Ayotzinapa: "The families ask for a search for their children"

Protest Iguala

There is still no trace of the students of Escuela Normal Rural (Rural Teacher Training School) of Ayotzinapa who disappeared towards the end of September. Despite the protests all over the country, international pressure and the Mexican government's promise to thoroughly and transparently clarify the case, the result a month later is very negative.

Human rights organisations and the United Nations, among others, have criticised the slow reaction of the Mexican government. On October 6 Enrique Peña Nieto regretted that the case was "painful and unacceptable", ten days after the disappearance of the students, and stated that his government had cooperated with the Guerrero authorities. Each week more hidden graves are uncovered in the Iguala region, without the burnt corpses, some of which are mutilated, having been identified till date.

Arrest warrants have been issued against the Mayor of Iguala, already relieved of his post, and his but they remain fugitives along with the head of security. More than 50 members of the municipal police and the “Guerreros Unidos” (the local drug gang) were detained as suspects for having participated in the attack, including the head of this criminal organisation. However, they have not revealed where they took the students nor what they did with them. Associates of the Tlachinollan Centre, the counterpart organisation of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have been in Ayotzinapa since the day this happened to support the reunited families at the school, to search for the youths and to demand that the State clarify the facts.

The human rights organisation located in Tlapa, Guerrero, has worked for some years with the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training School, ever since December 2011 when the police assassinated students of that school during a protest.

We spoke with María Luisa Aguilar from the Tlachinollan Centre about the situation, the role of the Mexican government and the responsibility of the European Union in the Ayotzinapa case. 

Who are the disappeared and their families? Can you briefly explain to us what are the Escuelas Normales Rurales?

The Normales Schools were created at the time of Lázaro Cárdenas in the ’30s with a socialist vision of education. The idea was that the youth from the communities itself would have access to education to later go back and teach others in their communities. So it was very much centred on the theme of how to take education to far-flung rural areas. Ayotzinapa is a school where youths have a high level of politicisation, beyond what is in the curriculum: because of this the teachers can go back to their communities to teach reading and writing, hold classes on politics with the idea of social justice andchange in the rural world. The students are young and come from situations of poverty, exclusion and from remote communities. The families are of limited means, from rural communities and also of some indigenous communities, and the schools have bilingual education degrees.

Tlachinollan is an organisation that defends human rights in Guerrero. You arrived on the first day to assist the families of the disappeared students. Faced with a tragedy like this, how can you help as an NGO?

We have been assisting them since the beginning in the defence of their human rights and we’re helping with all of the legal expenses that have arisen. We act rather like partners in all of the political process: in the initial dialogue with the State government, then with the Federal government. As advisors, we think it is important that what is happening here be highlighted. Clearly because of the magnitude of this tragedy, the visibility it now has hasn’t been achieved just by us being here. We don’t have large resources, but at the level of assistance for the political meetings and all of that, we’re there. 

What specific support has the State provided to the families of the disappeared?

In regards to attending to the victims, the State has tried to get very close to the families but in an uncoordinated way. People came from the Executive Commission of Attention for Victims, from the State government of Guerrero, from the PGR (Attorney General of the Republic) and others, saying “We want to give psychological help”, when in reality the parents’ principal concern was the search. The families didn’t ask for psychological help, but for a search for their children.

The State government was in charge of the search and the investigation for the first weeks. In the beginning, the Federal government had basically refused to become involved with the search and investigation. It wasn’t until there was massive international pressure that they finally entered the frame, losing many of the opportunities they had to take action with the capacity they have. The State government didn’t have half the capacity to mobilise resources, the police, the intelligence agencies. The Federal government only acted after the discovery of the first graves.

What measures has the State taken to search for and find the students?

In the beginning, the methods were very basic: the immediate detention of various local policemen. And an investigation into the search itself was also initiated. But in the day-to-day reality, the searches were almost ridiculous. For example, they took the families and everyone walked to Iguala, when in reality with this magnitude it needs intelligence work. We are talking about organised crime [that also operates] at the international level — clearly the kids weren’t going to be hidden in the municipal palace!

When they began to see the tensions growing because the parents said that nothing was being done, they Governor brought in 2,000 bureaucrats — that is to say, the man at the desk — to conduct the searches so that the State government could say it was conducting searches, but in reality there isn’t intelligence or planning, and neither the mobilisation of resources.

Once the Federal government became involved, there was a much wider deployment of the Federal police. In fact the Federal government took charge of the security in Iguala and in 12 other municipalities. From there on they have carried out the investigation, and are preparing a search plan. The parents’ request is that they sit with us and tell us about this plan; what is the line of investigation; because it seems that there is only a focus on the confessions they are getting, but not on utilising the capacity of intelligence agencies that the Federal government would have in situations like this, because at the end of the day the northern zone of Guerrero is widely known for a strong presence of organised crime.

The Secretary of External Relations released a communication about the case. It speaks of a broad cooperation among various State organs and also with independent experts of various countries. It also mentions the official integration and comprehensive consultations with the affected families and the civil organisations involved in the investigations. What is your perception about the activities of the State and of the inclusion of those affected and of the Argentinean forensic team in the investigations?

The Argentinean forensic experts are here specifically to rule out that some of the bodies found in graves are of the youths. They arrived here directly at the request of the families, due to their mistrust of the state and so as not to leave everything in its hands. Now the experts are working here with some obstacles and some delays because of the lack of the state’s ability do the forensic work well.

The parents demanded a meeting with the PGR and with the Secretary of the Government (SEGOB) two weeks ago, in which the complaints of the parents were clearly established, who were focused principally on the search, on doing more communal work, and a series of meetings on monitoring and information for the parents. But at the end of the day it hasn’t achieved anything; there isn’t anyone to tell us that they are close to knowing where they are or what happened to them. This is the main complaint of the parents: at the very least there could have been open channels of dialogue; at the end of the day there isn’t anything.

And on the other hand, what we’ve tried to do within two or three days of the events was to request precautionary measures from the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. These were granted very quickly because the Commission saw it as a case of extreme urgency. From this point on we have intended to establish a dialogue with the state, so that this does not remain as a simple political agreement [based on] nothing more than the good faith of the representatives of the upper echelons of the Mexican state, like the PGR or SEGOB, but that it also becomes embodied in the international responsibility of the state that they be found alive. Because at the end of the day you’re not speaking “only” of another disappearance in the context of the violence of organised crime, but of the clear participation of the Mexican state, because the kids saw the municipal police take away their friends.

On October 11, the Governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, announced the establishment of a Committee of Comprehensive Assistance for the Victims and of the Comprehensive Plan of Reparations. What do these concretely signify and how do you see it?

In principle this is good, because we think that, of course, it is the responsibility of the State to repair the damage. But the issue regarding today’s needs, the first part, is the search. It seems to us that the State government is intending to direct attention to it fulfilling its responsibilities by reparation more than proceeding with the search for the students and moreover clarifying responsibilities for this crime. This part is very important for us with the experience of 2011-2012, where several situations occurred in which people suffered grave violations of their human rights and hadn’t received any reparation, only compensation — the part of the justice stayed completely isolated. Until today absolutely no one has been identified as being responsible for the executions, torture; there were various cases of maltreatment, arbitrary detention that weren’t sanctioned and much less investigated.

The PGR announced that the 28 bodies found in the first graves probably did not belong to the trainee teachers. Nevertheless, these were obviously of someone. Do you know who the 28 dead could be and in what way this crime is being investigated?

We want that other graves that have been found, in which the State has ruled out the bodies being of the students, be investigated. We want that the families that are searching for these people know what’s there, because at the end of the day someone is looking for them and the number of missing people in the country is alarming.

We want that other graves that have been found, in which the State has ruled out the bodies being of the students, be investigated. We want that the families that are searching for these people know what’s there, because at the end of the day someone is looking for them and the number of missing people in the country is alarming.

As you say, unfortunately this case isn’t an exception: there are 26,000 missing people in Mexico. But this doesn’t always result in protests so strong or public indignation on such a scale as in this case. Is there a difference this time?

I think that apart from the dimension of the case — 43 youths disappeared overnight — it’s the matter of clear participation of sections of the State, clearly identified, very visible, with a close relationship with organised crime, which also evokes all the frustration that exists throughout the society in the country in which we live: how did we arrive at this point where the police so serves organised criminals that it receives its orders from them? And that one doesn’t know where the line is between the municipal authorities and criminals; a country in which tens of students can disappear and one doesn’t know anything after so many weeks. 

What role will the international community play?

What’s important is that the international community realises that Mexico that has been praised in recent months as a country of reforms and changes is also a poor, excluded Mexico, where there are daily disappearances and graves everywhere.

I believe that there has been a lot of visibility and the pressure exerted at the international level (which has permitted) that various stakeholders take notice. It’s touched on questions like what’s the role of various States facing a situation like this, in which the economy is the priority. For example, now we have the Deputy Minister of External Affairs going to the inauguration of an Audi centre that’s going to come up in Puebla. Sure, this is one face of Mexico, but the other face is that of impunity, where there is collusion between all of the state authorities, where there is organised crime, where forced disappearance keeps being a practice, and many other things.

It’s important to question their role: Germany is holding a security convention with Mexico; the European Union is revising the Global Accord that in theory is no longer about cooperation because we are a country that is “developed, not of the Third World”. In reality, it’s a question of the international community knowing so well the reality of Mexico participating so much in maintaining it like it is. It can impose conditions! We are in a serious humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of dead people and tens of thousands of missing people. They can certainly say: “I won’t enter into a contract with a country that obviously can’t strengthen the rule of law!”

Translated by Richard Ferguson.