Henry Romero / Reuters

Honoring the dead but keeping search for missing Mexican students alive

More than a month after ruthless attack, families of 43 disappeared convinced their loved ones will return

AYOTZINAPA, Mexico — At the Ayotzinapa Normal School, a few volunteers mounted an altar for the Day of the Dead, one of the most important holidays in Mexico. They put up pictures of seven students who have been killed since 2011 — three of them slain by police on the night of Sept. 26 in a gang-style attack in the nearby city of Iguala. But they didn’t hang the pictures of 43 students from the school who disappeared after that attack after local police allegedly handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), one of the most violent gangs in this lawless state ruled by drug cartels. On the altar were offerings of food, candles and orange marigolds, the traditional flowers the students plant in the fields surrounding the campus for agriculture and school fundraising.

An altar outside the Ayotzinapa Normal School, where the missing students were studying to become teachers in rural villages.
Diana Ferrero

“We miss them a lot,” said Ernesto Guerrero, 23, one of the classmates who survived the attack and escaped being kidnapped because he was on one of the two buses that were not taken by the police. With so many friends still missing, he said, he cannot sleep in his dorm anymore. “Now I sleep where the night takes me,” he said. “It’s too empty and quiet here. But I have faith that God is keeping them alive, and I’ll live with this certainty until someone can show me otherwise.” 

He’s not alone in his conviction. More than a month after the students went missing, the chance of finding them alive grows slimmer each passing day. Still, here at the school where they were studying to become teachers in rural villages, many refuse to believe they might be dead. There is now an atmosphere of stubborn resistance. Parents are camped out there, but many days the school looks deserted as they attend protests around the country, marching and shouting for immediate results, chanting, “Alive they took them. Alive we want them back!” 

Miguel Ángel Jiménez has made that slogan his mission. A shovel in his sunburned hands, he cleared away bushes as he trekked in the sweltering heat through the lush, rugged mountains of Guerrero state. He said he was on a “secret mission,” as he has been almost every day since he arrived in Iguala from his nearby village, to lead a group of community police on their search for missing students.

On this day, Jiménez and his group explored along a river near Acatlán, a couple of hours and a boat ride from Iguala. They had gotten a particularly promising tip — a police witness allegedly saw the students alive there in the days after the attack. So they went looking for a cave — la Cueva del Diablo (the Devil’s Cave) — near a small waterfall.

Crisóforo García is a commander of the community police and is coordinating searches to locate the students.
Diana Ferrero

“This is a good one,” Commander Crisóforo García said of the tip, speaking in the confident but mysterious way people who are used to secrecy do.

García is one of the top commanders of the UPOEG community police, but this day he coordinated Jiménez’s search from their base in Iguala’s main plaza, where they’ve been camping since Oct. 7. Their clothes are thin and dirty now, food supplies are basic, and they’re running out of gasoline and money. At home, their wives are preoccupied and lament their husbands’ long absence. The men know they’re taking risks in a land controlled by drug cartels, but they refuse to give up. García said he won’t stop searching until they find the missing students.

“We’ll find them alive,” he said.

Meanwhile, he and his partners keep stumbling on mass graves.

‘The government might have intelligence technology, GPS and helicopters, but who knows how they’re using it? But we have our own intelligence too. It’s called community intelligence. People here trust us and give us tips in a way they wouldn’t do with [federal] authorities.’

Crisóforo García

community police commander

According to the Mexican government, 11 clandestine graves containing the remains of 38 bodies have been found in the area. But García said his group has found 26 mass graves — a number that Al Jazeera could not independently confirm. He said it’s impossible to say how many bodies the graves contain, since often all they see is a few bones or burned remains. A woman sitting next to him, who asked not to be named because she has received threats, said this case has “blown the lid off the cesspit and shown the whole state of Guerrero is a mass cemetery.”

At mass graves, García has found personal items that are used to identify bodies. A half-burned credit card belonged to a taxi driver whose family said had been missing for a year.
Diana Ferrero

When they’re lucky, García and members of his team find small personal items that escaped theft or fire. Sitting at his improvised desk under a tent in their camp, he pulled out a little plastic bag containing an ID and a few bracelets. These are his most precious finds, he said, because they could help identify a body. Only last week they found a half-burned credit card in a grave. They tracked down the family of the man whose name was on the card, and his wife confirmed he was a taxi driver and had been missing for a year. But sources in the community said the family was denied DNA testing because there wasn’t a budget for that. They said they were told the government could offer DNA testing only for the 43 missing students. The federal attorney general’s office said it was looking into the matter.

Authorities are now left with a task they may never complete: identifying dozens of bodies unearthed in the investigation. If they are not the missing students, who are they? Will they ever be identified? It’s a question that many in Mexico are asking, although few trust there will ever be an answer.

When García and his men get tips about graves, they immediately take off with their shovels. If they find something, they leave the open pit for experts to conduct forensic tests.

“We’re just civilians. We can search, but we don’t have the skills to analyze the remains,” he said. “That’s the government’s job, but we never hear anything back from them.”

García says locals see the community police as their only hope.

“The government might have intelligence technology, GPS and helicopters, but who knows how they’re using it? But we have our own intelligence too. It’s called community intelligence,” he said proudly. “People here trust us and give us tips in a way they wouldn’t do with [federal] authorities.”

As night began to fall, though, the search group following the promising Devil’s Cave tip had to give up their search out of fear for their safety.

During the less than two years President Enrique Peña Nieto has been in office, more than 9,000 people have disappeared, and 36,000 more have been killed — statistics showing that Mexico’s violence hasn’t abated since his predecessor Felipe Calderón launched the drug war in 2006.

Ernesto Guerrero, 23, escaped being kidnapped during the Sept. 26 attack. “I have faith that God is keeping them alive,” he said of his missing classmates, “and I’ll live with this certainty until someone can show me otherwise.”
Diana Ferrero

With hundreds of federal police now patrolling Iguala, people don’t seem to feel much safer. “We live in fear and don’t even go out at night,” said a young woman who identified herself as Amalia. She whispered, looking around with suspicion every time someone approached. She said the city has had checkpoints for years, but those were often used to extort or kidnap people. Once, she said, she was out with friends when a local police patrol stopped them and forced them into their vans. “We weren’t doing anything wrong. We didn’t even have a drink that night,” she said. When they got to the police station, each woman was asked to pay $50 to be released.

“The police who are supposed to protect us are really here to rob us. They’re just criminals dressed in police uniform,” she said, adding that she knows at least seven people who have been disappeared. None of them have been found.

At the teaching school, the only people around on a recent day of protest were some students and mothers who stayed behind to look after their babies.

Maria Olivares, 40, has been sleeping on a mattress in the school dorm since her 20-year-old son, Antonio, disappeared with the others. “I’ll stay here until my son comes back. I know he’s alive,” she said while breastfeeding her baby, the last of her four boys.

Olivares attended the meeting that the victims’ families had on Oct. 29 with Peña Nieto, but like the other parents, she has no faith in his promises to find the students and those responsible for taking them. Still, she refuses to believe her son could be dead.

“Why are they searching for them in mass graves? They should look for them alive, up in the mountains, in tunnels, caves and abandoned shacks where the criminal gangs could be hiding them. Instead, they just wander around town,” she said, speaking of the federal authorities. “Of course they’ll never find them this way.”

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