On Ayotzinapa anniversary, all eyes on Mexico

A year after 43 students disappeared following clashes with police, the government is under pressure to investigate

Hilda Legideño, mother of disappeared student Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, holds a portrait of her son at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Salvatore di Nolfi / EPA / Corbis

NEW YORK — Hilda Legideño did not seem to notice the two tacos someone set in front of her on a folding table in St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan one afternoon in late September. Instead, the bereaved mother was staring into space.

Small children were playing at a table beside her, and a painted portrait of her missing son hung on the wall behind her. The next day, Sept. 26, would be the first anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances in Mexico, and she felt numb. Her 20-year-old son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, was one of the 43 student activists who disappeared that day. The students had been traveling on commercial buses back to their rural teachers’ college when police in the city of Iguala blocked the road and staged at least three attacks on the buses in approximately six hours. Firing live ammunition, they killed three unarmed students and three bystanders and wounded several dozen others. Witnesses described seeing Mexican police load the 43 students onto police vehicles and drive away in haste.

In January, after four months of turmoil and social unrest, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, officially declared the 43 students dead. The Mexican government called off the search, and President Enrique Peña Nieto urged people to accept the deaths and move on. Parents and classmates of the missing students have repeatedly asked the Mexican government to reopen the investigation since then, and they have been met with what they describe as indifference and incompetence. Now, thanks to their international efforts to call attention to the issue, pressure is increasingly coming from outside Mexico.

Legideño and four other mothers of disappeared students traveled nearly 3,000 miles from their homes in the southern state of Guerrero to be in New York that day. As a priest delivered a homily from the pulpit, the five women and their two dozen Mexican supporters occupied all the pews on one side of the small church. The mothers sat in the front row, holding vinyl banners printed with photos from their sons’ school IDs. Behind them, men and women of all ages wore T-shirts and buttons with slogans protesting the disappearance of tens of thousands of people in Mexico and the climate of impunity in that country.

Actors from the Manteleria Valadèz group perform a scene to commemorate the Ayotzinapa students.
Juan Acevedo

The delegation had been hopeful about a meeting with Pope Francis, who promised to attend the St. Peter’s event. But he wasn’t able to attend, and instead, El Instituto del Dialogo Interreligioso, an interfaith institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with close ties to Francis, sent three representatives. “They say it’s out of their hands. They can’t help us to bring the matter to the pope,” said Luz María Telumbre Casarrubias, one of the Ayotzinapa mothers.

“If we don’t get to see him, we’ll find another way to reach him,” Legideño said. “Because things can’t remain the way they are. We have to find our sons.”

The initial shock of the students’ disappearance, followed by the inability of investigators to find them or determine what happened, set off a crisis of legitimacy the Mexican government has struggled to contain. According to officials, the students were kidnapped by municipal police from Iguala and executed by a local drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, which then incinerated their bodies in a landfill in the neighboring town of Cocula. The cartel supposedly mistook the students for members of a rival gang. As far as the government was concerned, it was an egregious case of mistaken identity, and the young men disappeared without a trace.

This was, in Murillo Karam’s words, “the historic truth” that the families of the students would have to accept. But the parents of the disappeared Ayotzinapa students dismissed his announcement as an exercise in political expediency. Two weeks later, on Feb. 6, an independent forensics team from Argentina disputed the Mexican government’s version. On Sept. 6 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, released a 560-page report on the disappearances. The commission found “no evidence whatsoever exists” to support the Mexican government’s claim that the bodies of the students were cremated at the trash dump in Cocula. Testimony and physical evidence cited in the report strongly suggest it was not only municipal police who took part in the massacre but also state and federal police, facilitated by the Mexican army.

The government of the United States has to see that it is sending money and resources to Mexico that are being used to murder and disappear Mexican citizens.

Luz María Telumbre Casarrubias, Ayotzinapa mother

Momentum has been building around these findings. In February, Legideño was part of a delegation of parents who traveled to Geneva to attend a presentation by a junior minister from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry before the U.N.’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances. Several weeks later, Ayotzinapa parents and surviving students embarked on a 45-day tour of 40 U.S. cities. They traveled in three caravans, covering the West, Midwest and East Coast before converging on U.N. headquarters in New York City for a rally on April 26.

Last week the delegation of mothers at St. Peter’s met with the staff of a U.S. congressman about cutting military aid to Mexico, which has totaled more than $2.5 billion since 2008. “The government of the United States has to see that it is sending money and resources to Mexico that are being used to murder and disappear Mexican citizens,” said Telumbre.

Two days before the anniversary, Peña Nieto met in Mexico with the parents of the disappeared. The Mexican government recently approved a request from the Inter-American Commission to continue its work in Mexico for an additional six months, but this was only half the amount of time the parents wanted. The purpose of the meeting, said Legideño, was “to demand that he heed the report of the [international] experts, demand the group of experts remain in Mexico until our sons are found and demand the return of our sons alive.”

Hilda Hernández Rivera, another member of delegation that gathered at St. Peter’s, characterized the meeting as window dressing. “Even though he received us, the answers he gave us were the same as before,” she said. “So we demanded that he quit wasting time and move forward with the recommendations from the independent experts.”

She paused. “There is no longer any alternative. Either he undertakes the search or he delays and wastes more time to see if we lose heart. But we’re not going to lose heart.”

Artist Miguel Ángel Mendoza Melchor, who made 43 portraits of the disappeared students.
Andrew J. Padilla

On the first anniversary of the mass disappearance, New York City was a hive of activity. New York University hosted a three-day event billed as the “first U.S. tribunal hearings on the human rights crisis in Mexico.” Investigative journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher shared the findings of their 11-month investigation into the Ayotzinapa massacre. While the Mexican government denies that the army was present or even aware of the shootings until hours after the fact, the journalists presented evidence that plainclothes agents in the Mexican army monitored and reported on student activity for hours before the attack, that the army patrolled the streets of Iguala during the most tumultuous period of violence and that casings from the same caliber of bullet used by the army were recovered at the scene of the shootings.

The Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, director of Hermanos en el Camino shelter for Central American migrants in Mexico, also participated in the event. “Ayotzinapa has become more than an event, more than a fact. It has become a movement,” he said, arguing that the credibility of the Mexican government depends on the satisfactory resolution of the Ayotzinapa case. While government officials sign human rights agreements abroad, he said, “inside, they trample them.”

In Harlem, Mexican-American artist Andrea Arroyo curated an enormous exhibit of international artists, and downtown a crowd of approximately 200 marched up the Avenue of the Americas, chanting, “Alive they were taken away. Alive we want them returned.”

At St. Peter’s Church, nearly 200 supporters gathered for an evening benefit to commemorate the Ayotzinapa anniversary. Miguel Angel Mendoza Melchor, a Mexican artist who works as a cook in Bridgeport, Connecticut, exhibited 43 portraits of the disappeared that he painted. He rendered the young men’s faces in black oil paint on paper, a technique that made them look vividly alive.

“What they accomplished was to awaken a Mexico that was asleep,” he said. “These boys are part of the history of Mexico now.”

Before leaving the city, the mothers of the five students from Ayotzinapa paused in St. Peter’s Church for a group photo, holding up Mendoza’s portraits of their sons. They were on their way to Philadelphia, where they wanted to try to talk to Pope Francis after a Sunday Mass. The mothers’ goals are clear: They want Peña Nieto to reopen the Ayotzinapa case and place it in the hands of a special international task force consisting of experts from the Inter-American Commission, the Argentinean forensics team, family members and Mexican federal investigators. Rivera said that international experts must supervise the new inquiry so the mistakes of the first investigation are not repeated. “For the Mexican people to trust again in the government,” she said, “they’d better find those boys.”

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