It was the State

The recent disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa has brought back ugly memories of Mexico's dirty war in the 1970s. Tony Wood explores a forgotten chapter of Mexico's history

Text by Tony Wood

Tony Wood-1Mexican students on a burned-out bus, July 28, 1968. Photograph Marcel·lí Perelló

Since early October 2014, the Zócalo – Mexico City’s vast central square – has been the scene of one demonstration after another against the forced disappearance of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa, a small town in the southern state of Guerrero. Tens of thousands of protesters carrying banners, placards and photographs of the 43 have repeatedly filled the plaza, chanting “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” – “They were taken alive, we want them back alive!” – and burning effigies of Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president who has been the focal point for much of the gathering anger against the country’s ruling elite. On the night of November 8, a friend and I filed into the square from 5 de Mayo with a long stream of demonstrators, mostly young women and men, who headed for the enormous flagpole at the Zócalo’s centre, where they gathered and proceeded to call out the names of the 43 before lying down on the ground in a silent “die-in”.

Looking out over our prone bodies from the buildings on the western side of the square were the faces of two of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution – three-storey likenesses, composed of glaring yellow light bulbs, of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, whose armies had ridden imperiously into the capital almost exactly 100 years before, in the midst of an upheaval that remade the country’s political and socio-economic landscape. Between 1910 and 1920, insurgent armies toppled the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, wrote a new, progressive constitution, and began to undo the power of the old landed oligarchies over the mass of the rural population. The ironies of the juxtaposition in the Zócalo were almost too obvious to point out. Villa and Zapata, both from poor peasant backgrounds, had fought to overturn an oppressive, unequal political and social order. Here their stylised faces stood as neutered national symbols, brandished by a succession of governments formed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which ruled Mexico uninterrupted from the 1920s until 2000, and regained the presidency with Peña Nieto in 2012 – even as violence and injustice continued to be meted out to the country’s impoverished rural citizens. Few in Mexico need reminding that the Revolution’s contradictory legacies are still with us, or that many of its goals remain unrealised.

The disappearances of the 43 have been an agonising tragedy in their own right, but they have also struck a particularly deep chord because they come in the wake of the thousands of deaths and disappearances that have gripped Mexico since Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, declared a “war on the narcos” in 2006. He did this, of course, with fulsome support from the United States, which has consistently backed the use of military force abroad to counter the drug trade, rather than addressing its root causes at home. At least 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006 and over 22,000 “disappeared” – an average of more than 50 a week – with the government insisting that the vast majority of these incidents were the work of the drug cartels or other criminals. Part of the reason the case of the 43 became a nationwide rallying point was because it was only the latest in an extremely long line of such crimes – la gota que derrame el vaso”, or “the drop that makes the glass overflow”. For outside observers, perhaps what was most shocking was that, in the weeks following the disappearances, police investigators kept finding one mass grave after another, none of which contained the remains of the students. It began to seem as if, wherever you put a spade into the soil in Mexico, you would find dead bodies. On November 7, Mexico’s attorney general announced that the remains of the 43 had been found, but that they had been incinerated for so long and disfigured so badly that forensic confirmation of their identities would take some time. (Most of the families refused to accept this as fact, and continued to demand their children be returned alive.) One cardboard sign at the protest the following day raised the painful question people had been asking themselves: “What does a country that sows corpses harvest?”

The case of the 43 was, in one crucial respect, however, very different from what had come before. It has long been the conventional wisdom in Mexico that the cartel bosses are protected and served by government officials and law enforcement – that the worlds of the narcos and the political elite are tightly interwoven. But it has been rare for the connection to be laid bare so nakedly as it has been with Ayotzinapa: the students were reportedly abducted by municipal police on the orders of the Mayor of Iguala, whose wife is the sister of a leading local capo; on December 13, a devastating investigative piece in Proceso magazine by Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher further alleged that the whole operation was closely monitored by the federal police. This time, there seemed to be little room for doubt about those ultimately responsible. Hence the slogan, painted in white letters on the Zócalo’s basalt paving stones on the night of October 22: “Fue el Estado” – “It was the State”.

The seemingly direct involvement of the local authorities in the Ayotzinapa disappearances laid bare another truth on which critics of Mexico’s drug war have repeatedly insisted: the government’s supposed battle with the cartels is only the latest iteration of a long-running war against the people. The victims of the violence that has gripped the country with renewed force since 2006 have come disproportionately from poor, rural areas – many of them regions with a deep history of unequal struggles between power and poverty, in which state repression has been meted out with total impunity, and largely out of sight of the national or global media. This was another reason for the special resonance of the case of the 43: the student teachers in Guerrero are the direct heirs to parts of Mexico’s past that have long been neglected or silenced, both within the country and beyond it.

For one thing, the institution the students were from, the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, is one of a network of schools set up in the 1920s, as part of a post-revolutionary project to provide education to the peasantry. The schools, though under increasing pressure from a succession of PRI governments from the 1940s onwards, remained important islands of learning in a state where as late as the 1960s the illiteracy rate was 62 per cent. Designed to inculcate the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution into generations of rural teachers, they have also continued to be the nerve centres of radical political agitation. The 43 were part of a contingent travelling to protest the corruption of local authorities as well as the federal government’s imminent neoliberal education reforms. These would have involved an aggressive restructuring of the Escuelas Normales, which was widely seen as a highly politicised assault on one of the last remaining radical legacies of the Revolution. Faced with the wave of protests, Peña Nieto abandoned that particular aspect of the reforms. But living and learning conditions in the schools, which have been starved of funding for decades, won’t get any less arduous, in what remain some of country’s poorest areas. According to official data, half the population of Guerrero lives in extreme poverty.

But there is one more past on which the Ayotzinapa case has cast a sudden light, and with which some of the victims are personally connected. One of the 43, Cutberto Ortíz Ramos, is the nephew of Cutberto Ortíz Cabañas, who was disappeared by the Mexican security forces in August 1973, and the grandson of Felipe Ramos Cabañas, disappeared in February 1975. Both these men fell victim to the Dirty War that took place in Mexico from the late 1960s to the 1980s. During the Cold War, much of Latin America was ruled by right-wing military dictatorships which jailed, tortured, executed and disappeared thousands of their leftist opponents; Pinochet in Chile, the Argentine junta and the generals who unleashed terror on Guatemala are only the most notorious examples. Mexico, on the other hand, though governed by the same party since the 1920s, was often seen as different: it held regular, if uncompetitive, elections, welcomed dissidents and exiles from other Latin American countries and offered solid diplomatic support to socialist Cuba. Yet even as it did these things, its security forces were torturing and killing hundreds of people across the country. Tania Ramírez, director of the College of Human Rights at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana in Mexico City, refers to the PRI regime as having a “double discourse”, enabling it to maintain a progressive facade while carrying out fierce repression. “It wasn’t only a mask for people outside,” she points out, it was also designed “to convince people inside” Mexico, enabling them to ignore the clampdown on the wave of armed leftist movements that had sprung up during the 1960s.

In her 2006 book México Armado: 1943–1981, journalist Laura Castellanos gives an account of the emergence and fates of these groups, of which there were more than 30 at their peak in the early 1970s – ranging from the Che Guevara-inspired Grupo Popular Guerrillero in the northern state of Chihuahua to the Chiapas-based Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN), to Los Enfermos (“the sick ones”) in Sinaloa state and the Partido de los Pobres in Guerrero. As Castellanos makes clear, most of these groups took up arms only after it became apparent that avenues for peaceful political change had been closed – the definitive moment being the massacre of scores of protestors by soldiers in Mexico City in October 1968. Coming 10 days before the start of the Olympics, which the city was hosting that year, the killings sent shock waves around the world and gave a taste of what was to come in Mexico itself. In Guerrero, the repression came earlier, with the killing of demonstrators in 1960 and the assassination of the peasant political leader Rubén Jaramillo in 1962. Within a few years, two former students from the Escuela Normal in Ayotzinapa would be among the leaders of guerrilla movements: Genaro Vázquez Rojas through the National Revolutionary Civic Association, and Lucio Cabañas as head of the Party of the Poor. (Many of Cabañas’s relatives would join him; hence the bleak recurrence of the family name among the disappeared.)

The state of Guerrero was one of the main epicentres of the Dirty War, which gathered pace during the 1960s but escalated to new levels in the 1970s, under President Luis Echeverría. Castellanos documents the unfolding of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy, which began with the creation of Special Investigations Group C-047 in 1965 – headed by Miguel Nazar Haro, a security-service agent, once described by the FBI as an “essential contact” for the CIA in Mexico. Nazar Haro would subsequently preside over a system of institutionalised terror, in which Mexico pioneered many of the ugly techniques that would later be taken up by torturers elsewhere in Latin America – notably, the practice of dropping bodies into the sea from planes, often still alive. In the mid-1970s, Nazar Haro, soon to be head of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), set up a death squad known as the White Brigade, which was known for carrying out sadistic torture, extra-judicial executions and disappearances. Hundreds of people vanished in Mexico’s Dirty War, starting with Epifanio Avilés Rojas in 1969, its first desaparecido, and continuing on through the 1970s into the early 1980s.

Yet the Dirty War remains disturbingly neglected in Mexico. Not for lack of attempts to bring attention to it: the relatives of the disappeared and political prisoners began organising in the 1970s, some managing to trace their relatives to military camps while others took up the cases of those interned in Lecumberri prison, known as the “Black Palace”. In 1977, relatives of those who remained missing set up what would later become known as the Comité Eureka, which carried out public protests, marches and hunger strikes over the following years. But as Tania Ramírez explained to me, the deaths and disappearances somehow didn’t penetrate the public consciousness. “For many, many years,” she says, “Mexican people didn’t even know that political disappearances were a policy of the state.” Her own father, Rafael Ramírez Duarte, was disappeared in Mexico State in June 1977, and her grandmother was among those regularly protesting in the capital. But “when they came out onto the Zócalo to shout and make demonstrations, people would think, ‘They’re nuts! Everything is OK here. We’re not Argentina; we’re not Chile. Why are they complaining?’”

The contrast with Argentina and Chile is revealing. Where these and other states racked by their own Dirty Wars have held trials of those responsible or established Truth Commissions, Mexico has had at best only a partial reckoning. To date, the Mexican government has established three commissions to investigate the Dirty War. The first, in 1979, was a whitewash, while the conclusions of the second, which completed its work in 1992, were not officially released. A third commission was set up in 2002 on the orders of Vicente Fox, the first president not to come from the PRI party in 80 years, raising hopes of a more genuine attempt to address the past. According to the 800-page report it produced in 2006, there were a total of 645 disappearances, 99 extra-judicial executions and more than 2,000 cases of torture between 1964 and 1982. But this is far from the full picture, as Ramírez explained. The report only includes the deaths, disappearances and tortures that were officially registered, and since many relatives did not file formal complaints at the time for fear of reprisals – even now, many are hesitant to come forward – the true number is surely far higher. Meanwhile, only a tiny fraction of the cases the commission identified have actually resulted in investigations, let alone prosecutions.

Why has there been such complete impunity for the perpetrators? One part of the reason is that even though the DFS was dissolved in the mid-1980s, its staff continues to have allies within the security sector. In 2002, Fox had decreed that the archives of the DFS be transferred to the national archive – by a cruel irony, housed since 1980 in the former prison of Lecumberri – and made available to the public. But many of the documents arrived “shaved”, as Ramírez puts it, with key details, names and dates redacted, while other files were so jumbled or had so many vital pages missing that a clear historical reconstruction would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

The larger obstacle to holding anyone accountable, though, is the underlying continuity in Mexico’s political regime. While the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil eventually fell from power, the PRI system has been able to sustain itself through partial mutation. Twelve years of presidential rule by the opposition Partido de Acción Nacional, from 2000 to 2012, brought no disruption to the fundamental structures of rule – or to the networks of corruption that are an inextricable part of them. Juan Villoro, a leading novelist and critic who is also one of the country’s most astute political commentators, has dubbed this adaptability gatopriísmo, after Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, in which Prince Tancredi concludes that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. For Villoro, a widespread resignation and cynicism among the Mexican population partly accounts for the regime’s success in perpetuating itself. But the dual discourse noted earlier has also been a key resource – and as Villoro told me, it has deep historical roots, going back to the Revolution itself. In his view, “the modern Mexican state was born a bipolar animal”: those who emerged triumphant in 1920 were dedicated to the interests of a new bourgeoisie, yet they had gained power on the back of radical demands – redistribution of land, social justice, freedom of expression.

Though these promises were “gradually nuanced or even nullified”, as Villoro put it, the rhetoric remained, even as the substance took on a very different complexion. It’s this same, persisting dualism that explains the contradictions of the 1970s – for example, why President Echeverría could offer warm support for Cuba while ordering the disappearances of men and women inspired by Castro and Guevara. Villoro describes the whole Mexican system as “like a car that indicates left and always turns right”.

Ramírez points to a sinister continuity that has resulted from the PRI’s durability. Disappearances were not just a feature of the Dirty War, but have remained a consistent tool of repression in every one of the six-year presidential terms that define Mexico’s political chronology. “There hasn’t been a single sexenio without political disappearances,” she says. Most of the guerrilla groups disintegrated in the late 1970s and 1980s, but there are continuities among the government’s armed political opponents, too – red threads connecting Cabañas’s Partido de los Pobres, for instance, to the present-day Popular Revolutionary Army, still active in Guerrero and other states in the south of Mexico. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which announced its presence on the world stage in 1994 and gained admirers around the world for its strategy of “changing the world without taking power”, also descends ultimately from the FLN of the late 1960s. The discourse and methods have certainly changed – the EZLN frames its struggle much more explicitly in terms of indigenous rights than any of the 1960s and 70s movements would have done – but the poverty and powerlessness that drive people to take up arms against the state remain all too recognisable.

For Ramírez, the long period in which the facts of Mexico’s Dirty War were sidestepped has had severe consequences, directly visible in the present. “All that oblivion has served as a blank cheque,” she says, “establishing that here in Mexico, anything can happen, anyone can do whatever they want.” She is one of a number of sons and daughters of the disappeared involved in an organization called Children for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence – its Spanish acronym, HIJOS, means “children” – which for the past 15 years has struggled to raise public awareness of disappearances and to bring the perpetrators to justice. In 2006 and 2007, HIJOS carried out a poignant series of “renamings”: the group went with the families of the disappeared to streets in Mexico City named after the politicians most responsible for the repression and, copying the style and layout of DF street signs, replaced the culprits’ names with those of their victims. A street near the capital’s airport named for Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, president from 1964 to 1970, became for a time the Calle Epifanio Avilés Rojas, while Luis Echeverría’s name disappeared under that of José de Jesús Avila González.

But while local residents responded warmly, according to Ramírez, these kinds of initiatives continue to come up against a huge wall of indifference. So when the case of the 43 from Ayotzinapa brought a sudden surge of popular sympathy and outrage, it prompted conflicting emotions in Ramírez and others from HIJOS. In mid-October 2014 they released a statement describing themselves as “the ghost of Christmas future”, from bitter experience warning “those who are alive and free today, those who are reading or hearing this with curiosity who have no family or friends who have been disappeared” that the horrors they for so long thought they could ignore have returned, and grown. “You might as well know now,” it read. “You’re next.”

Many in Mexico have now been awakened to the reality of this undiscriminating threat. This may, in fact, be what has motivated slogans like “Todos somos Ayotzinapa” – “We are all Ayotzinapa” – and the willingness to connect what is happening today to current events in New York or Ferguson, Missouri. Some have seen the outpouring of protest across Mexico in the last few months as a hopeful portent, a sign that finally people are starting to shed their apathy and beginning to think about what it would take to truly transform the country. Villoro has described Mexico today as “South Africa before Mandela”: a land in the grip of corruption and injustice, awaiting the emergence of a political force that could pose a genuine alternative to an utterly discredited establishment. He calls for the formation of a civic front, a broad coalition drawn from a range of social sectors – students, indigenous movements, businessmen, church leaders – with a view to “creating a new political chessboard”, and ultimately remaking the state itself. The road to that future will not be short. And it does not run in a straight line: the possibilities for justice in the present will be shaped to a great extent by how the country handles its past, working out not only how to redress the sufferings inflicted during the Dirty War, but also how to overturn the edifice of silence and impunity that sends its long shadow across the years, from the mountains of Guerrero in the 1960s to the streets of Mexico City today. §

Tony Wood-2

From left: A meeting of the UNAM council, which organised student demonstrations, on October 5, 1968.
Student demonstration, 1968. Photographs Marcel·lí Perelló


  • Tony Wood