In September, authorities in the Mexican city of Iguala forced 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School into a police vans after a protest against rising university costs and government education reforms. The 43 students have not been seen since.
An event held Monday at the University’s School of Social Work focused on Mexico’s Missing 43. Associate Anthropology Prof. Jason De León moderated a panel that featured speakers Jaime Pensado, director of the Latin American Studies program at the University of Notre Dame and Jorge Najera Godinez, a visiting student from Guerrero who has lived in Iguala.
In the weeks since the students’ disappearance, Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, vanished after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. Iguala is in the Mexican state of Guerrero, which has been a center of cartel-related violence in recent years. Mass graves have been found, but investigators have not yet been identified as the remains of the missing students. Investigators say that the local police delivered the students to the Mexican drug cartel Guerreros Unidos. Four members of the cartel were arrested and provided the investigators with more information on the case.
The event, which drew about 70 people, was hosted by the Latin American and Caribbean Studies department and Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and co-sponsored by the International Institute, the Latina/o Studies Program and the Romance Languages and Literature departments. A vigil was held at the Diag after the event.
“We have been brought here by together to talk about these missing 43 students, but this is not an anomaly unfortunately,” De León said. “It’s been happening for a very, very long time and it’s unfortunate that it takes this sort of event to raise attention in the U.S. media.”
However, he noted, many of these challenges are related to broader global processes, including U.S. foreign policy.
“As a community we want to understand the gravity and also the horror of what is going on, and understand better the situation of students who are fighting for economic and social justice in Mexico,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies department.
Pensado presented on the similarities and differences between Mexico today and Mexico of the 1960s, focusing on 1968 when student movements were also taking place. However, the student movements were much less popular than current activities. Today, the movements are largely non-partisan and unsupportive of political parties in general, attracting students from Mexico’s elite universities, conservative and Catholic students, as well as participants from both sides of the political spectrum.
“What I want to emphasize today is a sense of optimism that I see,” Pensado said. “I’ve been fascinated by the social uprising that has developed not only in Mexico City but across the nation and across the world in support of the people of Guerrero, but also to sort of question and pressure the Mexican state to finally transform its system so that things like this will not happen again.”
Pensado noted that there are two options that could follow: a peaceful social movement or an armed uprising.
“Every time there is a massacre in the state of Guerrero, it has been followed by a guerilla uprising,” Pensado said.
Pensado noted that in Guerrero today, citizens have essentially two governments, the actual state and the narco-state, meaning citizens often pay taxes to both authorities as the link between legal and illegal activity becomes increasingly blurred.
“What you have now is people directly associated with the narco- trafficking and so on, running for elections and winning elections,” Pensado said. “And this is something that was really unheard of if you think of Mexico’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s for instance.”
He noted that in his experience people in Mexico have three reactions toward the situation: fear, distrust of government and anger that is especially prevalent among youth. Pensado noted that 47 out of Mexico’s 81 municipalities have developed self-defense brigades.
Godniez, who spoke partly in Spanish via a translator, was awarded a scholarship to study at the University.
“I just arrived here two months ago and am planning to come back to study my Ph.D., but I want to go back to my community to help my people,” Godinez said.
Godinez noted that what happened in Iguala happens elsewhere in Mexico. The normal schools in the region, where he noted that being an indigenous person is a requirement to gain admission, are the poorest in Guerrero. He also said that the indigenous students are some of the most marginalized in the state.
Godinez said students’ only options are finishing their studies and try to find work, immigrate illegally to the United States or become involved with the cartels.
“The local media, they don’t care about what is happening with our own people so that is really sad,” Godinez said. “Because the media is working for the government, it’s working with the President. And if they are going to show something on the TV is going to be something where the students are acting violent. That’s the only way that they can show something on TV.”
De León emphasized the importance of raising awareness about the plight of these students.
“I think with what’s going on with the student movement now, in order to sustain itself,” he said, “I think there has to be this global push to keep this stuff in the media so it doesn’t become the thing of the hour and then go away again which we continuously are seeing happen.”