Commentary | Against the dying of the light

Remembering the 43 disappeared Mexican students

Winter winds were blowing on a bitter November night, constantly extinguishing the 43 candles that we continuously relit outside the Mexican consulate in Montreal. We had gathered, cold and dejected, to pay our respects, to mourn, to comfort, and to be comforted. We had gathered in frustration, anger, and defiance of a corrupt political and economic system that perpetuates a drug war that brings only profits for drug cartels and warmongers at the cost of massive loss of human life. We had gathered to keep the fires of the 43 missing students from perishing in the void that has been left in the hearts of so many.

43 candles illuminated the pictures of those disappeared and almost certainly murdered by the police and members of Guerreros Unidos, a drug cartel. They disapperead on September 26, in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. As we looked at their faces, we saw ourselves: sons, brothers, students, teachers. Looking into the eyes of the 43, it was impossible not to think of the torture that these young students activists must have endured, some with the skin and eyes cut out from their faces (the mark of a cartel killing), some burned alive as they clung to the life remaining in their last breath.

“Abel García Hernández, presente. Abelardo Vázquez Periten, presente. Adán Abrajan de la Cruz, presente…” Unbearable as it was to speak their names, it is now our responsibility to speak the truth, and to keep their candle burning.

The torment and torture of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa has ignited a rage that has spread like wildfire throughout Mexico. Many people, myself included, hope that the sadness and frustration fuelling this fire will burn the entire system down, and root out the fetid decomposition of a power structure corrupted beyond repair by the greed of drug traffickers, police, military, and politicians. This applies not only to Mexico, but also to the U.S. and Canada, where governments fuel the ongoing, futile, and bloody massacre of Mexicans. Since 2006, over 100,000 people – and quite possibly more – have been killed in Mexico, while 27,000 men, women, and children have disappeared. Many of the details of what happened in Iguala are still unclear, but a picture has emerged from the testimony of eyewitnesses and preliminary results provided by a team of international forensic investigators.

Many people, myself included, hope that the sadness and frustration fuelling this fire will burn the entire system down, and root out the fetid decomposition of a power structure corrupted beyond repair by the greed of drug traffickers, police, military, and politicians.

On October 26, more than 100 students from the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, a training school for future teachers in impoverished and largely Indigenous communities in Mexico, travelled to the city of Iguala to protest against unfair hiring practices. They were also planning on attending a convergence in Mexico City to commemorate the October 2, 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco. On the same day, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the wife of José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, was holding an event to launch her political campaign to replace her husband as mayor.

From accounts provided by Jésus Murillo Karam, the Mexican attorney general, Abarca ordered police to make sure that the students did not disrupt the event. Witnesses say that the police began an assault that left 27 injured and killed three students and three bystanders, including two baseball players from a local team that were in another bus as well a woman who was on foot. Some of the students remaining in the buses managed to escape with their lives. The rest, 43 in total, were forcibly rounded up by police and other unidentified members of Guerreros Unidos, and disappeared.

Testimonies from local police officers, who have confessed to being part of the attack, reveal that these students were tortured, burned, and buried in mass graves in the surrounding countryside. However, DNA evidence has not matched the burned remains of bodies found in several mass graves surrounding Iguala to that of the missing students. Who could these others be? No one knows.

The massive demonstrations that have erupted throughout the country in the last two months demonstrate that the killing of the 43 students is a watershed moment for civil unrest in Mexico, which was precipitated by multiple factors.

Given the mass casualties caused directly or indirectly by the war on drugs launched by former Mexican president Felipe Calderón in 2006, it is obvious that this massacre is not an isolated incident. However, the massive demonstrations that have erupted throughout the country in the last two months demonstrate that the killing of the 43 students is a watershed moment for civil unrest in Mexico, which was precipitated by multiple factors.

The most immediate factor is that these students were killed on the suspected order of the mayor of Iguala and his wife, who, according to reports, have family ties to members of the cartel that helped local police carry out the attack and the kidnapping. Second, the students of Ayotzinapa disappeared after an attack that happened in a town that has a federal police station and a military base. This strongly suggests that both the federal police and the military were at best indifferent to the massacre, or at worst complicit in it. In addition, these students belonged to a massive and very powerful teachers’ union that has been instrumental in the mobilization efforts centred in Guerrero and Mexico City. The students that were massacred were activists, and were personally and professionally invested in the education and the empowerment of their communities.

In short, these young student leaders were not criminals, drug traffickers, corrupt police officers, or even innocent bystanders. They were killed because they stood up against the corruption that pervades every aspect of Mexico, ranging from local to national government, and throughout all branches of so-called ‘law enforcement’ and the military.

Responsible are people and governments in the North and the South that uphold a political and economic system that amasses power and wealth from the backs of the poor and the blood of our people.

The civil unrest that has been set ablaze by these incidents has laid bare the fundamental weaknesses in the procurement of justice, and the effectiveness of law enforcement. The system has failed not only in carrying out investigations but also in fulfilling the most basic obligation of the state: guaranteeing a modicum of security for its people, and safeguarding the people’s fundamental human rights. A state that fulfills these obligations was notoriously absent on the night of September 26, but also for many years before that. Statistics in Mexico show that over 98 per cent of all homicides went unpunished last year, and over 93.8 per cent of all crimes go unreported. Such is the state of affairs in Mexico, and such is the lack of faith in the entire system.

The federal government originally made public its determination to find the perpetrators and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. But at this point, those responsible cannot be singled out as only those that pulled the trigger and burned the bodies.

Responsible, also, are those that provide the guns to fight the drug war that has killed over 100,000 people in Mexico. Responsible are those who knew what was happening, had the power and authority to stop the killings, and yet did nothing. Responsible are people and governments in the North and the South that uphold a political and economic system that amasses power and wealth from the backs of the poor and the blood of our people.

Those of us who are not in Mexico, who cannot protest on the streets of Mexico alongside the families of the 43, who are asking simply not to be abandoned in their moment of need, can still give comfort to those families and can still honour the 43. Light candles, and keep their memory alight. As Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”


V. is a pseudonym. To contact the writer, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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