce in drugs, and the attempts at its repression, in the context of the larger political, economic, and ideological transformations experienced by both countries. Then we will track in greater detail the last decade’s drug war proper, when a tsunami of violence swamped Mexico. Finally we will return to the story of the Forty-Three, which by then, we hope, will have become more comprehensible, and conclude with some thoughts on how both the U.S. and Mexico might turn some new pages in their respective and joint histories. In particular, we will suggest that the fury aroused by the Forty-Three affair, and the subsequent determination of Mexicans to pursue fundamental changes, might best be directed not only into indispensible remakes of its political, economic, and criminal justice systems, but also into ending the century-old criminalization regime itself, which we believe has in large part been responsible for the current situation.
—Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace
1 It seems odd that the buses didn’t make a left on Eutimio Pinzón, and left again on Avenida General Álvaro Obregón, and then head south nine blocks to the highway, rather than driving north, into the congested and likely dangerous center. But perhaps there was some obstruction at the critical juncture. Such things are always clearer in hindsight, and at a calm distance from the tempestuous reality.
2 One of the many remaining mysteries is why, if the murders committed that night were done by gangsters intent on hiding their deeds, they would signal their involvement by dumping a mutilated corpse in a public place, a signature method of cartel assassins. As we will show, the narco modus operandi for dealing with dead victims was either to make a great public show of the murder—hanging bodies from highway overpasses, dumping them at town hall doorsteps, videotaping the killing itself—or to hide the bodies, usually in mass graves, or dissolving them in acid, or burning them down to ash and bone. It is odd that in this case they did both at the same time.