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In "Mexico’s Disappeared," Fault Lines unravels the years of impunity and the thousands of missing people in Mexico that led up to the disappearance of 43 students. The film airs on Monday, February 23, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.
In the months since dozens of students were attacked and disappeared by local police and cartel members in the Mexican city of Iguala, Guerrero, the school the boys attended has become a base for the search being carried out by their parents and surviving classmates.
The Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School of Ayotzinapa is part of a network known as the normales. Students—or ‘normalistas’—come from Mexico’s most impoverished areas and are trained to become teachers in rural communities.
The disappearance of the students is only one of many tragedies experienced by the school. Three years ago, two students were shot and killed by police during a demonstration. Fault Lines spoke to Oscar Arias, a graduate of Ayotzinapa, at his old school this past December just prior to a march commemorating the two who were slain in 2011, as well as this past September’s attack.
Arias talked with us about what Ayotzinapa stands for, why its ideals frequently clash with the Mexican government and what, in addition to families’ loved ones, was lost when the students disappeared. An edited version of the conversation follows.
An edited version of the conversation follows.
Fault Lines: Why are rural teachers so important and what is taught in institutions like this one?
Arias: When we graduate we go teach and give lessons to the most marginal communities in our state. We help communities that endure extreme poverty, that have no basic utilities and where people live in very precarious conditions.
So you are trained here to go help the poor in those communities?
Yes. If we look back in history, the first teacher schools were known as rural centers in 1917. These rural centers were part of the dream of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, who wanted education to be offered in these communities. When Villa acquired a hacienda in Canutillo, Durango, he requested that the best school teachers be sent there. And all those who worked there formed part of a social collective that educated the children of peasant communities.
His dream was that everyone would attend school. The rural student teacher schools are a product of the Mexican Revolution. They emerge as rural centers, and in 1938, President General Lazaro Cardenas turns them into rural student teacher schools.
In the beginning there were around 28 to 30 student teacher schools throughout the country. Later, some of these schools went through transformations. When I began to study here, there were 17 rural student teacher schools functioning throughout the country. Some had lost their principles and were turned into universities.
So the importance is in two aspects: One, most people who study here are poor. If it were not for these schools, I would not be a professional right now. I would probably be an immigrant in the U.S., working as a dishwasher, doing something else. So the importance of this school is that it deals with impoverished youth. It educates them, and when they graduate, they work as teachers in communities throughout our state.
When you walk around this school you see the image of Che Guevara and icons of revolutions in Latin America. How did this spirit of struggle get inside these type of schools?
What happens is that within the structure of our organization, which is the federation of all student teacher schools, there is a committee of political advisors, and they are the ones who feed these notions. These folks are in charge of educating future generations of activists.
Every year historical information of different struggles is gathered. Many of our mates have gone to summits in other countries organized by leftist organizations in Canada, Brazil. There is a main committee in charge of international and national relations. This is part of our education.
Here we manage four aspects: Sports education, cultural education, academics and political education, so we can understand the current situation that our country is going through. In order to understand it, we need to know the background of what has been happening.
We feel identified with all these icons. For example, there is Lucio Cabañas, a graduate of this school. There is Genaro Vazquez from Guerrero. We identify with Che Guevara's struggle because it was an international struggle. He sought to free Latin America from the all-mighty USA and the oligarchy. So we identify with Marxism-Leninism—the struggle of Marx, the struggle of Lenin in Russia. And we identified with other people's struggles, like Gandhi, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro.
These schools are important, too, because the state of Guerrero is one of the poorest states in the country. There is need for education and aid in many other areas where the government is not present.
If you take a look at the statistics, there are three states in Mexico which are the most underdeveloped ones: Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. These states are always behind in everything. The schools are very important because we go to these communities not just to be teachers. We are doctors, professionals. Those schools are important because we go there to work in development, projects for productivity, we even marry some of the girls, we work as tenant farmers, we mingle with the community.
If our schools disappear, most of the communities in the mountains—communities that are at a distance of three days from here—these people are not going to be able to access any kind of education. Our state is nothing like Peña Nieto says it is. In our country, which is supposed to be a developed country. There are municipalities that live in conditions comparable to Africa. These schools are important. Unfortunately, the government no longer has links with us. They don’t identify with the people. They want us to disappear and destroy this project.
We are not subjects for cheap labor, which is what the government wants. No, we are going to awaken the consciousness of the people.
Ayotzinapa school graduate
Why are there fewer rural schools? Why do they want to wipe them out?
Because we have been a sort of Achilles heel for the government. A rural student teacher school has great power for mobilizing people and calling for social consciousness. The governors were annoyed. Schools were offering important academic and political training. They had gatherings with very good street musicians, and all that. So they had a high level of politicization, and the government didn't want people to wake up and be aware of their situation.
But mainly they didn't like graduates from rural student teacher schools to be conscious and have open minds. We are not subjects for cheap labor, which is what the government wants. They want us to be quiet, to obey, operate within a schedule. No, we are going to awaken the consciousness of the people. When we settle in the rural communities, we evaluate their conditions and begin to work to transform them. We always go there with that in mind. We want to build better schools for those communities.
President Peña Nieto, despite what has happened with the 43 students here, has announced that there will be fewer resources for these types of schools. What do you think about that?
When I was a student, we saw this as part of the globalization process. We are not in their interest. In their education curriculum, from 1997 to 2000, they didn't include us. They put us aside, arguing that there is no use for student teacher schools, that they are outdated. It is a strategy that they've been implementing.
The politicians are completely disassociated from the people. They see us as the black sheep. As I mentioned before, we don't serve their interests. We have an awareness and we want people to wake up and be active. This is something they don't like. That is why they are trying to stuff this into a bottleneck.
Tell me why were the boys who have gone missing headed to a protest on September 26th?
There were two activities that came together. First, the graduates were trying to get a space to assemble, because, second, they were getting ready to join the protest of October 2nd, which takes place in Mexico City. We actively participate in this protest every year. So we need to get on buses. Usually we get on around 50 to 60 buses every year to go to that protest and gather.
What is that protest about exactly?
It is to commemorate the killings in Tlatelolco in 1968. So our friends were searching around and commandeered a couple of buses, and that was when they were attacked. The police and organized crime attacked them and killed three of our mates. One was shot on the head, the other in the jaw. Another mate is in Mexico City, and there’s the 43 disappeared.
Is what happened when the students were trying to get to Mexico City an isolated event? Or is it part of a pattern of criminal activity in the area?
Yes. From 2011 until now, 60-plus people have fallen, in the hands of one governor, Angel Aguirre, in less than three years. The police no longer serve the people, they serve other darker interests, such as the drug lords, the politicians, corporations. They don't protect the people. The governor has allowed the expansion of criminal groups like the Familia Michoacana, Guerreros Unidos, he is even the half brother of the leader of the CIDA, Cartel Independiente de Acapulco.
More than 60 died and disappeared on Aguirre's government, and no one has summoned him to testify?
Nobody. This gives us an idea of how the drug lords have corrupted the three levels: municipalities, states and the federal government. This shows us that there is a high degree of corruption, impunity and complicity by the politicians.
From the very first moment this was predicted, three years ago, when our friends Alexis and Gabriel Echevarria were killed in a highway. They arrested two ministry officers, and a few months later they released them. The state attorney was removed from his post and was later named minister of work. And nobody, no division within the government—the senate, the Supreme Court, Parliament or the president—said we are going to make these arrests, we are going to evaluate this, we are going to study this situation. Why? Because people are implicated. The mayor if Iguala was being investigated some time ago. Not just him. Other mayors.
So this situation has escalated because there is no justice. We can't go to the Public Ministry and inform against anyone, because as soon as we leave the ministry, they call the drug lords and they tell them, “Look, that's them.” A few blocks away, they kill you, disappear you and no one ever hears back from you.
What is awakening Mexico has to do with the case of Ayotzinapa. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. That is why people put fear aside and came out. Today, if you go to Iguala you will notice there are more than 360 families that have taken DNA tests. They say one of their relatives has disappeared, that they have lost a family member.
A city that has not more than 300,000 inhabitants has 500 disappeared people! Clearly there is a very high criminal rate. Through this panorama, you can realize how rotten is our government and all the impunity it has.