MEXICO CITY—Protesters gathered in the thousands for a march to commemorate the 43 students at a teachers college in southern Mexico who disappeared after being taken into police custody.
The march and rally were part of a nationwide day of protest that saw activity in 19 of the 32 states of Mexico. The primary slogan in Mexico City was “They were taken alive, we want them brought back alive.”
Relatives of the disappeared students formed the lead contingent of the march in Mexico City. They marched in silence and carried a banner with a display of the class photos of each of the 43 missing students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa.
The 43 missing students were last seen in the small city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, where they’d traveled to raise money for school supplies. Part of the proceeds were to cover travel expenses to an annual march in Mexico City commemorating a massacre of hundreds of students by the Mexican army on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics. Six people were killed when armed men opened fire on three buses the students had boarded. The gunmen also opened fire on another bus carrying a local soccer team, which they presumably thought was holding students. Twenty-two police have been detained in conjunction with the killings.
Rural teachers colleges have been a staple of the Mexican educational system for nearly a century. As their name suggests, the schools train students to teach children in some of the poorest, most remote communities in Mexico. The students themselves are drawn from many of the same village communities where they go on to teach.
Marón Esperanza González, 23, the older sister of Cesar Manuel González, one of the disappeared students from Ayotzinapan, said she is shocked the police reacted so violently against her brother and his classmates.
“They were asking for donations like the school does every year. They weren’t threatening anyone. They do it every year. Why kill six kids for no other reason than they were asking for change?”
Her parents have been keeping vigil on the school grounds in Ayotzinapa since September 27, the day they received a call from the school saying their son was missing. She criticized the state government in Guerrero for a lack of support in the search, and said that state representatives were “disrespectful” in meetings with the families.
High school and college students comprised the largest and most boisterous contingents in the march. Students from Genaro Vazquez High School in Guerrero wore rubber masks of former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Carlos Salinas, and former first lady Marta Sahagún. Girls from P.S. 182 in Mexico City marched in their school uniforms of navy sweaters and tartan skirts. Some of the young protesters marched with red paint spattered on their faces or chests to simulate blood. A young student with spiked hair and mirrored aviator shades said he and his classmates from the University of the South in Guerrero had endured a 10-hour bus ride to be there.
Several protesters mentioned that the authorities had been cracking down on protest prior to what happened to the students from Ayotzinapa.
“For a long time they’ve treated us like delinquents, like it’s a crime to protest or to stand up for what we believe in” said a first-semester ethnology student from the National School of Anthropology and History who asked to remain anonymous. “What they want from us more than anything is cheap labor.”
A young woman on the curb held a sign that said: “I think, therefore they make me disappear.”
Several hundred teachers and farmers came out in support of the march as well, particularly from the National Network of Education Workers, whose members trailed a pickup truck with a massive sound system on its roof; as they approached the rally site at the zocalo they held up their fists and sang a revolutionary anthem.
Victor Mesino, a carpentry teacher at a middle school in Oaxaca, rode a bus for six hours to attend the protest. He said that the murders and kidnappings by police in Iguala highlight the problem of government officials colluding with organized crime.
“The government has done everything in its power to stop social protest, including acts of repression against social activists. They are being jailed and disappeared. Ayotzinapa was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Silvia Olivares, a retired physical education teacher from Mexico City, watched the march with tears in his eyes.
“I am so upset about what has happened to the children in Guerrero. This is not my country. My country isn’t cartels or drug-traffickers. My country is hard-working good people. I want my country back.”
Peasant farmers from the embattled village of San Salvador Atenco raised their trademark machetes in the air with a slogan penned in red ink on the blade: “October 2, 1968: Never Forget.”
Yaer Uriayya Malpica, a spokesman for the Central Campesina Cardenista, said the rural teachers colleges have strong ties to farmer organizations.“Our roots are in the fields. Many of our members studied at one of the rural teachers colleges. Those colleges provided the children of peasants with a quality education. The students in the rural teachers colleges are our brothers in struggle.”
Police estimated the crowd at 15,000, but it could have been twice that. It was difficult to estimate because the vast main square known as the zocalo, which is ordinarily the site for rallies, was blocked off for an upcoming book festival. Yesterday’s rally was held instead on a street corner in front of the offices of the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Protesters stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight crowd that snaked around the square and out of sight.
Near the end of the rally 80-year-old Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, three-time presidential candidate, was pelted with water bottles and food items and spat upon as he made a hurried exit with a protective escort that included the historian Adolfo Gily. The left-of-center opposition party that Cardenas founded in 1988, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, is implicated in the crimes against the students of Ayotzinapa. The mayor of Iguala is a member of PRD, as is the governor of Guerrero. Cardenas, often referred to by member of his party as a moral authority and who had marched in support of the missing students, had to keep his head low as he was tossed about by the surging agitated crowd; his hair was tousled and bits of it caked with what appeared to be food. Jeers and boos followed him away from any danger.