By now you will have heard about the murders and forced disappearances of the “normalistas”—education students who were training to be rural teachers in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. Unmarked, mass graves have been found and everyone waits in dread.
Tourists know about Guerrero’s Pacific coast resorts in Acapulco and Ixtapa. What most do not know is that wealth generated by tourism does not circulate in a way that benefits all of the people of the state. Most of the 3.5 million people in Guerrero—just steps away from the resorts—subsist in grinding poverty.
The 43 missing students, plus the three who died during the initial assault by municipal police in the city of Iguala, all came from small, mountain towns. Many were Indigenous, and looked forward to being bilingual teachers—using Nahuatl or Mixtec (or any of several other languages) along with Spanish to impart knowledge.
They attended a normal school in Ayotzinapa, one among a system of rural teacher-training colleges created in 1933 to support education in rural communities—a sign of the Mexican Revolution’s commitment to social justice and equality.
So, why did this happen? The system of globalized capitalism known as neo-liberalism adopted by Mexico over the past 20 years has made the students and their cultures redundant, wrote Alejandro Nadal of the Centre for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico. Industrialized agriculture is privileged over traditional small-holder farms.
“That is to say, there is no place for campesino farmers who aspire to a dignified life in freedom. The youth of Ayotzinapa rebelled and the established powers responded,” Nadal wrote in La Jornada.
And who are those powers? Again we see, as we have repeatedly over the past decade’s stepped-up “war on drugs”—which has taken more than 100,000 lives in Mexico—we see the collusion of a drug cartel (this one is called Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors) with the political system. The mayor of Iguala (from Mexico’s supposedly left-opposition PRD party) is in hiding; his brother-in-law and the city’s head of security are among those arrested in connection with the crimes.
“The war on drugs has never controlled drug trafficking and has always been about social control, wrote Laura Carlsen, director of the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. “Now it’s Mexico’s youth that are paying the price of that duplicity.”
Sadly, most media coverage is derogatory about the students. A Financial Times report says the students are “from the radical Ayotzinapa teacher training college.” A report from Agence France Presse distributed by Yahoo says the college is “known as a hotbed of radical protests.”
By contrast, a New York Times report refrains from blaming the victims and instead sheds some light on the relationships among political authorities, police force, and drug-trafficking cartels. Mexico’s best daily newspaper, La Jornada, decries media “criminalization” of the students.
I lived and worked in Mexico from 1994 to 2000. I was based in the city of Cuernavaca, about 90 km south of Mexico City in the state of Morelos and about 50 km north of the border with Guerrero. We frequently visited a Nahua Indigenous community near Taxco, Guerrero. If you take the libre (the two-lane, non-toll route) towards Acapulco, you pass through Iguala.
During those years, I made several visits to the city of Tlapa in the eastern part of the state. I came to know the Tlachinollan human rights centre and once spent an afternoon near Olinalá talking with a group of rural teachers. Their option for the poor was absolute and inspiring.
The students reflected the context from which they emerged and to which they would have returned as teachers and community leaders: impoverished and exploited rural Mexico. Their work was heroic.
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