A group of parents of Mexico's 43 disappeared students have made a public plea to the alleged leader of a drug cartel called Los Rojos, requesting a meeting with the group's leader to help find the missing young men.
"Mr. Santiago Mazari… we ask you to please help us find the whereabouts of our sons, because this bad government has not been serious with us. To the contrary, it has hurt us with its lies. We are poor people, and they have stepped on our dignity," the parents wrote in the message presented on a highway in the state of Guerrero, where the Ayotzinapa normal school students were disappeared in September, allegedly by Los Rojos' rivals, the Guerreros Unidos.
The parents told VICE News they want to open a dialogue with the drug gang in the hopes that the group might have some answers. Authorities have declared the case "solved" and have rejected criticisms against its competence or legitimacy to carry out the investigation.
'Let us know, somehow, how you can help us. We are willing to meet with you, if you wish.'
The Mexican government's official investigation into the normal school students' disappearance said the young men were picked up by corrupt members of the municipal police force in the city of Iguala and subsequently handed over to the Guerreros Unidos gang — an offshoot of the Beltrán Leyva cartel that once dominated Guerrero.
Mexico's attorney general said the criminal organization perpetrated the attack because they believed members of rival Los Rojos — another Beltrán Leyva splinter group — were among the students riding in the convoy of buses, fearing they were trying to take control of the drug market in Iguala.
On Tuesday morning, a group of 34 parents left the Ayotzinapa rural normal school, and traveled down the peripheral highway between Guerrero's capital, Chilpancingo, and the city of Iguala. The parents stopped at the site where the convoy of buses that carried the students had last been together, before splitting up on September 26 just before the brutal attack took place. Six people were killed that night, and the 43 rural normal students have not been seen since.
There, they hung their message, pleading for information.
In February, Los Rojos sent public messages to the relatives of the missing 43, hanging banners in towns across the neighboring state of Morelos — which according to the national defense secretary are under its control — claiming they had no involvement in the students' disappearance, while insinuating they have additional information.
The alleged leader of the gang, Santiago "El Carrete" Mazari, has attempted to disassociate himself from the normal students, or normalistas as they are known, and promised the parents that he would give them information.
"I swear on the memory of my father that I have nothing to do with the normalistas," El Carrete said in a letter he wrote to the families of the disappeared that appeared in February.
"I am willing to talk to each one of the students' parents who have been affected, to remove the blindfold from their eyes, so they can know the truth," the leader wrote. "The government is to blame for all of the injustices in the state of Guerrero and Morelos. I'm fighting for the same cause, defending my state, and supporting the people that are putting an end to those scumbags and the injustice."
The parents' decision on Tuesday to reach out to the organized crime syndicate comes after a six-month long effort to keep the investigation alive in the government's eyes, in the hope that the young men will be returned to them.
"As always, we demand that the government deliver our sons to us, alive, because that took them, and they know where they are," they said in the public letter. "Let us know, somehow, how you can help us. We are willing to meet with you, if you wish."
In January, federal prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam said the students had been killed and incinerated in a garbage dump in the town of Cocula, which neighbors Iguala. Although Karam said the case would remain open, this was the end of the relationship between the parents of the missing students and the attorney general.
"We made the poster to respond to that man who says he knows the boys' whereabouts," Epifanio Álvarez, the father of missing student Jorge Álvarez Nava, told VICE News. "He wanted to talk to us, and that's why we came, so we can place the signs, and leave a phone number for him to get in touch with us, in case he knows."
The parents signed the letter, taped it to a wall, and left a local phone number where they can be reached, along with pictures of their missing sons.
"If we have to give our lives for them, so be it. We're already dead inside, so we are going to look for our children. If they say they have a clue or have some information, we have to go," Álvarez said, adding that the parents are not afraid. "We know we run a risk, but we have to do whatever we can."
The parents of the missing students began their own campaign after losing faith in the official investigation. Six months since their sons disappeared, they continue the search effort with the help of several human rights organizations.
"It is very painful for us. My son has a wife, and two children, one is eight and the other is three," Bernabe de la Cruz, the father of 24-year-old missing student Abrajan de la Cruz, told VICE News. "The eldest is sad because it has been six months since he saw his father."
Abel Barrera, the director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, which has been providing the families with legal representation, said they did not approve of the parents actions this Tuesday, calling it "an act of desperation that we were not aware of."
"We would not support a meeting of that nature," Barrera told VICE News. "We don't know why they did it, and we are very disturbed by this situation."
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @Melissadps.