World

10.08.14 9:55 AM ET

Anatomy of a Mexican Student Massacre

For almost a century a teacher’s college in rural Mexico has been training educators and activists. Last month, dozens were abducted and slaughtered—by the police.

MEXICO CITY — Twelve days ago, police and unidentified gunmen believed to be members of a drug cartel ambushed a caravan of college student activists in the state of Guerrero, about half way from Mexico City to Acapulco.

Near the central plaza in the town of Iguala, a total of six persons were shot to death. Three were student activists from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa. Three additional shooting victims were a semiprofessional soccer player riding in one of the three buses, a taxi driver, and his female passenger. But most likely they were unintended victims caught in the line of fire. There’s no question the students were the target.

One who survived the first fusillade, a 19-year-old named Julio César Mondragón, panicked and, over the objections of classmates who said they should stay together, ran away on his own. He was later found dead and horribly disfigured; a photo of his corpse has gone viral in Mexico: it shows the face stripped away to the bare skull underneath.

Survivors of the incident report that the police and thugs attacked the students three times. They sprayed one of the buses with machine gun fire. One eyewitness reported seeing the police force students out of another bus at gunpoint. In addition to the three students killed, 17 student activists were wounded. But they may have been the lucky ones. As many as 44 others were abducted. Some reports say they were taken away in police vehicles. None of them have been seen since September 26.

The precise motives for the killings are difficult to determine, but the students come from a school that has been training rural teachers—and activists—for the better part of a century. Their commitment to helping small farmers and farm workers in the rugged, semi-feudal countryside often has put them at odds with the local powers that be. And when you add to that the cozy relationship that exists today between some of those powers and narcotics traffickers, the situation is explosive.

A foretaste of last month’s massacre took place on May 30, 2013, after an activist group called Popular Unity of Iguala demanded that the city’s mayor, José Luis Albarca Velázquez, provide fertilizer to poor farmers in the area. Six of the group’s members were kidnapped, including its leader, Arturo Hernández Cardona, who was killed along with two others. One of the kidnapping victims, an activist named Nicolás Mendoza Vila, managed to escape and later made a statement to the authorities that he watched the mayor himself pull the trigger of the gun that killed Hernández Cardona.

The murdered activist’s widow, Sofia Mendoza, requested that the federal prosecutor’s office revoke Mayor Albarca Velázquez’s mandate in light of the murders. But Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam determined that his office had no jurisdiction over what he deemed “a local matter.” After this latest slaughter last month, the widow said, “The events that occurred on September 26 could have been avoided if anyone had listened to us.”

The initial shock of the police rampage that day had barely set in when the attorney general for the state of Guerrero, Iñaky Blanco Cabrera, announced that over the weekend investigators had exhumed the contents of six mass graves discovered on a densely wooded parcel of land outside of Iguala. The assumption was that the abducted students might be among the cadavers. The initial body count was estimated at 28, but subsequent reports raised the estimate to 34.

Now the Mexican Federal Government has taken note. A cordon of about 200 Mexican Army soldiers, Marines and Federal Police stood guard as the bodies were exhumed from a hilly stretch of nearly inaccessible woodland known as Pueblo Viejo. The bodies had been piled onto dry branches and logs, doused in gasoline, and set afire. DNA testing is underway to identity the cadavers, which at the time of discovery were burned beyond recognition. But four members of a drug cartel known as Guerreros Unidos that operates in Iguala, who are currently in police custody, told investigators that they knew of 17 student activists transported to the killing ground of Pueblo Viejo.

Twenty-two police officers from Iguala are now in Federal custody for homicide and kidnapping in the case, along with the four alleged drug traffickers believed to have colluded with them. Video surveillance cameras posted on a highway overpass filmed the moment when police pickup trucks drove past at top speed, each carrying a load of detainees.

Abominable acts of violence have become common enough in Mexico that the public has built up a tolerance for such news. But the details of this massacre have been especially difficult to absorb. The victims are young, all between the ages of 19 and 23, and their murders and kidnappings have every appearance of being politically motivated.

Indeed, there are echoes of some very bad days, of uprisings and repressions on a ferocious scale, in what suddenly does not feel like such a distant past. The timing of the violence against the students has particular resonance and has stirred public sentiment. It happened just six days before the annual march in Mexico City to commemorate the horrific student massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza on October 2, 1968, when the government moved to crush political opposition by gunning down scores, and perhaps hundreds, of protestors shortly before the opening of that year's summer Olympics.

This year the students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college had come to Iguala from their school in the town of Tixtla, about two hours away, to solicit donations to pay for school supplies and to cover transportation costs to the Tlatelolco march in Mexico City.

Will justice be done this time, as it clearly was not a year ago? It seems unlikely.

In the aftermath of the latest killings and kidnappings, the mayor of Iguala, Albarca Velázquez—the alleged trigger man in the last round of killings—requested a 30-day leave of absence. The city council granted it. The mayor has since gone into hiding along with his chief of police, Felipe Flores Velázquez, who is the mayor’s first cousin. On Monday the state prosecutor’s office initiated proceedings to strip the mayor of his office and issue a warrant for his and his cousin the police chief’s arrest. They are now considered fugitives from justice.

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After the violence in Iguala, it’s not surprising that the governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Ribero, accused Mayor Albarca Velázquez and his administration of close ties to organized crime. He even offered a reward of 1 million pesos ($74,000) for information leading to the safe return of the student activists. But the governor’s critics say he was instrumental in protecting the mayor from prosecution last year because they are both from the same political party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

In light of the oppression visible now, and for many generations past, it is almost a miracle the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa has been able to survive. It was founded in 1926 in the aftermath of the last full-fledged Mexican Revolution to address the challenge of primary school education for children living in impoverished farming communities.

The curriculum at Ayotzinapa includes instruction in native indigenous languages, as well as laborious field observations and student teaching assignments in far flung villages.

The slogan of Ayotzinapa is “the cradle of social consciousness,” and its student body of 520 is renowned for  political activism, which critics refer to as strident. The school provides room and board to students from some of the poorest families in Mexico. As part of the curriculum and as a means to reduce expenses, the students work the fields behind the school and raise livestock, hogs and chickens.

Ayotzinapa, like other rural teachers colleges in Mexico, has long resisted attempts to phase it out or to throw out its model for public education. So it continues to make local authorities and their ruthless cronies uneasy. Two of its students were murdered in a paramilitary attack on the school in 2011.

And maybe there is reason for the old order to worry. Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vásquez studied at Ayotzinapa, both became teachers in the countryside, and both became famous martyrs during a guerrilla insurgency in the mountains of Guerrero. That was back during Mexico’s Dirty War of the 1960s and 70s—the time of Tlatelolco.

The current generation of Ayotzinapa students and teachers has opposed the federal government’s education reform and stood with teachers to oppose changes to hiring protocols. Last year they joined with the widows of the men from Popular Unity in calling for an investigation into the triple homicide. Together they briefly occupied Iguala’s city hall to demand a full investigation.

The students of Ayotzinapa have set up a protest across the federal highway that links Iguala to Acapulco to demand the police in Iguala return their classmates alive.

But as the forensic scientists continue sifting through the remains of the mass graves, that possibility seems remote.