We have heard this story many times. Or at least, one side of it. It began between September 26th and 27th, 2014, in Iguala, Mexico: the story of Ayotzinapa and its 43 missing students. That night, members of the police attacked the buses in which students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa were traveling. They killed six students and bystanders, and handed 43 students to members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who then disappeared all of them.
Little has changed six months after the attacks. The official investigation is now closed, ruling the disappeared dead. But neither the students, nor their corpses, have been found. The government has ceased the efforts to find them with the lapidary sentence of the Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam: “Ya me cansé” [“I am tired”].
But there is a side of the story that is non-official, that you might not have heard about yet. And to tell this story, Caravana 43 was organized. This is a project attempting to “provide an international forum for the parents who have lost their children in a government of systemic violence and impunity.”
In other words, a series of events were organized in the U.S., such as rallies, demonstrations, community forums, protests, and press conferences, to bring the voices of the family members of the students to communities who have heard little, or even nothing, about the events of that night.
The Caravana has visited so far over 34 cities in the United States, traveling with parents and family members of the disappeared, students who survived the attack, advocates, and allies, and will cover in total 40 different cities of the North American country. Divided in three columns (Pacific, Central, and Atlantic regions), the Caravana is looking for aid from local governments, university students and faculty members, and social organizations.
This act of telling their story again has, for the Caravana, a special meaning. It is a meaning that is political because it is an act of resisting against the official version of what happened to the 43 Ayotzinapa students.
The official version of the events, presented by the Attorney General on January 27th of this year, put forward (with “legal certainty”) the thesis according to which the attack had taken place as an ambush ordered by the mayor of Iguala (José Luis Abarca) who feared that the students were traveling from Ayotzinapa to Iguala to disrupt a political event that the mayor’s wife (María de los Ángeles Pineda) was going to hold there.
After the police attack, the 43 students were reportedly killed and burned by the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos in a dump in Cocula, a near town. They allegedly killed them, according to the Attorney General, because rival gangs and cartels had infiltrated the school. Guerreros Unidos wanted revenge.
This last official suggestion, according to which the students were narcos themselves, and thus somehow “had it coming,” sparked the rage of the parents and students of Ayotzinapa, and it still brings tears to the members of the Caravana when they talk about it. In Chicago, María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello, mother of José Eduardo Bartolo Tlatempa, even refused to repeat these “official” words out of respect to the students.
Besides highlighting this cruelty and indifference with which the government has treated the families, the family members of the normalistas have also been saying that there is no conclusive evidence to defend the official hypothesis. They accuse the Government of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto to be concealing information and covering-up the real motives of the disappearance, and the whereabouts of the missing students.
The Government has eclipsed the participation of the 27th Army Battalion, which knew about the attack and did nothing to stop it in the four hours it lasted. The Government has also lied about the findings and the results of their own investigation: they tried to pass 28 remains of corpses as the remains of some of the normalistas, and only accepted their deceit when the parents demanded the intervention of an independent team of forensics from Argentina.
This same forensic team confirmed later that only one of the bone fragments recovered belonged to one of the students. They also shared its doubts about the original place from which this fragment was recovered, since members of the team were not allowed to be present in the process of recovery.
The Caravana has also explained that the research of experts—who have considered the weather, terrain, and evidence conditions of the place where the mass-burning of the bodies supposedly took place—concludes that this thesis is not believable. Testimonies of witnesses state that there is no evidence of a fire of the characteristics needed to burn so many bodies, and that the conditions of plant life surrounding the place have not changed as the Government says they have.
More importantly, perhaps, the parents insist that this modus operandi (the burning of bodies in an open fire) is unprecedented and does not correspond to the way in which drug cartels of the region operate.
Members of the Caravana and protestors joining them have suggested it is necessary to question the role of the U.S. government in this context. They have been questioning the U.S. military aid to the government of Mexico (known as the Mérida Initiative) in the fight against drugs, and the fact that these financial and logistic resources are being used by state forces for actions such as the disappearance of the 43 students.
The U.S. government has recently refused to condemn Mexico and has backed its military aid without acknowledging the damage that this initiative has caused the Mexican people.
Refusing to accept the death of the 43 is not a whim, as Ómar García, a student and survivor of the attacks in Iguala, remarked in Chicago (see in Spanish this interview, or his words in the welcome to the Caravana).
He feels it is a duty to resist the official version because it is full of lies, manipulations, and cover-ups. It is a side of the story that never included the parents and survivors. It is a story based on an investigation held in secrecy, by a government that cannot judge its own deeds, and that refuses to take responsibility for its actions. The Mexican government has been for too long not only connected to the drug traffic in Mexico, but has also persecuted and stigmatized political dissidents like the normalistas in Ayotzinapa.
This is why these acts by the Caravana are acts to narrate, to recount 40 times, in 40 different cities, in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English, the events in Iguala and everything that happened in the following six months. The Caravana constitutes an act of resistance to the lies and contradictions behind the government investigation, and it is specially focused on finding the 43 disappeared.
In this political gesture of refusal it is possible to see much more than the “mere” demand of memory, that is, just the necessity of knowing what happened to the 43 of Ayotzinapa: the family members do not “just” want to know what happen to them, or what is the truth behind their disappearance; they want to find them, alive, wherever they are, in whatever way possible.
The Caravana constitutes an admirable act of political resistance. By claiming that this investigation is illegitimate, and that its results cannot be true, the parents are maintaining that it must then be false, and therefore the students are alive, somewhere, until someone actually finds them death. The official version would explain the mere disappearance of the 43 students (little in number if compared to the 20,000 disappeared in the last decade by the drug cartels). But this version is incapable of explaining the actual circumstances and details of the attack on the 26th of September, the involvement of the police and militaries, the cover-ups, the silence, or the involvement of the U.S.
Thus, the family members of the 43 are traveling through the United States to also demand an answer about these circumstances, an involvement of the official forces in the events pointing to the U.S. Government through the Mérida Initiative.
It is precisely this questioning what bring this particular struggle at the forefront of a battle and an inquiry that is not only Mexican, but Latin American. The question about the Plan Mérida is also the question about the Plan Colombia, or the Plan Central America.
It is our duty to resist with the Caravana, that is, to bring the 43, alive, to Ayotzinapa, because, as the parents of the students say, “They were taken alive, and alive we want them back!”
The three branches of the Caravana 43 will travel in the following days to Seattle, Las Vegas, Columbus, Washington, Hartford, Boston, and will all meet in New York for four days of collective activities from April 22th. Get involved with your local organization, and give a warm welcome to parents, family members and students in your cities.