Carmelo Ramírez Morales never imagined a life without obstacles when he enrolled in the Ayotzinapa college for rural teachers in Mexico's beleaguered southern state of Guerrero. But he did not expect that two years later he would be seeking political asylum in the United States after surviving a police attack that killed three fellow students and disappeared another 43.
"They were threatening me, my life was at risk," Ramírez said of his decision to flee to Minneapolis. "To keep fighting for my 43 compañeros to be returned to their families alive, I have to stay alive."
Ramírez was a sophomore at the famously-radical Ayotzinapa School when — on September 26, 2014 — a group of students from the school went to the city of Iguala, about two hours drive away, to commandeer passenger buses to use in a later protest.
When Ramírez got word that police were attacking the buses full of students as they sought to leave Iguala he jumped into a van with a few dozen of his classmates to go and help them. Two of that group were killed when they were attacked shortly after they arrived to the city.
Since then only one of the missing 43 students has been identified from many human remains found and tested within the government's investigation that has been dismissed by human rights groups as sloppy, at best.
There is also evidence suggesting the torture of key witnesses whose confessions underpin the official version that the students were incinerated at a garbage dump on the night they were disappeared.
Prior to his recent departure Ramírez had become one of the most prominent spokesmen for the movement that grew up demanding justice for the 43 missing students, who include one of his cousins. Fearing this would make him into a target, he adopted the pseudonym Francisco Sánchez Nava.
As a leading figure in the movement Ramírez has travelled across the country and beyond, seeking to keep the pressure up on the government to find out what really happened. In June 2015 he travelled to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. In November he went with fellow student leader, Omar Garcia, to Minneapolis to speak at St. John's University.
"If this case hadn't crossed borders maybe the case would have already been forgotten, but the world is still shaking from what happened," he said. "The state globalizes their terrorism so we have to globalize the struggle."
Ramírez said that the death threats started to intensify when he returned to Mexico after the Minneapolis event. He said they came via calls to his personal cell phone and those of family members, who are poor farmers in Guerrero.
When his family was told to make him stop his political activism or they would pay the price, Ramírez decided it was time to run.
The Mexican government has agreed to recognize the survivors of the attack as victims and dedicate special attention to respect their human rights. The students say this has not happened.
Other student leaders have also received death threats, but Ramírez is so far the only one to seek asylum. He says the others have sought to protect their families by limiting their contact with them.
"To those who criticize me, I offer them my shoes so they can walk in my footsteps and understand what I'm going through," he said. "I'm not here because I like being here, I would much prefer to be in Mexico fighting along with my comrades for 43 lives."
Ramírez — who says he no longer wants to be a teacher and instead would like to study law and represent victims of violence — also insists that his case meets the US demand that those claiming asylum must prove there is nowhere safe for them to go in their home country.
"Who is responsible for these threats, is it the government? Is it the cartels? Or is it the cartels, working for the government," said John Larson, the Minneapolis lawyer representing Ramírez.
Larson, who said he was unable to speak specifically about his client's case, added that few of people who are granted asylum ever return to their homes unless there is drastic political change. "Will a new government come in and try to get to the bottom of this?" he asked of Mexico. "Will cartels cease to have control?"
Sociologist Anna Cabot, who works at the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Connecticut, says that it is very difficult for Mexican citizens to win political asylum cases in the US, and that it appears to be getting even harder.
In an article published in the Journal on Migration and Human Security, Cabot documented a drop in the success rate for applications from 23 to nine percent between 2008 and 2013, despite a dramatic increase in violence during that period
"The asylum claims of citizens of US allies have historically been more difficult to win than the claims of nationals from US government foes or ideological opponents," she writes. "Some asylum denials can be attributed, in part, to narrow legal standards and the difficulty of sustaining claims based on the extortion, kidnapping, and homicides by criminal organizations. "
Cabot also noted that ever more claimants are dropping their own cases due to the increased bureaucracy, as well as a lack of adequate legal representation, translators for indigenous languages, and long waits in detention centers.
Juan Carlos Ruiz, a New York-based priest and migrant rights activist, expects things will only get worse. "Before there was a small possibility for asylum seekers," he said. "Now Donald Trump has set the stage to close the doors to Mexicans, because now all Mexicans are criminals and rape young girls."
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