Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings
On the night of September 26, 2014, in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked, allegedly by local and federal security forces. Three of the students were killed and 43 were disappeared. The Mexican government claims that the security forces handed the 43 to a drug gang, who murdered them and burned their bodies in a local trash dump.
One set of charred human remains was later identified as belonging to one of the missing students; Alejandro Mora Venancio. The other 42 students are still missing. The case has yet to be conclusively solved, but subsequent reporting indicated that the mayor of Iguala and his wife were tied to organized crime and had a history of violence. Both have been charged in connection with the case, along with dozens of other suspects, including some who said they were tortured. No one has yet been convicted.
By the Mexican government’s own admission not a single person has been convicted of committing a forced disappearance since 2006. (In the Ayotzinapa case, a judge said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support forced disappearance charges.) While the government estimates that some 26,000 people have gone missing in Mexico since the start of the “drug war” in 2006, the disappearance of the 43 last September has become an international symbol of the ongoing institutional crisis in Mexico. Activists, organizers and average citizens around the world have rallied around the tragedy in order to bring attention to the issues of widespread violence, corruption and impunity for criminals and government officials alike.
On Friday morning, a group of demonstrators in Washington, DC protested outside the building where the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights was scheduled to hold a hearing on the state of human rights in Guerrero. They read the names of the 43 students, sang songs and chants, and even shouted “asesinos” (“murdrers”) at the Mexican government delegation as they entered the building.
The protesters were part of a speaking tour known as Caravana 43, which includes family members, classmates and attorneys of the 43 missing students. Over the next two months, a coalition of local groups have scheduled a series of events leading up to the arrival of the “Central Caravan” of parents and family members of the Iguala 43 in mid-April.
On Monday, the lead attorney for the families, Vidulfo Rosales, and Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, a professor and parent of a current student at the Ayotzinapa school, will meet with members of the legal community in Washington, DC. On Wednesday, Rosales and Sandoval will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Maria Luisa Rosal, a field organizer for the anti-militarization group School of the Americas Watch. Local groups have also scheduled a vigil in from of the Mexican embassy on Thursday, March 26, to mark the six month anniversary of the attack.
When the “Atlantic Caravan” (one of three currently making their way through the U.S.) arrives in DC on Monday, April 6, its members, along with other activists, will begin to lobby congress to make a stronger response to the Iguala incident as well as to the larger issues of continued US funding in support for the “drug war” and the US government’s relative lack of concern for human rights problems and corruption in Mexico.
In a country where political leaders and police forces are often in the pockets of criminals, or else are cowed by them, speaking out can get you killed. As one member of the Caravana in Dallas put it, “We come to say things we can’t say in Mexico.” But perhaps more dangerous than the threats and violence against journalists and human rights advocates, is the Mexican government’s lack of responsiveness to the concerns of its citizens.
It took President Enrique Peña Nieto over a month to meet with the parents of the victims of the Iguala attack, and former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam ended a press conference on the incident by saying he was “tired” of discussing the issue. Thus, groups fighting for justice in the case are taking their message to Mexico’s powerful northern neighbor in the hopes that stronger international pressure will force the government to thoroughly investigate and conclusively solve the case.
From a public diplomacy standpoint, this strategy makes a lot of sense. In addition to being the country’s largest trading partner, the United States provides Mexico with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security assistance each year. There are also legal provisions in place to help ensure that U.S. aid does not support security forces accused of human rights abuses. If Mexican activists aren’t getting traction with their own government, it seems logical to target its biggest benefactor.
While it remains to be seen what effect the Caravana has, if any, on the resolution of the Ayotzinapa case and the thousands of other disappearances in Mexico, if nothing else, this grassroots, ground-level organizing will likely to help foster interpersonal and institutional ties that could sow the seeds for continued activism and lobbying for change in both countries. The English saying “many hands make light work,” translates easily into Spanish: “muchas manos hacen trabajo ligero.”