As Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto arrived in Brisbane last weekend for the G-20 economic summit, members of the 3,500-strong Mexican community in Australia were gathering on the streets to show solidarity with their compatriots back home.
In Sydney, an estimated 200 protesters assembled outside Customs House in Circular Quay. The event began with 43 participants lying motionless on the ground, representing the students who were allegedly kidnapped and murdered by police in Mexico. “We want them alive, you took them alive,” the crowd chanted. Others shouted, “Out with Peña Nieto!”
Back in Mexico, one slogan used by the tens of thousands marching in nationwide protests read, “The state is dead”.. The forty-three missing students from one of the poorest parts of the country have now become symbols of resistance against the corruption and brutality of a militarised drug war that has raged across Mexico for the last eight years. Since the Mexican Government began a policy of military intervention in 2006, over a hundred thousand people are estimated to have lost their lives, as the line between the soldiers and drug cartels has become increasingly blurred.
The students, who were trainee teachers, disappeared almost two months ago on September 26. It began when a group of them from a rural college in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero, travelled to the nearby city of Iguala. Their chief objective was to raise money for a march commemorating the infamous 1968 student massacre in Mexico City.
Trouble flared when local mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered the police to stop the students from interrupting his wife’s campaign party. By the end of that day, 20 were injured, 3 were dead and another 43 were missing.
One of the earliest statements came from activist and priest, Alejandro Solalinde. Sources told him that the students had been burned, some still alive, in mass graves. Almost two months later, the Mexican Attorney-General, Jesús Murillo Karam, is still unable to offer any definitive conclusion. But as the victims’ families await the results of DNA testing conducted on bags of ashes now in an Austrian laboratory, one thing is clear: the students were ‘disappeared’ with the cooperation of state officials.
Some commentators suggest that Peña Nieto’s absence from his country to attend the G-20 summit has exacerbated unrest, and may herald the beginning of the end for his government. Although the Mexican President has not commented on the Australian protests, on returning to Mexico, he told journalists at a press conference, “It is clear that there is worldwide condemnation. I am very mindful of this [….] and I will continue moving the investigations forward as fast as possible”.
On the night of the massacre, two attacks took place. The following extract is from a survivor, Omar García, who witnessed the second attack in which armed men began firing at the trainee teachers. Earlier that day, police had ambushed three buses carrying students, before bundling them into vehicles.
“I was there during the second attack. We had cordoned off the area because no police had arrived to guard the evidence. We had been trying for over two hours to contact the media and ask other organisations for help. They said they couldn’t get there because the local and state governments had forbidden them. The only ones that responded were from the university radio station, from the Autonomous University of Guerrero.
After two hours, some local journalists arrived at the scene to take photos. That is when the second attack started.
In the second attack two students died immediately and they captured another one: Julio César Mondragón. They took him away from us and skinned him right there. This happened because he had the courage to spit on them when they captured him. Or it could have been a manoeuvre to make it look like the first attack was carried out not by the local police, but by members of organised crime syndicates.
I ran off with around 27 of my friends to find safety and get medical attention for Edgar Andrés Vargas. We were carrying him. He was badly wounded. We went to Hospital Cristina where they denied him medical attention because it was too late: no staff were working. We asked them to let us in because we were being chased, and they did. That’s when the army arrived, accusing us of trespassing on the property. They were loading their rifles and hitting us with the butt of their rifles in the chest. They took away our mobile phones, frisking us as if we were criminals, including our wounded friend. We reminded them he was badly wounded, that we needed support because the local police had attacked us. That is when they told us: ‘You were asking for it.’
This reflects how the forces of order have been indoctrinated to criminalize people. They wrote down our names and took our photos. They said: ‘Give us your real names because if you don’t, they will never find you.’”
Nicolás Andrés Juan, parent of injured victim Edgar Andrés Vargas, describes the phone call he received on the night of the attack:
“Omar called me and asked: ‘Are you Edgar’s father?’ I replied, ‘Yes, what is going on?’ He told me: ‘There was a confrontation with the police and your son is wounded.’ It is excruciating to be woken up in the middle of the night to hear that your son is wounded.
The first thing I asked was: ‘where is he wounded?’ He replied: ‘In the jaw.’ I begged him to take Edgar to hospital, not to abandon him. Then he told me: ‘Speak to Edgar, I’m going to put the telephone to his ear – he can’t talk.’ I tried my best to console him until he could make it to the hospital. His mother was crying, distraught. We didn’t have enough money to travel to Iguala City because it is a long trip. We had to borrow some cash in the middle of the night. We left at about 3am and arrived at 4am on Sunday, after a 24-hour trip full of anguish.
When we arrived in Iguala, it was shocking to see the condition my son was in. He was asleep, anesthetised, covered in gadgets. The hope the doctor gave us was minimal, almost non-existent. She told us: ‘Prepare for the worst because anything could happen in the next 24 hours’. For us as parents, this was agonizing.”
The full interview in Spanish can be found at Aristegui Noticias.