Downtown Ciudad Juarez includes a visual landscape of ubiquitous painted black crosses on pink background, faded posters of missing persons and street art that protests femicide. In November 2014 new faces stare out from fresh posters displayed on the streets.
“They were taken alive, we want them returned alive,” demands a poster near the corner of Avenida Juarez and Avenida 16 de Septiembre.
“It was the State,” proclaimed the poster bearing the face of 20-year-old Carlos Ivan Ramirez Villareal, one of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college kidnapped and reported murdered by policemen and paramilitary gunmen in Iguala, Guerrero, last September 26 and 27.
In a border city that became synonymous with the so-called narco war, Ayotzinapa is but among the latest histories stitched into the dozens of paradoxically pretty handkerchiefs that were draped from the fence surrounding the city’s Benito Juarez Monument last weekend.
In a comparison of the 1968 Olympics massacre of pro-democracy students in Mexico City, one handkerchief proclaimed: “October 2, 1968 Tlatelolco and September 26, 2014 Ayotzinapa.” Another handkerchief listed the names of the 43 students forcibly disappeared in Iguala.
With tears welling in her eyes, Magda Rojero voiced a common reaction to Ayotzinapa and the events which have turned a nation upside down.
“We are completely indignant. All these people could have been our children. I consider them my children,” Rojero said. An activist with Stitching for Peace, the international network that produces the hand-stitched, color-lettered handkerchiefs with anti-violence messages,
Rojero’s words exemplified the widespread distrust in Mexico, reminiscent of the credibility gap that permeated U.S. society during the Vietnam War, over the statement by Federal Attorney General Jesus Murrillo Karam late last week that the 43 missing students were murdered, their bodies burned in a garbage dump and their ashes dumped into a river.
“We don’t know if they are the victims,” she said. “The government has created a theater. Mexicans don’t believe in them.”
Born of a generation that grew up in the somber shadows of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, Angel Ortega defined Ayotzinapa as “a repetition of Tlatelolco,” even though “we were supposed to have evolved beyond these kinds of politics.” Ortega added that Ayotzinapa recalls another historical precedent: the ovens of the Nazi concentration camps. “We’re doing it to our own people,” he lamented.
As Ortega spoke, passersby glanced at the handkerchiefs hanging beneath the statute of revered President Benito Juarez, telling bits of horrid stories like the murder of 62 people, many of them simply named “unknown,” in the state of Sinaloa last September, and the forced disappearance of 80 families in Allende, Coahuila, back in 2011.
“The country became a secret grave,” reads the handkerchief dedicated to Coahuila.
As if Ortega’s points needed further evidence, the Juarez press reported the November 9 discovery of the burned body of a woman, who had apparently been beaten, in the Anapra section of the city bordering Sunland Park, New Mexico. For Ortega, the future of Mexico rests with its young people, whose education in historical and contemporary issues is severely limited in the schools. “For me, the key is to have critical thinking among the high school students,” he said.
University student Diana Solis, 24, is from another generation with its own big taste of violence. Growing up in Juarez when violence dramatically escalated, Solis said she became politicized by events such the federal police shooting and wounding of an Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez student on campus property during an anti-militarization protest in 2010.
“It was an awakening for me to begin thinking about what was going on, what I should do as a young person,” she said.
“Juarez was the experiment to kill young people, so it could extend all across the country,” Solis contended. “(Ayotzinapa) was the breaking point in the violence that has been going on against youth for years, since the last presidential administration.” In the Ayotzinapa affair, the government’s involvement “can’t be hidden,” the young woman insisted.
Protests against the attacks on the Ayotzinapa students have been less numerous and intense in Juarez than many other places in Mexico, but local activists are on the move, according to Solis.
In addition to four separate blockades of international border crossings last month, hundreds of residents- including university students- have staged street protests, public “die-ins” and postered the streets with pictures of the missing Ayotzinapa students. The burst of activism has met some push back.
For instance, Solis said she was part of a group that was passing out flyers outside the Cobach high school last Friday when the school’s administration locked the doors so students could not join in the protest. School staff members then physically pushed Solis and attempted to grab a camera away from another protester, Solis charged.
According to the activist, municipal police showed up but ended up supporting the contention of her group that it had a right to publicly protest. In Solis’ analysis some things have changed in Juarez since a few years ago when thousands of soldiers and federal police occupied the streets and dozens of murder victims were simultaneously racked up on typical weekends, but the elements that ignited the hyper-violence of 2008-2012 have not gone away.
“The forms may have changed, but the root of the matter is the same,” Solis reflected. “Death and disappearance still happen.”
Disappearance is a word that has dominated the lives of Jose Luis Castillo and his wife in recent years. For more than five years, the couple has waged a practically ceaseless campaign to protest the disappearance of their 14-year-old daughter, Esmeralda, one spring day of 2009 in Juarez.
“We managed to establish that our daughter was taken by a (human) trafficking network,” Castillo said in an interview.
About the only thing that slowed Castillo’s search and protests down was a seven-month imprisonment in 2012 on charges of committing armed robberies together with his son. Eventually released, Castillo maintained his innocence, blaming the arrest on his activism. “We thought the intention was to kill us,” he said. “We were pointing out people who were involved.”
Since Castillo’s scrape with the law, the federal attorney general’s office has assumed the responsibility for investigating Esmeralda’s disappearance and, as part of the probe, is offering a reward of nearly $250,000 for pertinent information.
But Castillo contended that authorities lack “political will” in searching for all the missing girls and women, who number more than 100 according to different government and civil society organization reports. And like the Ayotzinapa episode, crucial gaps in understanding what happened to the victims persist.
“Who were the (victims) delivered to?” Castillo pondered. “Who were they sold to?”
The movements for the disappeared in both Juarez and Aytozinapa are among “many fronts in the struggle,” Solis added. Local activists are charting more actions in the coming days, she said.
Meanwhile, as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto spends the week on an Asian business and diplomatic tour, the protests show no signs of letting up throughout the country, according to the latest Mexican press reports. The week kicked off with a peaceful march for Ayotzinapa by hundreds of university students in Chihuahua City. Teachers led blockades of Citigroup-owned Banamex branches in more than a dozen Michoacan cities, while rural teacher college students blocked highways and seized toll booths up and down the state of Oaxaca.
In Acapulco, thousands of people conducted a shut-down of the city’s international airport November 10, causing the cancellation of several flights from Mexico City and the United States. Preceding the temporary airport closure, several students and policemen were injured in a battle involving rock-throwing and bottle rockets.
On Tuesday, November 11, a clash in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo reportedly left more demonstrators and police officers injured and the state headquarters of President Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party damaged in a blaze set by some protesters.
Quoted in Mexican media outlets, the federal attorney general’s office said Tuesday it was sending human remains recovered from a Guerrero dump to an advanced laboratory in Austria for tests that could indicate whether they belong to any of the missing Ayotzinapa students.