Seven months have passed since the Mexican government said that there were no bodies: no bones, no teeth, no nothing. All 43 of them were burned up in a pile of trash, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam reported, and then he began to enumerate what was thrown on top of the bodies —diesel, gasoline, tires, firewood, plastic— as if that were evidence of some truth. Later, officials discovered one bone, identified one body, and they did it triumphantly. But where were the rest?
“With the 43, you can only say that they’ve identified one body,” said journalist Francisco Goldman, who writes for The New Yorker about the events unfolding in Mexico. I interviewed Goldman in February 2015, five months after the students had been forcibly disappeared, and the country was still in the throes of the largest protests in the history of the country. “That’s all you can say. Legally they’re disappeared. Everybody wants to say they’re dead,” explained Goldman.
Under President Felipe Calderón, between 2006 and 2012, an average of six people disappeared per day, according to the investigative reporting of Proceso. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto, that number has risen to 13, a conservative estimate based on unreliable government statistics. “People in Mexico understand that it’s not just those 43—those 43 have come to represent everyone else. Something’s got to happen. Something’s got to move. It’s now or never for Mexico. It really is,” said Goldman.
Goldman has spent the better part of the last two decades living in and writing about Mexico, and he participated in the largest protest in the history of the country in November 2014, a protest sparked by the disappearance of 43 students from a rural school in Ayotzinapa famous for its history of social activism.
It took the government 10 days to open an investigation into their disappearance, and eventually it came to light that the mayor had sent the police to stop the buses full of students, and he had asked the police to hand the students over to a local gang. Murillo Karam announced that the gang had confessed to murdering the students and burning their bodies, a convenient narrative. It is the favorite storyline of both the Mexican and the U.S. media to blame all violence on drug gangs.
The main problem with that story is that the government, the police and the army work in parallel with cartels, controlling drug routes and money for personal gain. “The narco gang is the police. The police handed them over to a narco gang? No, the police and the narco gang are the same thing,” said Goldman.
Families of the disappeared get caught up in the machinery of justice, which works only in favor of the official story, the one that blames victims for their own deaths, the one in which the President of Mexico, after the Attorney General announced that the 43 disappeared students were dead, told his country that, “We have to move forward with greater optimism.”
Journalists risk their lives to help share stories of disappearance in Mexico, which for the past decade has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for those in the media. A Mexican journalist recently contacted me after seeing my book, More or Less Dead, about disappearance and feminicide in Mexico. She wrote, “I went on the State of Mexico to the area of regional news, when the actual President of the Mexico was the Governor of the State of Mexico. The experience I acquired there has been crucial to tell today that Enrique Peña Nieto plays an active role in the system of impunity where, without a doubt, the government is tied to the drug dealers (which is referred to as narcogobierno) and profoundly immersed in the corruption which is tolerated and on occasions fomented by a fundamental part of the members of the government.”
She asked to remain anonymous due to fear that the government would retaliate against her. “Upon my arrival to the news office, the Governor had me investigated. I was asked extensive questions about my personal and professional life. Later on, I received a phone call where they invited me to leave the State of Mexico.”
And she did flee the country, because the government threatened to harm her and members of her family.
The government, in its initial search for the disappeared 43 students, discovered and dug up a mass grave, declaring that the student’s bodies were probably there. They discovered bodies, but they were not the students’ bodies. And then they found another mass grave, and another, and another, and more bodies. But none of them belonged to the students. How many mass graves have to be dug up before it becomes clear that mass graves are not the exception but the rule of state justice?
When the journalist wrote to me, she said, “Ayotzinapa renewed my rage, and I do not want to stop until finding justice for the 43 who are disappeared and the thousands more who are dead and massacred, and for the thousands of immigrants who fearfully travel across Mexico.” The government had forced her out of the country, but they could not make her forget. On Lent, six months after the students disappeared, citizens around Mexico replaced the traditional symbol of the cross, painted in ash on their foreheads, with the number 43. Photos of these individuals bloomed on social media like wildflowers, overtaking the visual landscape that day.
“My son is absent and only memories remain,” said Estanislao Mendoza a few days before Christmas in 2014. Mendoza is the father of Miguel Ángel Mendoza Zacarías, who was disappeared by the police along with 42 other students on September 26, 2014.
“The families of Ayotzinapa have become such a force,” reported Goldman. “They are tireless. Nothing will ever make them give up.”
Disappearance is a physical silencing, but “no bodies” does not equal “nobody.” “No bodies” does not equal “nothing.”
Dr. Alice Driver is the author of More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (University of Arizona Press 2015). She recently translated Abecedario de Juárez, a collaboration between journalist Julián Cardona and artist Alice Leora Briggs that explores and maps the new language of violence in Mexico.