Relatives of the missing, carrying posters with photos of their sons and calling for justice, told CNN they hope the report can finally lead to criminal prosecutions for those responsible.
Renewed calls for justice came after the government’s truth commission released a sensational report on August 18 that concluded that the missing students were the victims of a “state-sponsored crime.”
Finding out the truth about what happened to the 43 students was one of 100 campaign promises made by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during the July 2018 presidential election. A renewed investigation under his presidency linked federal, state and local authorities – many of them unnamed – to the “…disappearance and shooting of students.”
It also stated that the order had been given to carry out the 2014 atrocity, but the report did not mention who had given the order.
While traveling through the southwestern city of Iguala, Ayotzinapa students were intercepted by local police and federal military forces. What exactly happened after that remains unknown, as most of the missing students have never been found. But later, bullet-riddled buses with broken windows and blood were seen on the streets of the city. Survivors of the original group of 100 said their buses were also stopped by armed police and soldiers who suddenly opened fire.
No one has ever been convicted in connection with the disappearance of students. But the new report has so far resulted in more than 80 arrest warrants for members of the Mexican army, police and cartels.
Former Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam – the same man who previously led the government’s investigation into the disappearance – is among those arrested on charges including enforced disappearance and torture.
Murillo Karama’s defense argued that the crimes attributed to his client were not substantiated as they were corroborated by statements and press conferences made at the time by the former lawyer in the case and were “taken out of context”.
However, some parents of the missing refuse to believe that their children are dead, citing a lack of concrete evidence.
“[The officials] don’t say anything, said Don Margarito Guerrero. “That’s why we need to keep fighting. We won’t back down until we know something.” His 21-year-old son Josivani Guerrero, along with two nephews, are among the 43 missing. Guerrero says his son, the youngest of his children, worked hard selling water to help make money and enjoy learning.
Earlier this month, Alejandro Encinas, a senior Mexican human rights official, said six students were “allegedly held alive for several days in the so-called ‘La Bodega Vieja’ before being handed over to [a military] colonel….”
Encinas said that according to the report, an army officer gave the order to execute the students held captive in the warehouse.
“It is believed that six students remained alive for four days after the events, were killed and disappeared…,” he added.
But parents like Maximino Hernandez Cruz, who clings to rapidly fading memories of his 19-year-old son Carlos, want justice.
After eight years, his emotions are repressed; his tears had nearly dried up, leaving an almost constant weariness in his eyes.
“We want those responsible to be punished… They must pay for what they did to our children,” Hernandez Cruz said. “We are suffering. We are dead inside.”
Before heading to Mexico City for their monthly protests, the parents of the 43 missing met for the first time in the small farming town of Ayotzinapa. They gather at the school where their sons lived, worked and studied. Photographs and murals reminiscent of the “43s” surround the sprawling rural campus.
“It reminds you that they were also part of Ayotzinapa,” a current student who wanted to be called only “Cesar” told us, talking about how the disappearance of 43 people affected fellow students and teachers. “They were our classmates, and although they disappeared, we know that this could happen to any of us.”
Under cover of a thin metal roof and exposed walls, housed in a former basketball court, there are 43 empty school chairs, each with photographs of missing persons taped to them. César calls it “sacred space”, which Ayotzinapa’s current students respect by not playing sports or listening to loud music nearby.
Escuela Normal Rural of Ayotzinapa is one of the so-called teachers’ colleges in Mexico. The school serves to educate mostly poor, rural, indigenous communities. It provides university-age students with opportunities ranging from academic study to life skills such as farming.
“As farmers, we don’t have many resources,” said Maximino Hernandez Cruz. He said he was grateful that his son received a free education combined with room and board.
“We didn’t have enough money to send him to a private school. That’s why he attended Escuela Normal Rural. They gave the students shelter, food and whatever they wanted,” said Hernandez Cruz.
The school is also known for inspiring activism, encouraging students to question the status quo and hold those in power accountable.
“We really need to raise our voice so that people listen to us, listen to our demands, our needs, because as students, if we don’t raise our voice, they really don’t pay attention to us,” one of them said students who asked to name himself under the pseudonym “Alexander Mora”.
The 20-year-old spoke about the importance of getting schools to the underprivileged, for example, in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
“We must encourage people from all walks of life to help change society for a better future…,” Mora said.
Steeped in “corruption and cartel violence”
The trip to Mexico City from Ayotzinapa takes approximately 5 hours on winding mountain roads through the Mexican state of Guerrero. Lush greenery masks what locals call a place riddled with corruption and cartel violence.
Relatives of the 43 missing, now committed to active life, are not embarrassed as they pass through the state as part of their now-routine trips to the capital, where they march collectively for justice.
Every month they take buses to Mexico City to protest – the route is very similar to their sons’ unfinished journey in 2014.
“If we just let it go, there will be no justice,” Don Margarito Guerrero said. “… The same thing will happen over and over again… That’s why we fight.”
They cannot travel far to Guerrero without noticing graffiti and photographs that refer either to “43” or to more than 100,000 people who are estimated to have disappeared in Mexico since the 1960s.
This is just a sample of the suffering scattered across the country.
According to Human Rights Watch, families of missing persons in Mexico have formed more than 130 “search teams” to independently investigate disappearances.
And according to the 2022 report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 40,000 relatives of people missing in Mexico over the years have taken part in trainings to find their loved ones.
However, there are moments when Guerrero’s grief is overshadowed by encouraging memories.
“I remember him always showing up somewhere with an over-the-shoulder sweater,” Guerrero says with a weary smile. “Sometimes he tells me he’s coming, but when?”
Marlon Sorto and Karina Maciel of CNN contributed to this report.