Ayotzinapa: an unheard cry for justice

"Ayotzinapa was the state". Flickr. Some rights reserved.

One year has passed since 43 students
from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the state of Guerrero were disappeared by perpetrators
whose identity remains unknown and whose crimes remain unpunished. The
brutality attributed to the disappearance and alleged killing of the students,
as well the covert and overt involvement of public officials and security
personnel, put an end to the silence and inertia that seemed to had taken hold
of Mexico.

Despite the several episodes of brutality
and impunity shaking the nation over the last decade, including the mass
killing of 22 civilians in Tlatlaya in the State of Mexico only two months
before Ayotzinapa, no event had produced such a national sense of indignation as
the disappearance of the 43 students.  Ayotzinapa
shattered at once the image of stability, cohesion, and economic modernization
so carefully crafted by president Peña Nieto since the moment he took office in
2012. Ayotzinapa demonstrated that violence and insecurity were far from
becoming an ancillary topic in the public agenda and that despite the
government’s otherwise successful economic reforms, security and justice would
continue to reflect the state’s incapacity to establish the rule of law.

Ayotzinapa expresses, perhaps in the
most transparent and dramatic way, the legacies of a war on drugs that
continues to loom large in the policies and politics of the Mexican state. It
reveals the levels of corruptibility and criminal complicity that exist within
different levels of government. It underscores criminal organizations’
increased capacity to both coopt and coerce state officials. It brings to the
fore the abuses and human rights violations that have either been neglected or
promoted by government officials in the name of security.  It furthermore sheds light on the consequences
of a set of policies that construed the lives of suspected criminals as less
worthy to be subject to a system of due process and justice.

Without the visibility and public
support that parents and friends of the 43 students have called upon, Ayotzinapa
would be just one more amongst the 25 thousand anonymous and unpunished
disappearances that have taken place in the country since the end of 2006. Without
their names and faces standing at the forefront of street protests, local and
international newspapers, and pro-human rights demonstrations, the 43 students
would become yet another casualty in a war that has divided the nation between
law-abiding citizens and those “others” whose killing could go unpunished.

Of course, the occurrence and ongoing
impunity of Ayotzinapa signifies more than a legacy of the war on drugs. As a
historian working on lynchings and extrajudicial killings in twentieth-century
Mexico, I have been able to document firsthand a reoccurring theme of cases wherein
state officials- from mayors to police officers and military personnel-
participated in the torture and killing of individuals who were deemed politically
dangerous.  Against the image of a
Mexican state that was able to build a “perfect dictatorship” through
cooptation and limited repression, history shows that Ayotzinapa is part of a
longer trajectory wherein political elites have tolerated and at times promoted
the use of extrajudicial violence in order to establish their rule. Furthermore,
political elites- at both the local and state level- have time and again used
police forces as a means to advance their private interests and to establish
alliances with certain criminal groups.

The networks of complicity between
politicians, police forces, and criminal organizations underpinning the
Ayotzinapa case are thus not new. Rather, they are the aggregated and
aggravated result of a long and rather perverse exercise of authority that has contributed
undermining the rule of law. Nonetheless, history does not simply repeat
itself. Between the Mexico of the Ayotzinapa disappearances and that of the
Tlatelolco massacre or the assassination of schoolteacher Lucio Cabañas, there
are decades marked by social and political change. The vibrancy and maturity of
Mexico’s civil society and the level of international scrutiny brought about by
years of democratic struggle squarely situate Ayotzinapa in a historical
present, wherein Mexican citizens and international actors are watching and
willing to act.

The work of the Group of Independent
Experts (GIEI by its Spanish acronym) designated by the Inter-American
Commission for Human Rights, as well as the various demonstrations taking place
in Mexico and other parts of the world throughout the past months, are
illustrative of a new as well as emergent set of demands Mexican political
elites face in regards to the nation’s sense of justice. They are also telling
of the continuing contradictions that characterize Mexico’s system of democracy.
The findings of the GIEI stress the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the
investigation following the Ayotzinapa case. They furthermore suggest that the
criminal complicity of security officials, at various levels of government,
lies at the core of the case. In other words, it calls into question the
“historical truth” articulated by the government and which had depicted
Ayotzinapa as the product of a few local “bad apples,” rather than as the
expression of systematic practices of abuse at all state levels.

Up until now, the Mexican government
has remained open and in principle responsive to the demands of both civil
society and international actors. Nevertheless, in practice, the investigation
process has lacked both transparency and efficacy. The government’s “good
intentions” have utterly failed to provide a sense of truth and justice that parents,
students, and citizens alike continue to demand. Civil society, public opinion,
and international players must remain vigilant and alert in order to bring
justice to the Ayotzinapa students.  Ayotzinapa
is neither an isolated case nor one that can be subsumed under a narrative of
drug-trafficking and “local” lawlessness.

Indeed, Ayotzinapa “fue el Estado,” inasmuch
as it was and continues to be the result of impunity and systematic practices
of abuse within different levels of government.

Omar García, one of the students that
survived the attacks perpetrated that tragic night of September 26th
of 2014, was asked in a recent conversation with university students in Mexico
City to talk about the 43 disappeared. “How were they? What did they like to
do? What soccer team did they supported?” asked candidly a student in an effort
to bring their voices and lives back. Omar responded, pointing at different
directions in the audience,  “they were
like you, and like you, and also like you.”

As long as we understand that
Ayotzinapa is not an aberration that happens to “others,” as long as we regard
it as a mirror and not simply a distortion of Mexico’s present reality, then we
may be able to bring the 43 and the thousands of Mexicans who have been forcedly
disappeared, back from oblivion and their disappearance, and closer to a sense
of justice.

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