Daniel Becerril/Reuters

Classmates of missing Mexico students: ‘We are all like brothers here’

One month after 43 students disappeared, schoolmates say government wants to get rid of them and their schools

At the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Mexico’s Guerrero state, the revolutionary spirit among students remains unbowed in spite of events that have robbed them of 46 classmates. “My nickname is Cienfuegos,” said student Salvador Castro Fernández, in reference to a companion of Che Guevara, the Marxist icon and key figure of the Cuban Revolution.

Murals of Guevara and Mexican rebel leaders like Emiliano Zapata adorn the walls of the dilapidated Ayotzinapa teachers college in Tixtla, Guerrero, where the normalistas, or students, go by nicknames of famous leftist leaders. In a nod to notorious revolutionaries, the school — part of a network of teacher training colleges — offers free education to the rural poor and indigenous.

Ayotzinapa students were protesting government education reforms in nearby Iguala on Sept. 26 — reforms, they say, that will raise fees and make it impossible for them to afford school. Police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing three students and three bystanders. In the aftermath, 43 students were disappeared. One month later, they remain missing.

Student activists previously took over highway tollbooths and hijacked buses to protest government policies. And Mexican media have labeled the Ayotzinapa students as radical for their actions. But classmates of the missing students accuse the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto of criminalizing them in an attempt to shut down the normal schools as part of government effort to privatize education.

Students say their 43 classmates were “disappeared” for speaking out against government policies. “The message to us was to stop any social protest in the country,” said Carlos Pérez, a 20-year-old Ayotzinapa student and survivor of the Sept. 26 violence in Iguala. “Unfortunately, the state will always try to criminalize social organizations and bribe the media to discredit [our] protests.”

The Iguala attacks, he said, are part of a wider government effort to rid Mexico of the teacher college system, established by former President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1920s, and replace it with privatized education.

Pérez told Al Jazeera that local police did not attempt a dialogue before shooting the demonstrators. Iguala police “immediately opened fire on us,” he said.

It is not the first time Guerrero police have shot at a student protest. In 2011 two normalistas were killed by police fire while taking part in a roadblock demonstration against decreased government funding of schools. No one has been prosecuted for the crimes. The killings, said Pérez, marked the start of a government effort to discredit the teachers’ school system by linking it to various criminal groups.

In the Iguala violence, a series of confessions by police and members of Guerreros Unidos, a local criminal organization, has corroborated allegations of strong ties between local government and organized crime. Despite recent discoveries of mass graves near Iguala, authorities have not located the students.

The normalistas were raising money in Iguala to send a delegation to Mexico City for an annual student protest commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which an estimated 300 students were killed when authorities opened fire. No one was ever held accountable for the deaths.

The Ayotzinapa students mobilized on Sept. 26 on buses borrowed from locals sympathetic to their cause, Pérez said.

“You have an agreement with the company to not mistreat the bus and leave it in a good condition … which has worked out so far,” he said. Pérez said locals often give the students food, clothes and other supplies in support of their social struggle.

Castro Fernández said they have good relations with the locals “because we also know what it is to be poor, to be a farmer.”

Ayotzinapa students have a history of assisting their communities. They were the first to respond last year after the hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid, when the city of Tixtla was flooded and thousands were left homeless. Government assistance did not arrive for days, students say, because it was focused on Guerrero’s resort town of Acapulco.

Although the Ayotzinapa students are very poor, with some sleeping on cardboard mats in classrooms, they are often ready to help locals, Javier Lara, an art teacher in Tixtla, told Al Jazeera. “They were boys who had the urge to prepare and had the desire to educate … They were the future,” said Lara, referring to the disappeared students.

The normal schools arose in the wake of Mexico’s revolution. They were meant to provide a way out of poverty for rural farmers and indigenous communities. Pérez said the schools “represent a great thing for us because it offers a hope to succeed, even though we are poor.”

Only 15 of the original 46 normal schools remain today. Students blame the attrition on government efforts to privatize education. Recent government education reforms would impose fees for the schools that, according to students, would make it impossible for the poor to afford. 

Castro Fernández said it is important to preserve the normal schools because they are the “birthplace of social consciousness … Here they teach you the humility to talk with the people … to work with the people, the poor, the peasants,” he said.

Thousands were killed or disappeared for opposing government policies during Mexico’s “dirty war” in the 1960s and ’70s, which culminated with the Tlatelolco massacre. That violent wave was followed by the so-called war on drugs, in which a militarized police force, partly funded by the United States, has battled drug cartels. With residents often caught in the middle of the violence and faced with a lack of security, Guerrero has became home to self-defense, or vigilante, groups meant to protect residents from corrupt government officials and criminal organizations.

Amid the increased violence and perceived marginalization by the government, the teacher training colleges have adopted increasingly leftist ideals and become more politically active.

“Many who live in the city don’t even know what it is to wear sandals or work in the field,” said Castro Fernández. “They are accustomed to the easy life. Here there is suffering. Here there is crying, sometimes hunger and sleeplessness. That’s Ayotzinapa.”

They have recently found solidarity across the country. Thousands of university students in the capital and in the rest of the country joined the normalistas’ protests against increasing privatization of the country’s education system. They have continued to protest, even organizing strikes, since the students went missing last month.

When speaking of their killed and missing classmates, the Ayotzinapa normalistas became visibly emotional.

“We’re crying because we feel the pain of others, we have empathy with others,” said Castro Fernández. “Whatever happens to our colleagues, it feels as if it happens to ourselves. We’re all like brothers here.”

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