As the first days of fall set descended on the borderland, strong messages echoed in the streets of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and neighboring El Paso, Texas. Among them:
“They took them alive! We want them back alive!”
“Ayotzi lives! The struggle continues!”
“They are our daughters, not merchandise!”
“Why do they kill us if we are the hope of Latin America!”
For 43 hours, from Sept. 25-27, hundreds of human rights activists, relatives of disappeared persons and concerned citizens remembered — and protested — the first anniversary of the forced disappearance of 43 Mexican male students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, at the hands of police and paramilitary forces.
Three students and three civilian bystanders were also killed by gunmen during the attack unleashed against the Ayotzinapa students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, on the evening of Sept. 26, 2014.
One year later, the Paso del Norte has not forgotten. There were vigils, protest marches, film showings, street theater, mural inaugurations and demands for justice at consular offices in Juárez and El Paso. At Juárez’s Casa de Adobe Museum located on the Mexico-U.S. borderline, residents of the border sister cities painted the number 43.
“We ask what would happen if 43 students from any university in the U.S. disappeared?” pondered border writer and activist Juan Carlos Martinez. “Perhaps Obama wouldn’t be in office.”
And old story
But late September’s bout of activism went beyond the Ayotzinapa issue per se, touching on many local cases of both men and women who were forcibly abducted over the years and never seen again.
“There are not only 43 disappeared people in this country,” stressed Leticia Ruiz, Juárez poet and an activist with the newly-formed Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly. “There are more than 20,000 nationwide — 1,500 in the state of Chihuahua alone.”
In Juárez and Chihuahua, forced disappearance is an old story that seemingly never ends. In attendance for the Juárez Ayotzinapa anniversary events, Judith Galarza, executive secretary for the Latin American Federation of Relatives Associations of Detained and Disappeared Persons (Fedefam), recalled her sister Leticia Galarza, who was detained and vanished by Mexican counterinsurgency forces back in January 1978.
Originally from Juárez, Leticia Galarza was a member of the old September 23 Communist League who had an infant daughter at the time of her detention.
Although the government never acknowledged Leticia’s whereabouts, Judith Galarza and her compatriots sniffed out documentation of the young woman’s secret detention in Mexico’s National Archive, including a photo of Leticia undergoing torture.
More than three decades later, Leticia’s daughter is now a 37-year-old woman who is suing the Mexican state over her mother’s disappearance, Galarza told FNS.
Leticia Galarza disappeared during the Dirty War, roughly the years from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when the Mexican government dropped the weight of its security apparatus against guerrillas and dissidents, real or imagined.
Repressive practices and human rights atrocities mastered during the Dirty War later resurfaced in the so-called drug war, the wave of feminicides which were first documented in Juárez during the early 1990s and, more recently, with Ayotizinapa and other politically-tainted cases of murder and disappearance.
“This is the same connection,” Galarza observed, reflecting on parallels between the Dirty War and today. “When we started our work for the presentation of the disappeared, the first disappearances were in Guerrero.”
Forty years later, more families search for loved ones. Supported by the Juárez-based Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, relatives of nine men from Juárez who disappeared in different parts of Mexico participated in the pro-Ayotzinapa events. Alejandro Duran, for instance, marched through downtown Juárez with a large photo of his brother, Cesar Gonzalo Duran, who was 27 years old when he disappeared in the state of Chihuahua in July 2011.
“Family members have organized to look for him, the government doesn’t look for him,” contended Duran.
The experience of Cesar Gonzalo Duran’s family is far from unique.
Members of Judith Galarza’s organization were pioneers in the emergence of family investigators who pound the pavement and ask the hard questions countless official investigations have kept hushed.
“And I still hurt like the first day my daughter disappeared,” said Jose Luis Castillo, tears welling up in his eyes as he spoke to a crowd gathered outside the Juárez delegation of the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) for an overnight vigil in memory of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. For more than six years, Castillo has searched tirelessly and demanded answers about his daughter Esmeralda, who was 14 years old when she went missing in downtown Juárez one spring day back in 2009.
Early this year, Chihuahua state law enforcement authorities named Esmeralda Castillo as one of the numerous murdered girls and young women, suspected victims of sex trafficking, recovered from the rural Juárez Valley between 2011 and 2013.
Castillo, however, is not convinced that a body part identified as belonging to Esmeralda is truly hers or even means that she is necessarily dead.
Instead, Castillo, who was dragged away by military police from an event attended by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Juárez last winter, keeps pressing for answers and urges others to take up the cause of the disappeared. “All that remains for the bad ones to triumph in our city is for the good ones to stay quiet,” he said.
‘Where are our children?’
A riveting work of street theater was performed as part of the Ayotzinapa anniversary actions. Held at the downtown Plaza de Armas as the moon rehearsed its blood spectacle the following evening, the performance portrayed three male actors dressed up as police and soldiers systematically subduing, abducting and killing young women and male actors.
Titled, “Uniformed Delinquency,” the open-air play attracted a large crowd that was emotionally drawn into the shouts and cries of the actors. A large banner draped over the crowd read: “If there is no justice for the people, there will be no peace for the government.”
As the trio of meanies proceeded to beat and kidnap their victims, poet Leticia Ruiz’s verses about Ayotzinapa thundered through a sound system:
Where are our children who pain us?
We want their infinite eyes shining at our side
We want their hands of the universe sharing our steps
We want them alive with us flowering an infertile land…
At the play’s conclusion, a character dressed up as President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared but was grabbed by a towering Uncle Sam on stilts who quickly latched on the puppet strings.
Publicly staging a play like “Uniformed Delinquency” in Juárez is not the same as many other places, especially just across the Rio Grande in the United States, where forced disappearance is an abstract concept for most. But not too long ago in Juárez, events similar to the scenes depicted in “Uniformed Delinquency” really happened on a frequent basis and, in fact, on the very streets adjacent to the Plaza de Armas.
After the jarring play, relatives of the disappeared and their supporters marched down Avenida Juárez, chanting and displaying placards with messages like: “What is the harvest of a country that plants bodies?” Or, simply: “If they were your sons?”
Eyeballing the approaching crowd, one of the street singers who now enliven Avenida Juárez suddenly changed his tune and belted out an improvisation, to a thunderclap of applause: “We are missing 43….”
Again, the geography and pre-history of the march were not abstract matters, as protesters filed past buildings, businesses and piles of rubble haunted by past murders and disappearances-an old hair stylist’s school, the shut-down Club 15, the ruins of Norma’s club, Club Sinaloaense, the Kentucky Club, etc.
The march halted at the emblematic Cross of Nails, erected many years ago at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Juárez with El Paso in memory of feminicide victims and more recently wrapped in a red-stained Mexican flag bearing the word “Justice.” Gero Fong, longtime Juárez revolutionary theorist and activist, led the marchers in counting “1..2..3…4….43!”
Fong delivered a statement signed by university students in gender studies, the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Pastoral Obrera, the Revolutionary Socialist League, Morena and others that charged the Mexican and U.S. governments with complicity in human rights violations, in a reverse posture on the notion of “shared responsibility” in the drug war as popularized by the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In particular, the statement zeroed in on the aid delivered to Mexican governments under the Merida Initiative of the Bush and Obama administrations. “The funds, arms and technical assistance received has been used to control the Mexican civil population, particularly against the groups that are not in agreement with the corruption and servility of Mexican government leaders,” the declaration read.
The message contended that the deployment of the Mexican army, the lynch pin of the government’s so-called drug war, has resulted in “multiple cases of human rights violations” that range from summary executions to forced disappearances and sexual abuse.
A day earlier, on Sept. 25, Juárez activists delivered the statement to the U.S. Consulate in Juárez. Simultaneously, fellow activists across the border staged a march from the University of Texas at El Paso campus to the Mexican Consulate near downtown. The participants included representatives of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, Centro Sin Fronteras, La Mujer Obrera and others.
A three-person delegation from the protest group met with Mexican Consul Jacob Prado but emerged with sullen faces. “How can we have trust if students haven’t shown up after a year?” longtime labor activist Guillermo Glenn told the waiting protesters as he tore up a statement on Ayotizinapa given to him by Mexican Consulate personnel.
“There’s no information the Mexican or U.S. governments can give us even after a year.”
Another protester who met with Prado, Centro Sin Fronteras Board member Rosa Maria Romana, told FNS: “It’s not enough. You can find these terrorists in the Middle East, and they can’t find these students?”
‘We are on the same side’
Mexican Consulate staff provided FNS with a copy of the official statement in question, which had been issued by President Peña Nieto’s office Sept. 24 immediately after a Mexico City meeting between the president and his top officials and parents of the Ayotzinapa students.
The statement quoted President Peña Nieto: “We are on the same side and work with the same objective: To know what happened to your children and punish all and each one of the guilty parties. ”
According to the lengthy message, the Mexican government has been very proactive on behalf of the 43 missing students. Among other measures, the document cites the detention of 111 individuals implicated in the mass abduction, and credits Peña Nieto for instructing the appropriate authorities to “incorporate the recommendations and lines of investigation” recently outlined by the GIEI, an independent panel of international experts tasked by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with probing the Ayotzinapa affair.
However, the statement left unclear whether the Mexican government will finally agree to a key GIEI demand of allowing the investigators to question soldiers from the army’s 27th Infantry Battalion who were present in Iguala the night the students were attacked.
Perhaps significantly, the presidential statement made no mention of the “historic truth” proclaimed by (now-ex) Federal Attorney General Jesus Murrillo Karam earlier this year — which claimed that the 43 students were rapidly slaughtered and burned into ashes at the town dump of Cocula, Guerrero.
As part of its own investigation, the GIEI enlisted a fire expert who countered the incineration story.
Peña Nieto’s Sept. 24 statement disclosed that the president had ordered the PGR to establish a special prosecutor for disappeared persons. The announcement met with a decidedly cool reception from Juárez activists, who have long criticized the records of special state prosecutors for women’s murders in the border city.
“This is another institution like the state prosecutor’s office for women’s murders,” said activist Yesica Morales. “They don’t function.”
In the national Mexican context, numerous precedents exist of special prosecutions coming up empty-handed or falling way short of their objectives.
The most prominent examples include investigations of the Tijuana assassination of 1994 presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio; the 1995 police massacre of 17 unarmed small farmers at Aguas Blancas, Guerrero; and the probe into the ugly entrails of the Dirty War conducted during the administration of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), which despite its ample accumulation of evidence of crimes committed by ex-presidents, military authorities and high-ranking police officials, did not result in successful prosecutions.
In all the aforementioned cases, issues of corruption or irregularities like missing files and evidence contaminated the legal processes.
‘A snake with two heads’
Though the first anniversary of Ayotzinapa came and went, activists in the Paso del Norte are not resting. In El Paso, activists have been delivering letters and petitions to the Mexican Consulate since last year, said Rosa Maria Romana.
The movement demands the cancellation of the Merida Initiative, and connects Ayotzinapa with police militarization in the United States and the repression of migrants. “It’s the same body of a snake with two heads,” she said.
A new initiative, the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, was formed at the invitation of the Ayotzinapa parents and seeks to establish a statewide base, according to member Leticia Ruiz. The group sponsored an Oct. 2 march from Juárez’s Alta Vista High School in honor of the students massacred by Mexican soldiers and paramilitary gunmen during the Mexico City Olympic games on October 2, 1968.
According to the Popular Assembly, the event will also remember the Ayotzinapa students as well as the young people massacred at a house party in the Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood of Juárez in January 2010.
Ironically, the Ayotzinapa students were reportedly planning to attend Oct. 2 commemorations in Mexico City when they were forcibly disappeared last year.