The classrooms in a squat two-story building at the Raúl Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School are now mostly dormitories, where the parents and relatives of a group of missing students—young men between the ages of 18 and 25 who federal authorities say were kidnapped and executed by local police—sleep and hope for their loved ones to return.
I had never been on a campus tour more depressing than this one. It was a brutally sunny day in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, and Uriel Gomez, a second-year student at the teachers' college, led me, along with a camera crew, through a section of buildings that were mired in sadness. We traveled here to try to understand why state security forces would have targeted these students so ferociously.
The school's covered basketball court serves as a communal kitchen and a donation center. Temporary residents have their meals here and receive truckloads of canned food and paper goods from outside groups and citizens.
The actual dormitories for first-year students are in a row of structures built into the terraced earth below the school's central plaza. During our visit in late October, Gomez, soft-spoken but self-assured, showed us several of these rooms, empty of their residents since September 26, when municipal police acted on orders of the mayor of Iguala, Guerrero, and seized them. Federal authorities say a group of 43 students were turned over to members of a cartel called Guerreros Unidos, who then killed them and possibly incinerated some in a mass execution.
At school, the disappeared kids slept on piles of blankets on the floor. Their half-eaten bags of processed snack foods still litter the ground. There is no lock on the door, no air-conditioning system, not much of a window.
"This is how we live as first-years. We all pass through here," Gomez said. "All we ask for is a better education, a better place. We ask for beds, mattresses, uniforms, and we just get barriers."
Founded in 1926, the Ayotzinapa school—or Ayotzi, as it is affectionately known—is one of only a few all-male rural teachers' colleges still operating in Mexico. They are grossly neglected by federal and state authorities and sometimes face direct threats from the government.
The schools were born in the fervent reconstruction era after the Mexican Revolution, conceived as places that would train committed rural teachers for the children of Mexico's campesinos. Their graduates would be teachers at one with the land.
But Mexico's normal schools have spent years in decline, under pressure from looming federal education reforms aimed at efficiency and technical learning, and under constant attacks from establishment politicians and union bosses who say the normales are "hives" for leftist operatives and guerrillas.
It's said as a slur, but it happens to be somewhat true. The Federation of Campesino Socialist Mexican Students, uniting the student leadership at 16 schools across Mexico, including the one in Ayotzinapa, formed in 1935. One of Ayotzinapa's best-known graduates, Lucio Cabañas, was national president of this group when he studied there. Cabañas would go on to form the Poor People's Party, a militant political organization with an armed wing. The group kidnapped politicians and operated a radio signal over a wide region in the Sierra de Atoyac.
The students believe in direct action today as well. Through their "Struggle Commission," for example, they take over buses and toll booths. Masking their faces, the Ayotzinapa students charge a flat 50-peso toll on any vehicle that passes, be it private, public, or a commercial passenger bus. We watched as they did this for a few hours one day at the Palo Blanco toll booth. Some motorists I approached in line said they supported the Ayotzinapa students, but about just as many said they were nothing but vandals and hooligans.
The passenger buses are crucial, because every now and then the students hijack them to move around the area. All of it is done without violence and with tacit cooperation from the drivers, the students explained to me, but the drivers complain that sometimes they're held against their will. The students hijack corporate food trucks as well and share the goods. "It makes you so angry to see what the government does," Gomez said as he led me to the agricultural land on the campus. "We are all brothers here. If one does not have, I will give to him. If one eats, well, we all eat. And those are ideas we find here."
The students grow maize and raise cows and pigs. As Gomez and I approached the pig sties on the edge of campus, a group of men sitting on chairs down the road from us whistled and signaled that we should go back the way we'd come. I noticed then that a truck parked next to the campus mess hall was being loaded with crates full of fresh Molotov cocktails, prepared in glass Coca-Cola bottles. I was reminded that part of the reason Guerrero's corrupt elites despise Ayotzinapa so much is that the school has indeed been an incubator of guerrillas, or at least people who decide to organize themselves and stand up to what they believe is tyranny.
Cabañas, the guerrilla leader, was killed by Mexican soldiers on December 2, 1974. As Gomez and the Ayotzinapa students explained it, the government has always sought to silence people like them with repressive violence.
As I stood with Gomez, observing a field of some definitely nonthreatening cempazuchitl flowers, I could only wonder what the hell was going on at the end of the pathway behind Ayotzinapa's farmland. My tour guide nodded at the men ahead and signaled an affirmative simón to let them know he understood. Playing it cool and calm, he turned to me and just said: "Right now they're carrying out another activity."
For more, watch the documentary The Missing 43, now playing on VICE News.