Since the 43 Students Went Missing, 130 Bodies Have Been Found Outside Iguala, Mexico

The students’ bodies haven’t been found, except for one bone fragment. But rural Mexicans are seeking answers in a larger epidemic of disappearances—and unearthing graves.

Chantal Flores March 7, 2016

(Photos by AFP / Getty Images)

Iguala, Guer­rero, Mex­i­co — On a Sat­ur­day after­noon, Iguala’s mar­ket is not as crowd­ed as it once was. The grills at the entrance are siz­zling but emp­ty, and for months the stalls have held the same jew­el­ry for sale. Life has changed since 43 stu­dents from a near­by teacher-train­ing col­lege went miss­ing more than a year ago.

Contreras has marked 78 possible graves, none of which turned out to be his son’s.

We don’t sell,” says Car­men, 30, a jew­el­ry mer­chant. Her stall sits right in front of the bus sta­tion where, on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, stu­dents from the Ayotz­i­na­pa Nor­mal School, 90 miles away, bor­rowed” three bus­es to take to a protest in Mex­i­co City, and then vanished.

Com­man­deer­ing bus­es is a com­mon tac­tic of the nor­mal­is­tas, teacher-train­ing stu­dents from poor and rur­al areas who are resist­ing nation­wide edu­ca­tion­al reforms. They have shut down radio sta­tions and blocked Mexico’s main high­way in their efforts to pre­serve labor pro­tec­tions, instruc­tion in indige­nous lan­guages, and the Marx­ist, social-jus­tice cur­ricu­lum that became the stan­dard in rur­al schools in the wake of the Mex­i­can revolution.

On their way home, the Ayotz­i­na­pa stu­dents were ambushed by munic­i­pal police. Three were killed and anoth­er crit­i­cal­ly injured in the con­fronta­tion. Forty three vanished.

The dis­ap­pear­ances sparked protests across Mex­i­co and made inter­na­tion­al head­lines. State author­i­ties soon declared that bod­ies that had been found in a mass grave in the hills above Iguala could be those of the miss­ing stu­dents. But the 38 bod­ies were not the stu­dents’ and have yet to be iden­ti­fied. To date, only one bone frag­ment, which the gov­ern­ment said had been found in a riv­er, has been pos­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fied as belong­ing to a miss­ing stu­dent: 19-year-old Alexan­der Mora.

For­mer Iguala May­or José Luis Abar­ca and his wife, María de los Ánge­les Pine­da, are accused of mas­ter­mind­ing the kid­nap­ping. Accord­ing to the government’s ver­sion, Abar­ca was con­cerned that they would dis­rupt an event in Iguala, and local police inter­cept­ed the stu­dents and hand­ed them over to the drug gang Guer­reros Unidos. A report by the Inter-Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion of Human Rights ques­tions this expla­na­tion, not­ing that mil­i­tary and fed­er­al police forces were mon­i­tor­ing the stu­dents’ move­ments at the time of their disappearance.

Iguala’s ven­dors resent the nar­ra­tive that local cor­rup­tion is sole­ly to blame. On the news you only see pure gos­sip, things that are good for them, for the gov­ern­ment,” says Car­men, who request­ed a pseu­do­nym out of fear of the nar­cos. It screws the citizens.”

My cus­tomers from out­side who buy whole­sale told me that they are afraid, that in here peo­ple steal and kill,” says Car­men. Even my aunt who lives in Ari­zona calls me and asks if I’m okay, because she saw Iguala on the news. But here every­thing is real­ly qui­et: no tourists, no sales, no nothing.”

I can’t give infor­ma­tion,” says a mid­dle-aged sell­er of pirat­ed discs, duck­ing behind her mer­chan­dise. There are peo­ple pass­ing by.”

We are scared, that’s why we don’t talk,” says Car­men. They are scared of the nar­cos, who often posi­tion hal­cones (“fal­cons”) in pub­lic spaces as the gang’s eyes and ears. The pick­ups of the fed­erales, the Mex­i­can fed­er­al police, do noth­ing to reassure.

The mer­chants who do talk, includ­ing Car­men, describe life before Sep­tem­ber 2014 as calm and with­out major trou­bles. The streets had no pot­holes, the pub­lic gar­dens were beau­ti­ful, and you could walk at night with­out fear. Some peo­ple say that it was a nar­co­gov­ern­ment, but we were fine,” Car­men says. Once I heard three gun­shots, but it was between them, they were fix­ing their issues with­out both­er­ing us.”

Not all res­i­dents agree with this rosy his­to­ry. Mem­bers of the local group The Oth­er Dis­ap­peared of Iguala describe a town where, for the last decade, peo­ple have sim­ply van­ished, but no one spoke of it; talk­ing could get you killed.

The surge of vio­lence and dis­ap­pear­ances in Guer­rero, and across Mex­i­co, dates back to when Pres­i­dent Felipe Calderón declared a nation­wide War on Drugs in 2006. What changed after the 43 was that hun­dreds of fam­i­lies through­out Guer­rero gained the courage to pro­claim that their rel­a­tives were also miss­ing and crit­i­cize author­i­ties for fail­ing to inves­ti­gate. After talk­ing to the low­er-rank­ing mem­bers of drug car­tels, many fam­i­lies say they’ve been told that fed­er­al and state secu­ri­ty forces were involved.

Mean­while, human remains con­tin­ue pop­ping up. The Oth­er Dis­ap­peared has uncov­ered more than 130 bod­ies since begin­ning search­es in Novem­ber 2014.

Guadelupe Con­tr­eras’ son, Anto­nio Iván, 28, dis­ap­peared from Iguala on Oct. 13, 2013. On a Mon­day morn­ing, after pulling a week­end-long shift at the auto­mo­tive shop where he worked, he had stopped by a friend’s auto parts store, then head­ed home. He nev­er arrived. His wife and three kids are still wait­ing. That’s a dis­ap­pear­ance: Your loved one sim­ply van­ish­es with­out explanation.

Every Sun­day morn­ing, Con­tr­eras, 58, leaves his house to search for his son. He meets rough­ly 20 mem­bers of The Oth­er Dis­ap­peared in the cen­ter of town, where they grab their shov­els and picks and set out to roam the rugged hills out­side the city. Often escort­ed by the fed­erales, vol­un­teers walk for hours look­ing for signs of unmarked graves — loose dirt, dis­turbed soil, garbage, clothes — and mark­ing them with stones or red flags.

Con­tr­eras has marked 78 pos­si­ble graves, none of which turned out to be his son’s.

Mem­bers usu­al­ly do not exca­vate the graves for fear of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, but did in Novem­ber 2015, to show author­i­ties there are plen­ty of bod­ies to recov­er. From a hole 2 feet deep, the earth dis­gorged a fibu­la, tied up with rope. The Attor­ney General’s office sent gov­ern­ment agents to exhume the remains. Sev­en bod­ies were found. At first it hurts [to find a grave] because you imag­ine that is your rel­a­tive,” says Adri­ana, 30, who is look­ing for her broth­er. But then you get used to it. You get used to the pain, real­ly, because the pain is persistent.”

Accord­ing to Con­tr­eras, 70 per­cent to 80 per­cent of the marked spots turn out to be graves. But the government’s work is slow. It took them eight to nine months to get the [first] 104 bod­ies,” he says. Only 17 of those have been iden­ti­fied and hand­ed over to their families.

We saved them the work of six months,” says Con­tr­eras. Hope­ful­ly they will chan­nel it well.” The group con­tin­ues to demand the cre­ation of a nation­al search program.

Mex­i­co is fac­ing inter­na­tion­al heat over the dis­ap­pear­ances. In Feb­ru­ary 2015, the U.N. Com­mit­tee on Enforced Dis­ap­pear­ances pub­lished a report crit­i­ciz­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion of the dis­ap­peared stu­dents and call­ing for the pros­e­cu­tion of any author­i­ties involved. In Octo­ber, the U.S. Con­gress rebuked Mex­i­co for its lack of progress on human rights by approv­ing only about $148 mil­lion in secu­ri­ty aid, the low­est since 2011.

In Decem­ber, Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Enrique Peña Nieto announced a draft law for the cre­ation of a nation­al search sys­tem and a miss­ing per­sons reg­istry, among oth­er things. It is like­ly to pass, but unlike­ly to be well imple­ment­ed, giv­en the wide­spread gov­ern­ment col­lu­sion with drug cartels.

What’s clear is that fam­i­lies will con­tin­ue dig­ging with their own hands and ask­ing the same ques­tion they’ve been ask­ing since 2006: Where are our chil­dren, our hus­bands, our loved ones?

Chan­tal Flo­res is a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Mex­i­co City. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her first book, focused on the par­ents of Mexico’s dis­ap­peared. Her writ­ing has appeared at Vice, Rolling Stone Mex­i­co and Upwor­thy.
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