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Life and Death, Hope and Fear: a visit to Iguala

By Maggie Ervin

The city of Iguala in Guerrero state, Mexico

It was here in Iguala, a city whose name means “place of the serene nights,” where local police killed six people and disappeared 43 students on the night of Sept 26th. This latest episode in Mexico – unlike many other bloody events since massive US – supported militarization began here in 2007 – has made national and international headlines, and sparked tens of thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets in protest. The outrage is palpable. As Edgar, a man I spoke with here in Iguala, put it, “We never thought they’d go this far. They really gave it to us this time…People are fed up.” For the last six weeks, despite the government’s promise to do all it can to find the students and its unprecedented deployment of federal police and army on the search, they have yet to be found.

Although its population is less than 120,000, Iguala, Guerrero, is an important city in Mexico due to its key role in the country’s history. In 1821, the famous Plan of Iguala was signed here, declaring Mexico free of Spanish rule. Soon after, the first national flag was both designed and sewn here. And Iguala is the only city mentioned in the national anthem. So if you’re Mexican, you’ve probably heard of it. If there’s national, historic symbolism to this place, it’s hard not to see recent events here as emblematic of Mexico’s present. 

Death is all around these days, it seems: images of Catrina, the skeleton woman who dons a lavish 19th century hat; the colorful sugar skulls of all sizes called calaveritas; kids dressed up as zombies and ghosts. All this, of course, because this weekend was Day of the Dead, a celebration with a rich pre-Hispanic history – later syncretized with All Saints’ Day – which involves remembering and communing with the dead. But it seems there are other deaths around as well: That of trust. (Something’s wrong when you fear your police. Or when, as a sovereign nation with plenty of forensic experts, your citizens demand you bring in their Argentinian counterparts to identify the bodies.) That of security. (My taxi drivers: “People are careful about who they talk to. You should be too.” “Please get in the front seat if you want to talk.”) That of any remaining confidence in the country’s three main political parties (all tainted with corruption and links to organized crime). And it’s easy to lose count of the mass graves found around Iguala. It seems that every few days since the students disappeared, more have been discovered. I thought I’d managed to keep track of how many, at twenty, but then Edgar said there were two new ones just found on the edge of town that had yet to be accounted for.

Like any city, there are official graveyards here too. And on every November 1st and 2nd, families visit them to remember their dead. So by Saturday Iguala’s three cemeteries were replete with families cleaning graves and decorating them with the yellow and purplish-red flowers known as cempasúchil. Meanwhile, its main plaza filled up with captivating and creative tributes: to deceased pets, to Led Zepellin’s drummer, to mortal victims of breast cancer, to a bride in Chihuahua who legend says was embalmed into a mannequin, to Robin Williams, and to the 43 missing students.

The world awaits news of them. Millions of people are desperately hoping that they’re still alive, that there will be no tombstones decorated for them on next year’s Day of the Dead. “They took them alive, we want them back alive!” is being chanted all over Mexico and abroad, in march after crowded march. There have been some testimonies, however, that suggest the students were killed. So while there is hope, there is also fear. Fear that to the more than 60,000 violent deaths in Mexico over the last seven years, there will be added 43 more. Which would be the worst historic legacy that Iguala could leave. 

Iguala’s Flag Museum

The green of the Mexican flag represents liberty, the red union, and the white peace, which feels elusive these days. In addition to recent grisly events, Edgar added that, “If the students are found dead, there’s gonna be a bloodbath here.”

Mexico’s second largest flag lies on the edge of town. Although President Peña Nieto tried to ignore the violence in the country, his focus on “moving Mexico” forward and his claims of security came crashing down with news of the massacre and disappearances. This added to recent revelations that (in his home state) 22 civilians were killed point blank by army members after having surrendered, an event which the army had tried to cover up.

Mexican Independence from Spain was declared here 193 years ago. The declaration contains three main points, the third of which is the “union of all social classes.” Unfortunately, though, the divide between haves and have-nots in Mexico is still alarming. Almost half the population is officially considered poor. The 43 missing students all came from humble, rural families and were studying to become schoolteachers in their communities.

Iguala’s mayor Jose Luis Abarca quickly fled town as his possible role in the massacre and disappearances, as well as revelations of his close ties with organized crime, came to national light. His fortune expanded rapidly over these last few years, and  among his many properties that sprang up is this shopping mall.

The city’s police chief is on the run as well. Soon after the massacre and the subsequent arrests of officers, the local police department was closed. It was later reopened with federal police in charge. Mexico’s federal police, however, have a dubious human rights record, and enjoy widespread impunity for violations. The National Human Rights Commission received 146 complaints of human rights violations by federal police in 2006. By 2012, that number had jumped to 802. Since 2008, over 1.2 billion US taxpayer dollars have been directed to Mexico through the Merida Initiative. Beyond massive military equipment, these funds have supported “security services,” used in part to train and increase these police forces.

There is now a heavy federal police presence in Iguala. “But there’s talk that they’ve started to extort just like the local police did,” said one of my communicative taxi drivers.

A tombstone in the main cemetery of Iguala decorated with the cempasúchil flowers

A truck in Iguala

The US government has been largely silent about the 43 disappeared students. The White House called it “worrisome” last week, and the State Department only issued a brief statement soon after the incident. Read our recent Action Alert and take action to demand that the US government take a more forceful and vigorous stance.

In the city’s main church, this image had special resonance, as “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, advocate of difficult and desperate causes.”

From the tribute to the missing students in Iguala’s main plaza: “You took them alive, we want them back alive!”


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