feature image via Reuters
Silence is a signal of unhappiness, and often, of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as a clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet. Look at how colonialism has fostered silence.
– from The Soccer War, by R. Kapuscinski
Alexander Mora Venancio, a student from Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, had been missing since September 26, 2014. He, along with 43 other male students, disappeared after traveling to Iguala, Guerrero, México. The plan was to commandeer a few local buses and drive to the toll booths that connect Acapulco to México City where the students were to shut down the toll booth, both as an act of protest for discriminatory practices by the Mexican government, but also, in Robin Hood fashion, to collect funds from drivers affected by the blockade to use toward their education. The students, or Normalistas as they are known, come from among the poorest families in the state of Guerrero, and Ayotzinapa is the poorest. These rural teachers’ colleges provide just enough education to their students to continue teaching future generations of the families they come from. Aside from using the blockade to collect money, Normalistas also intended to use the buses to attend an event in México City, Distrito Federal (D.F.), to commemorate the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, which occurred on October 2, 1968, when the Mexican government arrested and killed students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, to squash political opposition just 10 days prior to the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics, which were to be held in D.F.
The same day that the Normalistas were arriving in Iguala, another event was occurring — a celebration organized by María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the wife of Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca Velázquez. Familiar with the politically radical ideas of the Normalistas and afraid they would disrupt her party, either Abarca or his wife ordered the local police to take care of the students from Ayotzinapa, so that her celebration would not be marred. From that point on, there are varying accounts of the story, but it seems that municipal police surrounded the buses and opened fire, killing five. Many escaped, but 44 did not. They were last seen being loaded into vans by police. A day after, one of the 44 missing was discovered, 23-year-old Julio César Mondragón. His eyes gouged out. The flesh of his face stripped clean.
Journalist Alma Guillermoprieto outlined most of the story as it unfolded. There are conflicting reports about what happened next but the official story from the Mexican government is that after local police kidnapped the students, they were handed over to Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), a gang that the Abarcas might have affiliations with. On October 17, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, a leader of Guerreros Unidos, who referred to the Ayotzinapa case as “a casual affair.”
It isn’t until November 7 that three assassins tied to Guerreros Unidos are named as the alleged killers. They outline how they led the students to a dump site and then used gasoline and tires to burn the students the same night they were taken. Some of the students were still alive after they were set on fire.
On November 11, plastic bags full of human remains are recovered near a river in Cocula, Guerrero. A few weeks ago, a bone fragment from the dump site was confirmed by a university in Austria as that of Mora. So far, he is the only one of the missing 43 to be positively identified.
The disappearance of the 43 students has led to international condemnation, the arrest of the Abarcas, mass demonstrations across México, especially in the state of Guerrero and in the capital, México City, as well as the resignation of the Governor of Guerreró, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, and México City Police Chief Jesús Rodríguez Almeida. Federal buildings have been set on fire during some of the demonstrations, but none is more symbolic of México’s boiling political climate than the burning of an effigy of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in the Zócalo, the main plaza of D.F.
But it has not quelled protests. More recently, a news story broke from México’s newspaper Proceso that los federales and Peña Nieto’s administration were either involved or at least knew about the disappearances of the 43 — and that Ayotzinapa is truly a crime of the state.
Like most things, my involvement with Ayotzinapa starts with politics, of course, but also, a woman and a bar. I met Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera inside the back building of Hole in the Wall, a bar on 26th and Guadalupe Street, across from the University of Texas of Austin campus. Hole in the Wall, established in 1974, is one of the staples of the Drag, as that stretch of Guadalupe is known. I had stopped by for a gin and tonic with a writer friend, who introduced Yoalli to me. A phD student in the Latin American Studies Department at UT, Yoalli had just arrived to Texas not long before we met. It was still August, and still fundamentally hot.
Originally from Puebla, Puebla, México and having completed her undergraduate and masters in Social Anthropology, Yoalli was new to Austin. Every gesture and movement she makes is with fire and intention. Her strong hooded eyes are intense, dark, and deep, similar to a lion. Energy spits off her skin. I knew from the first moments that we exchanged introductions, we would be friends.
After the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43, Yoalli immersed herself into organizing vigils and protests with other students and community members in Austin. I turned to Yoalli to understand the significance of Ayotzinapa.
MTO: Why do you think, in a country with a history of disappearances, fosas clandestinas (clandestine graves) and the Juárez femicides, did the Normalistas strike such a chord across México?
YR: I believe that the particularity of the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, in a country where there exists other 25,000 disappearances and more than 150,000 murders, resides in the power of collective memory. The 43 missing students, in the memory of many Mexicans, is directly related to the massacre of students of 1968. The massacre of 1968 marked a historic moment in México, as a direct and clear proof of the State’s violence. After 1968, nothing like that has happened; until now. This means that in the last 46 years, this level of violence against dissident voices never occurred again. The criminalization of youth nowadays is evident, the students specially, who are one of the most dissident voices against the current government; they are the ones who are being murdered, disappeared or imprisoned. Ayotzinapa’s case also is really particular due to the origins of the students: all are indigenous and poor, from farmer families. This also reflects the racism and the level of repression and racism in the country.
MTO: What similarities do you see between Ayotzinapa and the protests against police brutality occurring now in the US?
YR: The two movements against police decisions in the US and Ayotzinapa in México are tied together because both are a reflection of the racialized society and “system of justice” we live in. The color and ethnicity are part of how there is institutionalized racism and classism in the judicial systems. Certain bodies (because of color and origins) are marked as criminals and delinquents. It also reflective of the impunity of the state exercising violence against particular populations of the society.
I am tired of the racism, sexism and impunity in the juridical system in México but also in the U.S. I think this a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, we live in a pigmentocracy where color influences your experiences and histories. We have to fight against this system of oppression. I believe collective memory is a way of resistance, we cannot forget what is happening.
And queer movements and indigenous movements are involved in every sense. In México, for example, queer collectives such as Bloque Rosa and Feminist collectives stage protests and write about the violence in México; and also, they march as a queer collective, where they particularized the violence perpetrated against queer people, trans, women, etc. In this sense, they are also denouncing the sexism in the Mexican State (femicides), but also in the “left”, which also tend to criticise the system but still use machista language. Indigenous movements such as the Zapatistas, are also asking for justice for the students, but also a lot of other movements as well, considering that the students were me’phaas and na’savis (indigenous groups from Guerrero).
I believe that there won’t be justice initiated by the State. It is because of the protests, the movements, injustice and the search for dignity that we have hope and people are fighting for justice. Justice will come, but it will come from below, from the organized people, from the parents, from the students, from our society.
The philosophy of collective memory was further discussed by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in 1950, in his book La Memoire Collective, published after his death in 1945. He explored the meaning of collective memory as shared information between groups of people typically involving a traumatic event. In Central and Latin America, collective memory is as much a method of survival as it is part of history. Uruguayan journalist and poet Eduardo Galeano spoke of it, saying, “Our collective memory has been mutilated by the controllers of the world, who day after day, also mutilate our present reality.” He might as well have been referring to Ayotzinapa.
I read each update about Ayotzinapa and think about riding a public bus in Juárez, years and years ago. The school bus, gutted inside and painted a dull brown outside, cost me almost nothing to take me from one part of inner Ciudad Juárez back to the international bridge linked to El Paso. While it bounced and took sharp turns, I stared out the window at the city’s landscape, knowing that the bus I sat in resembles the same type of bus that transports maquiladoras to and from the factories. It is the same type of bus involved in their disappearances. For all we know, it is the same type of bus that dumps their bodies in the Juárez Valley. I think about the missing women.
In October, I attended a vigil in Austin for the disappeared 43 Normalistas, and I sat far away from the crowd, from their wreath of candles, from their hum of voices. I sat underneath an old gnarled tree. I thought about a Saturday night in April of 2013. I thought about the 47th hour of a 72 hour trip to México. We had been in Ciudad Acuña all day, which shares the border with Del Rio, Texas. I thought about that night, lining up, single file, so I could crowd into a white van and be driven back to the US Border Patrol Station across the Bridge. I thought about being a US citizen being deported out of México and banned from returning for up to a year. With a record number of immigrant deportations committed by the US government, I couldn’t exactly fault the otherwise stone-faced Mexican guards for smirking at the irony of our deportations as we were handed back our US passports. I was last in line, and as we moved forward, the head of Mexican Immigration, a guy with a faux hawk named Sergio, put his hand out, and stopped me.
“You stay,” he had said.
I hadn’t been afraid. Not any of the nine hours we just spent detained in the small fucking office of Mexican Immigration. How could I have been? Compared to the way the US treats immigrants and detainees, we were on a fucking picnic. We had access to the US consulate, to our cell phones, to the snacks we brought along with us. Several of us even had smoke breaks. We sat in a cramped cold office, and we could see our comrades from the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras across the hallway, through the square window with bars. They had not left our side. But now it was 11:30 pm. Our driver and a few others who were not detained had gone and gathered all of our belongings from the Hotel del Prado close to the Plaza. They had driven back across the border already and were waiting for us. But suddenly, I swallowed the panic that swelled up inside. My mother was a Mexican immigrant. I was being recognized as a Mexican citizen. And being Queer usually makes me acutely aware of the space I inhabit. I had heard enough stories about the way Mexican citizens could be treated. And the border is a special kind of purgatory. Rules do not matter much.
“But why?” I asked. “I’m a US citizen too. Just deport me. With the others.”
“No,” he continued. He didn’t even look up from the clipboard. “You are a Mexican citizen. There is a different process.”
“My mom has been a US citizen for almost 10 years.”
“I’ll be back and we will fill out your paperwork and then you can go,” he said.
So I sat alone in the darkly lit back office of Mexican Immigration, untying and retying my red handkerchief around my neck. The laces of my work boots were loose, and I rested my elbows on my knees, bowing my head, hands in my salty hair, trying not to think about what being in a immigrant detention center in Saltillo, México, would look like. Saltillo was about an hour’s drive from where I waited. This was Ciudad Acuna, the Mexican border town across from Del Rio, Texas, where my father’s family was born and where he grew up. Ciudad Acuña was also the town where my great-grandfather was murdered in 1930. He was stabbed in an alleyway for fucking another man’s wife by the wife’s husband. My grandmother barely remembered him.
I could see the bridge to Del Rio, with lights that flickered like UFO’s. I could see the quiet town I spent many summers of my youth, just a mile away, splashing in the brown water underneath the railroad tracks with my distant cousins — the Andrade part of the family. My father’s kin.
I could also see the four guards in their brown uniforms standing watch over me in the other room as I waited for the return of Sergio, the guy who would be able to keep me or let me go. And at that moment, part of me almost hated being Mexican. My black eyes that an ex-girlfriend described as being full of energy and desire and the stormy black hair that stood up and stuck out and never sat down, sort of like lightning. A symbol of utter resistance to any attempt I made at combing it, the least imperial part of my whole body. My mother, a native of Chihuahua, was the reason I was not deported. It was the reason I would not face a year long ban from reentering the country. It was also the reason I was alone and waiting in the room while everyone else was transported back to Del Rio, to US authorities. I waited to find out if I would be processed and released back into Ciudad Acuña, as I had been assured.
The troubling concept of impunity and collusion crept into my mind as I remained inside the office. I didn’t even know if anyone from the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras in México remained outside. If I would be let go into the dark night of a Mexican border town I didn’t know very well.
Impunity does not believe in right and wrong; impunity believes in its power to operate without redress. Power is the keyword. While I had absolutely none in this situation, I reflected on the power of our friends in the CFO. Our subsequent arrest and detainment by Mexican authorities was purely politically motivated, as an attempt not to frighten visiting US citizens, but to intimidate and harass the organizers of the CFO. Because the work these women do as labor organizers challenges structures of power and money that do not desire to give up their power or their money. The CFO regularly faces danger worse than the small inconvenience faced by our delegation. Add to that, the violent power struggle between rival drug cartels enveloping México, and the historically epic corruption of police and government officials… and it’s clear why a worker’s rights group in a border town could be so threatening.
When Mexican authorities returned after midnight, I was asked to sign a document certifying that my mother, a Mexican citizen, granted me Mexican citizenship through bloodline, and thereby insured my release. I was not deported. A guard escorted me out of the building, into the deserted street. I walked out into the night, wondering how to get in contact with my group, how to return to Del Rio, how I didn’t have a phone with me… across the parking lot waited about 15 people from the CFO. They had waited with us throughout the 9 hours of our detainment, and were still waiting on me. And I thought of a saying my ex-girlfriend, a labor organizer and workers’ rights advocate, used often when referring to people united in love and struggle: this is what solidarity looks like.
But unlike the missing 43, I was going home. And it’s what I store in my memory each time I read an article or update about the disappeared. I am home. They are not.
Each uncovered element in the forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43 relates to some aspect of México’s memory of other disappearances, of police impunity, of corruption at the highest levels, and violence perpetrated and sanctioned by the state. From the massacre of 1968 to the unexplained murders and dumping of the bodies of maquiladoras to the murders of immigration activists in Southern México, exists a pool of bloody memories from which Mexicans can choose from.
And I am watching impunity seep its way into the vocabulary of us here in the US too. The increased militarization of US police forces and a culture of impunity have contributed to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, just to name a recent few (the violence leveled against black lives in the US is genocide) and lack of indictments for the police officers involved in their murders. I watch it happen here in my home of Austin, where a group of community members called the People’s Task Force pushes for justice for a similar scenario. In summer of 2013, an Austin Police Department detective named Charles Kleinart chased down and shot and killed Larry Jackson, Jr., a young black man, in the back of his neck, in a tunnel underneath a bridge, in the normally quiet park known as Shoal Creek. And for what? Because Jackson happened to be a black man who showed up at a bank that had closed for a robbery earlier in the day?
In a recent post by two members of Witness for Peace, Julia Duranti and Maggie Evans, write about the connections between Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative (aka Plan México), both of which are spearheaded by US interest in resources that Colombia and México have to offer.
“Presidents Bush and Uribe found a willing ally for the Wars on Drugs and Terror in right-wing Mexican President Felipe Calderoón, elected in 2006 after Mexican drug cartels had risen to prominence. Shortly thereafter, the Mérida Initiative — also known as Plan México — was approved to “fight organized crime and associated violence.” Since that time, nearly $3 billion in U.S. military aid to México have contributed to the massive militarization of the country: Blackhawk helicopters (at $20 million apiece), thousands of U.S. weapons, extensive training of police and military, increased surveillance of the border and ports, and even U.S. Marshals dressing as Mexican marines to carry out special operations on Mexican soil. The toll on México has been devastating: more than 100,000 dead and more than 26,000 disappeared since 2006.”
The implication is clear. Like Colombia, the displaced and the missing and the mass graves in México did not happen overnight. And they are not isolated events. Francis Goldman of the New Yorker has written a series of pieces chronicling different aspects of Ayotzinapa, from their kidnapping and tying it back to Infrarrealistas, a literary movement that involves Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño.
“In the early nineteen-seventies, [Bolaño] led a group of poets who believed that life in México and in the rest of Latin America was so violent and absurd that poets needed to subvert reality and realism — as well as élitist literary hierarchies — even more than the surrealists had. That attitude has been very much in the air since the Ayotzinapa incident. Indeed, in Reforma earlier this week, the anthropologist and writer Roger Bartra, who is relatively conservative among México’s most prominent public intellectuals, christened “the heterogeneous and radical protest movement that has unleashed massive marches in México City” as “the infrarrealista left.” He chose that name, he writes, “not pejoratively,” but “because this left seems to flow beneath political realities, carving tunnels to topple the government and undermining the cement of a system it considers corrupt and repressive,” just as, he writes, Bolaño and his compatriots sought to “subvert a literary order they considered oppressive.”
In Spanish, there is a phrase, desde abajo which translates as “from below.” The disappeared students are not just memories or fosas clandestinas (clandestine graves). They are part of a culture, part of a sequence of pulverizing attempts to silence los desde abajo. So this is where we are. Witnessing los desde abajo push back. Not just in México, but in the mass demonstrations across the US against police brutality and the war against black lives, and the global displays of solidarity for Palestine and other oppressive regimes.
Galeano, in the same interview about collective memory, also says, ‘The dominant culture of the world teaches us that The Other is a threat, that our fellow human beings are a danger. We will all continue to be exiles in one form or another as long as we continue to accept the paradigm that the world is a racetrack or battlefield. I believe that we can be compatriots of many different kinds of people, even though they are born far from our own lands and in other places and in other times.”
Perhaps it is time for that paradigm to shift.
To remember the past.
To change the present.
To rewrite our future.
From Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine.
To every crack in the earth.