Criminalizing the Victims : The Latest Anti-Ayotzinapa Strategy

“The government has launched a ferocious campaign of disqualification and repression against the Ayotzinapa teachers college along with the families to create a smoke screen…”

By Andalusia Knoll

As families and classmates continue to search for the truth about the 43 students, the media and government respond with a criminalization campaign.

“They don’t even do this with the criminals,” the camera shakes as a young man’s voice narrates a video of a high-speed police chase in the green mountains of Guerrero, Mexico. This video, recorded on Nov. 12, 2015, shows how a caravan of police patrol trucks approaches the bus he’s in while a police officer leans in to shatter the window to launch a tear gas canister.

The voice narrating this attack is that of a student from the Ayotzinapa Teachers College who has played an active role in the search for the 43 students who were forcefully disappeared at the hands of state security forces in Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014. Even though 14 months have passed, there is still little known about the students’ whereabouts. The mobilizations of the parents and classmates, who continue to demand that the students be returned alive, have been met with increased repression and criminalization by media outlets and the government.

Following this attack on the buses, 13 of the students were detained and eight were hospitalized. Dozens ran through the nearby hillsides fleeing from the tear gas.

The state government justified its actions saying that they pursued the students to gain control of a gas tanker that the students had commandeered. While it is known that the students did take control of the tanker, a tactic they have often used as part of their militant activism, the video seems to contradict the version that the students were the first to attack.

This attack represented the government’s latest attempts to dismantle the movement that emerged following the student’s disappearance.

“The government has launched a ferocious campaign of disqualification and repression against the Ayotzinapa teachers college along with the families to create a smoke screen, divert the attention from the commitments they made with the new investigation that would shed light on what happened,” reads a communiqué released by the school’s student committee.

On Nov. 9, 2015, the Mexican daily newspaper Milenio published a video featuring the voice of Ayotzinapa student spokesperson Omar Garcia in conversation with an unidentified student about an attempted kidnapping of 4 students who were presumed to be part of a local narco trafficking group. The article’s author never revealed how he acquired the cell phone recording.

Omar Garcia responded to the video, acknowledging that it was his voice in the video but he believed that the recording had been altered to serve the interests of the author.

“Why, we ask? Why instead of trying to find our classmates in the first 48 hours [of their disappearance] using their cell phones they focus on spying on us?” wrote Garcia in a Facebook post. Rafael López, the father of disappeared student Julio César Lopez, said that the last GPS location registered by his son’s cell phone was of the 27th military battalion located close to where the attacks occurred yet there has been no formal investigation using this technology.

Recently, the movie “Night in Iguala” was released, which is a dramatic recreation of the disappearance of the students based on the theory that the students belonged to the drug cartel “Los Rojos” and went to Iguala to confront a rival cartel. The movie, which plays like a soap opera, upholds the government’s version and visually depicts the student’s incineration in the Cocula garbage dump.

Shortly after the Milenio video was released, Garcia denounced the creation of a clone of his twitter account @Omarel44. The cloned account published a tweet with the hashtag #NarcosenAyotzinapa which became a trending topic filling the twittersphere with sensational violent images, including one of a slaughterhouse referencing that the students were roasted just like chickens.

“Ex director reveals that in Ayotzinapa there are drugs, harassment and beatings,” read the front cover of the sensational La Razon newspaper a week later. While many of the director’s allegations featured in the article that marijuana and alcohol are consumed and sold on the campus, may be true, it is clear that the tone and the moment in which the article was published just serves as a smear campaign against the school.

It is here that we enter into the age-old scenario where the victims are further criminalized and blamed for the violence inflicted on them; where the government wants us to believe that those killed by the “war on drugs” are only those directly involved in illicit activities.  If in fact there are members of organized crime groups in Ayotzinapa, or if any were present during the fateful night in Iguala, does that mean that the 43 students deserved to be forcefully disappeared and 6 other people extrajudicially executed?

Currently, there is new legislation being drafted regarding forced disappearances, a phenomenon that has become a generalized crisis across the nation. Human Rights organizations and victims organizations who have been involved in this process say that government officials should stop criminalizing the family members when they seek out their help to search for their loved ones.

These critiques of Ayotzinapa, which opened its doors in 1926, come at a time when public education in Mexico in  is under attack and those who defend it find themselves increasingly criminalized. Teachers who continue to protest against the  education reform, which they believe paves the road to privatization of education and curtails their rights as workers, have been increasingly met with police repression.

Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest states and without Ayotzinapa, these young men have few other viable economic options apart from working as migrant farmworkers up north or as peons of the transnational drug trade. In a post-NAFTA Mexico where many farmers can’t even eke out a living by harvesting corn or other subsistence crops, the production and trafficking of illegal substances has seen an uptick. Many farmers in Guerrero have converted their fields into poppy harvests as the demand for heroin grows in the United States and the increased legalization of marijuana has lowered the crop’s profits.

Splintered drug cartels, in cahoots with local governments and police forces, battle it out for the control of the drug trade. In the town of Tixtla where the Ayotzinapa college is located, four community police officers have been assassinated, bodies have been dumped in bags along highways, and a curfew has been enacted, recommended by an interim mayor who recognized his own inability to confront the violence.

Governor Hector Astudillo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) party took power on Oct. 27 as the state’s governor promising “Order and Discipline.” But the state’s residents have suffered the exact opposite. More clandestine graves have been discovered close to Iguala and schools in Acapulco have been forced to cancel classes because of extortions.  In the “Sierra,” an isolated mountainous area, self-defense groups have battled it out with members of organized crime and residents have detained soldiers who they believe work with the cartels. “Narco banners” keep popping up in public intersections throughout the state threatening to kill one group or another, or placing the blame on local politicians.

Astudillo has stated the Government of Guerrero has not been able to confront the violence because they lack sufficient policemen, yet an estimated 700 state and federal police participated in the operation against the Ayotzinapa students on Nov. 12. If the movement for the 43 and for the continued operation of the Ayotzinapa school is further criminalized, the lucrative drug trade will find it easier to recruit foot soldiers that have no other viable economic options, while impunity, forced disappearances and insecurity will continue to reign in the region.

Andalusia Knoll is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.  She has covered the Ayotzinapa crisis since the students’ disappearance.  You can follow her at @andalalucha