Bringing up the Bodies: Mexico’s Missing Students Draw Attention to 20,000 ‘Vanished’ Others
The shocking disappearance of 43 student teachers lifted the lid on the open secret of Mexico’s many others who’ve disappeared amid drug-fuelled violence
They found the first grave in a thicket of spiny huisache trees clinging to the hillside outside the town of Iguala. Under a pounding midday sun, about a dozen men and women watched as an older man plunged a pickaxe into the heavy soil. Some offered advice on where and how to dig; mostly they looked on in silence
When he turned up a human femur, Mayra Vergara turned her back and broke into silent tears. She had hoped that today she might find some clue to the fate of her brother Tomás, a taxi driver who was kidnapped in July 2012, never to be seen again. But whoever lay in the shallow grave, she said, they deserved more than this.
“Even if it isn’t my brother in there, it is still a person. A person who deserved a proper burial,” she said, her face contorted in anger and grief. “And the question is when? When are they going to do something for us?”
The disappearance and probable massacre of 43 student teachers after they were attacked and arrested by Iguala’s municipal police two months ago has focused world attention on the horror of Mexico’s drug violence – and the official corruption that allows much of it to happen.
A wave of protests triggered by the massacre put President Enrique Peña Nieto under acute political pressure.
But the incident has also lifted the lid on the open secret of Mexico’s many other disappeared: amid the drug-fuelled violence of recent years, some 20,000 people have simply vanished.
‘In these hills there are probably hundreds of graves’
Relatives of the missing have largely remained silent for fear of retribution. Now, however, many have found new strength to denounce the terror imposed by criminal gangs – often in blatant collusion with state authorities.
“It is time to lose our fear and take advantage of the moment to say what we need to say so that everybody knows that this is not just about the 43,” said Claro Raúl Canaán, who was looking for some clue to the fate of two of his sons who went missing in 2008.
“In these hills there are probably hundreds of graves. In Mexico there are thousands.”
In the days and weeks after the students went missing, investigators found a series of mass graves just a few miles from the poverty-stricken outskirts of Iguala. Residents later told reporters how they had often seen convoys of gunmen– and municipal vehicles – heading up dirt tracks that lead to nowhere. They remembered the screams that sometimes pierced through the night.
Thirty-eight bodies have been removed from the mass graves, but DNA tests have shown that none is that of a missing student. So far, four have been identified, including a Ugandan priest who was reportedly killed after refusing to baptise a drug lord’s child.
The search for the students has since moved elsewhere, but over the past couple of weeks, relatives of “the other disappeared” began to get organised.
Already, data has been gathered on 200 cases. More are expected to come forward.
“It is so hard to go on like this without some kind of sign that will let us rest from all the pain, and all the waiting,” said Reina Marcelo, whose husband and son were abducted from the family’s used car lot in May 2011. “I am still frightened, but less so now there are a lot of us.”
The government wants everybody to forget what went on
It was this sense of common purpose which helped take a caravan of about 50 relatives into the hills on a recent morning, guided by information from a local farmer who said the area had “smelled very bad” about a year ago. Once there, they dispersed among the thorny trees looking for patches of sunken ground which suggested something lay buried beneath. Calls for shovels and pickaxes followed. Little plastic flags on sticks were ready to mark those that yielded bones or teeth.
“We are breaking the law, but we have to find a way of forcing the government to move,” said Miguel Ángel Jiménez, a member of a vigilante group which argues that Mexico’s security crisis can be solved by local militias and regional self-government. Now the group is also galvanising the search for older remains. “What the government seems to want is for everybody to just forget about what went on here.”
Distrust of the authorities also underlies a plan to develop a DNA database of the relatives, with a newly created NGO called Citizen Forensic Science, designed to guard against the authorities prematurely closing cases by handing over the wrong bodies to the wrong relatives.
While some searched among the trees or hacked away at the ground, other relatives in the group described years of fruitless visits to government and judicial offices that left them feeling officials were mocking their pain.
“Even if it isn’t my brother in there, it is still a person. A person who deserved a proper burial”
Others said they never even bothered to make an official report. After all, the fact that local authorities colluded with local criminal groups was common knowledge long before the students were attacked by municipal police and allegedly handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang.
Francisca Soñanez’s father went missing in August last year while delivering newspapers. Two of her sons were dragged from the family home by armed men a month later. She assumed this was retaliation for having reported the first crime. She didn’t report the second.
In some cases the collusion appears just as blatant as in the case of the students: Canaán’s two boys were last seen within sight of a municipal police checkpoint; María Luisa Bastián’s grandson went missing from the city prison.
Laura García knew soldiers had bundled her brother Francis Alejandro and five others into a vehicle outside the family-owned disco in 2010 because of CCTV images on a disk pushed under her door. The soldiers came from the Mexican Army’s 27th battalion, based in Iguala – the same unit that did nothing to stop police attacking and disappearing the students on 26 September.
García’s case was taken up by several international human rights groups, but still no progress was made. “If they had paid attention to us before this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “This whole thing with the students is like watching the same movie again. The faces of their parents are just like my mother’s.”
García has given up hope that her brother could still be alive, but many relatives still find some tainted solace in the idea that their loved ones could have been forcibly recruited into the gangs, an idea also nurtured among parents of the disappeared students.
This has meant many days hanging around the morgue after reading news of shoot-outs, as well as dangerous trips into poppy-growing areas, following rumours of slave labour.
For now, however, the search for the other disappeared is concentrated on efforts to pressure the authorities into meticulous examination of the graves the relatives are partially uncovering in those Iguala hills.
Sunday’s caravan returned to the city having identified six sites containing bones and one with clothes. They left as the leaden sun started to dip; federal police stretched yellow crime scene tape around the sites.
“At least we want to be able to bury them properly,” Vergara had said after seeing that first femur. “At the moment we don’t even have a place we can go to cry.”
* * *
Related: “Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy” — Book Review: “By the time of the presidency of Luis Echeverría (1970-1976), write Watt and Zepeda, the government of Mexico was already associating ‘all types of political activism with criminality and frequently with drug trafficking.’ Watt and Zepeda set up the national and international context at the time, painting in broad strokes the Mexico where the CIA and the DEA began to set up a ‘permanent drug war.’ …”
Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy, Peter Watt & Roberto Zepeda, Zed Books, 2012.
If you look for it, you might find find a buried headline about how a Caravan organized by Mexicans impacted by drug violence is making its way from the U.S. Mexico border to Washington DC, calling for justice and peace in Mexico. Hundreds of people are gathering at each of the stops along the way to remember the dead and disappeared, and to denounce the ongoing atrocities being committed in the name of the War on Drugs.
It goes without saying that coverage of the Caravan pales in comparison to reports of new atrocities in Mexico, which, stripped of any context, make headlines around the world. Even so, coverage of the violence can hide more than it reveals. By way of example, there is no reliable number of the total number of dead in the war. Most media figures tend closer to the lower estimate of 60,000, while some peg it at over 200,000.
For people looking for a more careful analysis on what is taking place in Mexico, Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda’s new book, Drug War Mexico, is a good place to start. The authors begin by acknowledging the problematic role the mainstream media play in the conflict in Mexico.
“Reports from media organizations like Televisa in Mexico, CNN in the US, and the BBC in the UK tend to present the ‘drug war’ in Mexico as a mysterious and inexplicable conflict in which the government (with the help of its ally, the United States) and the army attempt to defeat the evil tactics and poisonous influence of organized crime,” write Watt and Zepeda in the introduction. “Within this narrow and misleading representation of the drug war, state actors who perpetrate violence and abuse human rights are rarely ascribed agency, and thus are afforded complete immunity by influential mainstream media organizations. Consequently, the drug war is seldom given the historico-political context and analysis it surely merits.”
What follows in Drug War Mexico is Watt and Zepeda’s attempt to map how the intensification of violence in Mexico “did not arrive out of the blue.”
A brief history of drug cultivation, use, and state power in Mexico opens the book, which then delves into anti-drugs initiatives in Mexico from the 1970s onwards. By the time of the presidency of Luis Echeverría (1970-1976), write Watt and Zepeda, the government of Mexico was already associating “all types of political activism with criminality and frequently with drug trafficking.” Watt and Zepeda set up the national and international context at the time, painting in broad strokes the Mexico where the CIA and the DEA began to set up a “permanent drug war.”
The book describes in some detail Operation Condor, a US backed anti- drug plan that involved the militarization of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, as well as aerial spraying of crops with Agent Orange. Drug War Mexico argues these processes made heroin and marijuana prices spike and encouraged the “cartelisation” of the drug trade. “For the producers and traffickers with the best political contacts, the largest networks, and sufficient resources, and for those who had adapted to survive the initial years of this new phase of anti-drug policy, this sharp and sudden rise in the price of their exports was both rewarding and tantalising,” write Watt and Zepeda.
The false notion that the state and drug traffickers are oppositional forces is firmly dispelled in Drug WarMexico, which draws on numerous examples to prove cooperation and at the very least complicity between the political and business class and the so-called underworld. The authors argue that the 1982 election of Miguel de Madrid and the changes heralded in during his term were more significant than the break from the PRI in 2000.
They go on to document how narcotics trafficking must be understood as an “integral component” in Mexico’s economic transformation towards neoliberalism. This economic restructuring took place just as the US led war on drugs was at its most active in the Caribbean, pushing cocaine smugglers into Mexico. Watt and Zepeda carefully document the connections between CIA-linked secret police in Mexico and high level traffickers, relationships which unfolded at the same time as the Iran-Contra debacle came to light in the US.
Later, the book discusses how the North America Free Trade Agreement “provided both the infrastructure and the labour pool to facilitate smuggling…” further developing the idea of a narcotics industry intertwined with neoliberal transformation.
“Proponents of NAFTA thus bear no small responsibility for the growth of drug production in Mexico and, ironically, are often the same individuals behind the ‘war on drugs,'” they write. Drug War Mexico goes a long way towards explaining the notion that the militarization of Mexico through the drug war is a form of “armouring NAFTA.” Even so, the “new narcoeconomy” referenced in the title is outlined but not described with as much detail as it merits. Woven together from journalist sources, analysts and academics, the book may leave readers wishing for more on the ground context and first person perspectives on the violence and terror wreaking Mexico.
In their treatment of the years 2000-2012, Mexico’s two term break with PRI governance, Watt and Zepeda outline much of the more recent context around the drug war. Much of this section will be familiar to more casual observers of the drug war in Mexico, as it includes background on some of the direct groups and characters whose prowess and financial power are bandied around by the mainstream media today.
Here there are a few areas where Drug War Mexico could have gone into more detail so as to debunk baseless information repeated in the mainstream press. For example, the authors use information touted by Forbes magazine regarding the wealth of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo,” even though there is little proof that Forbes has an accurate methodology for determining the fortune of a so-called drug lord.
Watt and Zepeda also claim that “Latin America has remained ‘democratic’ so far, but there is more poverty in the region today than there was 20 years ago,” ignoring the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, an event of key importance which is inextricably linked with US anti-drug policy in the region.
The authors write “As the USA’s closest ally, Mexico has become the latest battleground in assuring US hegemony throughout the hemisphere.” This is, again, worthy of further thought and elaboration in a regional context. Though Mexico’s economy is much larger, it is not immediately clear that Calderón’sMexico is necessarily a closer ally the US than Colombia under Juan Manuel Santos, Panama under Ricardo Martinelli, Honduras under the post- coup presidency of Porfirio Lobo, or even Guatemala under ex-general Otto Pérez Molina.
All said, Drug War Mexico is a carefully constructed and well referenced book that provides valuable insight into the violence throughout Mexico. Dispelling the artificial binary between state forces and so-called drug cartels is perhaps the book’s strongest suit, and is done here in an accessible manner. Excavating histories little known and seldom referenced in the English language press, Drug War Mexico is an important addition to a growing body of work suggesting a new frame through which to understand what is taking place in Mexico today.