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Five Years Ago, 43 Students Vanished. The Mystery, and the Pain, Remain

MEXICO CITY — That weekend began like so many others in Iguala, a town in the coastal state of Guerrero: The main square held a political rally and there was a soccer match nearby. Students from a rural teacher-training college were trying to secure buses for a trip to Mexico City.

But what happened on that Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, and in the hours, days and years that followed has become a symbol of the violence, impunity and broken rule of law that plagues Mexico. It is also one of the nation’s greatest mysteries.

By the end of the night, six people were dead, and 43 of the students, last spotted being forced into police trucks, had vanished. Five years on, their whereabouts are still unknown, their cases unsolved. They are now among the more than 40,000 other people in Mexico who are registered as disappeared, many in the country’s drug war.

This much is known: In one violent and chaotic night, local police officers, working with a criminal gang and the mayor, stopped and shot at the buses carrying the teacher-training students. Later, they fired at others also on their way out of town — taxis, and the soccer team’s bus — though they were not connected to the students. There is still no understanding of what exactly happened, why, who was involved or even where the students are.

The country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, promised he would do better than his predecessor. He created a special commission, named a special prosecutor and, more recently, announced a new inquiry after the courts ordered the first, heavily criticized investigation redone.

A federal judge also recently dismissed charges against 77 individuals implicated in the crime, arguing that widespread torture was used to force confessions.

“This is a chance to show that such an investigation must be legally conducted from top to bottom,” said Ángela Buitrago, a Colombian lawyer and member of the group of international experts originally invited to investigate the case, and an adviser to the new inquiry. “That is what makes a state legitimate.”

The events of that night — and the government’s failure so far to uncover basic facts about what happened to the missing students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Teachers’ College — have changed the lives of those it touched.

Every month, on the 26th, their parents trek nearly 200 miles each way to Mexico City, having found purpose in a ritual of protest.

“As someone who carries the burden of losing a son, you try and fight in the hopes that the others are found alive and well,” said Inés Gallardo, 40, whose son was one of three students killed that night.

On its fifth anniversary, the Times spoke with those directly affected by the events of that night.

Three days passed before Cristina Bautista Salvador knew her son, Benjamín, was missing.

In the tiny mountain village where she lived, there is no cellphone service, and she spoke only the local language, Náhuatl. Very few residents speak Spanish. Her son’s live-in college was three hours away.

But after trying to call him and getting no answer, she raced there on Monday, taking two vans and a taxi, to find out what happened. The search for answers would so consume her that she didn’t return home for three years.

After Benjamín disappeared, she learned to speak Spanish. It was the only way to communicate with officials and lawyers, or to publicize the case, which she has done in Colombia, Argentina, the United States and Brazil.

Today the turnout in the marches has dwindled.

“Whether there be many or few, nationally or internationally, we’ll keep pushing until we find out what happened,” she said. “Until we find them.”

Alfredo Ramírez García was in a taxi with some colleagues on his way home to the state capital, Chilpancingo, after a rally. Their car slowed down next to what seemed to be a makeshift police checkpoint.

The officers said nothing. They pointed their weapons at the passengers, he said. Then they fired.

“I was hit, but it didn’t hurt at first, it just felt hot and my arm went numb,” he said. “I was wearing a blue jacket, brand-new, and first I only thought, ‘These bastards just ruined my jacket.’”

A woman in another taxi was also shot that night. She was among the six dead.

When he tried to file a report with the federal agency in charge, they “barely cared,” he said. “So I just dropped it.”

A soccer player, Othokari González Agustín, remembers his team won the away game that day in Iguala, 3-1. He scored a goal.

On their way back home to Chilpancingo, their bus pulled up next to a taxi that was riddled with bullets. Moments later, he said, they were under fire. One of his teammates was shot dead, as was their bus driver.

Mr. González, now a college student, still plays soccer. He even took up coaching the team he had been playing for that night, until violence struck again. “I coached until a couple of months ago,” he said, “when the team’s owner was killed.”

Sergio Ocampo Arista is a journalist, but at first, he took the rumors of a shootout in Iguala in stride. At the time, Guerrero state had the highest homicide rate of the nation. He grew suspicious only when he called the mayor and police commissioner and found they were “emphatically trying to play it down,” he said.

He gathered a caravan of journalists and drove the almost 60 miles from Chilpancingo to Iguala. When they arrived, the bodies of those who had been in the taxi and the soccer team’s bus had already been taken away, he said.

But as he pushed past police and toward the main avenue, he saw other bodies were still lying around: those of the three teacher-training students who were shot that night.

He and his colleagues took photos. His dispatch that Sunday was the first news some families got about what happened that night. The report also helped investigators reconstruct some of the events.

Nicanora García González was buying fish in the market on Sunday when she heard about Mr. Ocampo’s article, and saw a photo of one of the dead students. He’d been shot in the face.

Her son, Saúl, went to the same teacher-training school in Ayotzinapa. She called and found he was among the missing.

She moved to Ayotzinapa, seven hours away from her hometown, to search for answers. For years she camped out there along with other parents.

Every month, she scrounges together $ 25 dollars for the round trip to Mexico City, where she marches with the portraits of her son. “I have to,” she said.

“The boys aren’t missing: They were taken by people in uniform,” she said. “They know where they left them, they just refuse to tell us.”

The Raúl Isidro Burgos Teachers’ College is steeped in a history of social protest. Graduates include guerrilla and revolutionary leaders of the 20th century.

“It has a lineage of fighting to be heard,” said the former principal, José Luis Hernández Rivera.

The school also paved the way for many from poor and indigenous backgrounds to get ahead in Guerrero, where 66 percent of the population lives in poverty.

And so, even after the disappearance, the community wanted to keep it open.

“This school has kept up its fight,” said Mr. Hernández. “In other places it might be that the school would have just shut down, everyone would have left.”

Instead, the school also opened to the parents of the 43, many of whom moved into its classrooms for the first few years of searches.

Santiago Aguirre Espinosa got word of the attack on the weekend it happened. A delegation from Centro Prodh, a human rights organization, was in Guerrero, investigating another massacre.

In time, he came to represent the parents, bearing witness to their pain, growing frustration and changing expectations.

Some parents still spend the night by their front door, to be there in case their son comes back, he said. But families increasingly refer “more often to finding the truth, whatever it may be, than specifically their sons — a heartbreaking implication,” he said.

The anguish, for some, is familiar. The great-uncle of Cutberto Ortiz Ramos, one of the 43, was also forcibly disappeared decades ago.

“As a country we have done something wrong that we truly need to remedy,” he said.

In his quest to find his missing son, Emiliano Navarrete Victoriano has lost touch with his two other children.

He jumped at every clue, every search: In a poppy field, along river banks, on mountain passes. Each spelled a new disappointment. The expectations of his younger sons became unbearable.

“I knew I would not be able to look them in the eyes, because their eyes would be asking: ‘Did you find him?’”

Mr. Navarrete began to avoid them and their shared disappointment.

But he cannot stop the search. “At this point I don’t care what I lose as long as I find him,” he said.

Vania Pigeonutt contributed reporting from Chilpancingo.

Source: NYT > World News

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