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Eight Killed in Three Years: The School That Draws Government Fire in Mexico

“There is still poverty in Guerrero, and while there is still poverty, Ayotzinapa has a reason to exist,” one alumnus of the rural normal school tells VICE News.

by Andalusia Knoll
Dec 18 2014, 1:55am

Photo by Andalusia Knoll

Even before the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero, Mexico, this small rural teachers college had already seen plenty of acts of fatal repression against its student body. In fact, in a three-year period, four other students at this school have been killed during protests or campus activities.

After the September 2014 attacks on the Ayotzis, as the students are sometimes known, in the city of Iguala, four enrolled students have been confirmed killed. Forty-two remain missing, although federal authorities say they are presumed dead. That makes at least eight dead from the school in the last three years.

The attacks demonstrate a long-held attitude of hostility directed the Ayotzinapa students in Guerrero state, and a general disregard for their safety and their demands for a better education, human-rights observers said.

Rural normal schools in Mexico are historically neglected and underfunded, and Ayotzinapa students have taken to unconventional methods to bridge that funding gap. They commandeer buses and toll booths to gather funds, and thus, draw the ire of authorities and pro-government voices who call the students "vandals" and brand them as leftist guerrillas.

'He tried for two years to enter the school, and finally did, and then they took his life at such a young age.'

At around midday on December 12, 2011, the normal school students blocked the Autopista del Sol highway — the connecting route between Mexico City and Acapulco on the southern Pacific coast — demanding a meeting with then-governor Angel Aguirre to ensure the school's budget and its continued existence.

Each year, Ayotzinapa students claim, the government finds ways to chip away at the school's infrastructure, hoping that one day it will disappear completely, as many other rural normal schools in Mexico already have.

More than 300 federal and state judicial police officers — many dressed as civilians — responded to the 2011 blockade, in a confrontation that ended with authorities opening fire on the students. Two students were killed and a gas station attendant later died from burn injuries sustained in a fire that resulted from the clashes.

Earlier this year, on January 7, two Ayotzinapa students were killed when a truck plowed through a group of students on a coastal highway in southern Guerrero. Going back even further, in 1988, an Ayotzinapa student was shot and killed by a state police officer at the school's gates.

Inside the Mexican College Where 43 Students Vanished After an Attack by Local Police. Read more here.

Ayotzinapa students and supporters marked the anniversary of the 2011 highway blockade with a demonstration last Friday, December 12. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

In the 2011 clash, some students responded to the government forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. But when the bullets began flying, the Ayotzinapa students fled, running into the hillsides near the highway. Two students were killed by gunfire on the road, Jorge Alexis Herrero Pino and Gabriel Echeverría de Jesus.

Twenty-four students were detained that day. One of them, Gerardo Torres Pérez, told human-rights investigators he was tortured by police who tried to get him to confess that he had killed his fellow classmates. Three years later, no one has been prosecuted for their murders.

'Here in Guerrero, if you study, they kill you.'

A gas attendant later died due to injuries he sustained when a gas station on the highway burst into flames. The government claimed the students were responsible for the fire. The students, however, denied responsibility, claiming it was a police officer who launched a firebomb that caused the blaze.

"This was a message to the perpetrators, that here in Guerrero, nothing will happen to you, so you can continue to violate people's human rights and attack students," Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer at the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center who represented the students following the attack, told VICE News. "This [impunity] left the students very vulnerable to other attacks."

Rosales himself received death threats for representing the students after the 2011 highway incident, and had to flee Mexico in exile for six months in 2012. Currently, Rosales represents some of the families of the disappeared students from the September 26 police attack in Iguala, the case that shook Guerrero and the country as a whole this year.

After the 2011 highway incident, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued a series of recommendations in which it condemned the government for "criminalizing social protest," and "violating the students' right to freedom to gather, thus violating their right to life, security, integrity, liberty, and dignified treatment."

In the aftermath, two state officers and the deputy attorney general were jailed in connection to the attack but later released, purportedly due to a lack of proof. Further burying the case, a witness to the student murders was killed before being able to testify.

Townspeople Were Forced to Help Cartel on Night of Attacks on Mexican Students, Report Says. Read more here.

The face of current Guerrero interm governor Rogelio Ortega is seen on an effigy burned by demonstrators. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

Last week, on the third anniversary of the highway incident, students and supporters marched in Chilpancingo, the state capital, and once again blockaded the same section of the highway as the 2011 protest. No violent incidents occurred.

"After I survived that massacre of repression, it became clear to me that the government is after us," said Celso Salado, a survivor of the 2011 incident and an Ayotzinapa graduate. He stood alongside his mother who travelled from a town in southern Guerrero to be at the anniversary blockade.

"Both I and my family have to become even more involved in the school," said Salado, now a teacher. "They're happy that I'm alive, and that a bullet didn't take me life."

On January 7, 2014, two other Ayotzinapa students died after a truck drove through a group of them as they solicited donations for their school along a highway connecting Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, another coastal resort city in Guerrero. The victims, Eugenio Tamarit Huerta and Fernando Vázquez Crispín, were killed on impact.

The driver of the truck fled but was chased and apprehended in a nearby town, where he was arrested. Driver Benjamín Torres Salgado is behind bars.

Jose, a current second-year Ayotzinapa student who preferred to only give his first name and who witnessed the January incident, said he and Crispin had met two years before, during the school's trial week. Aspiring students engage in rigorous physical activity with little rest and little food, in an attempt to gain a spot at the teachers college. Both were rejected during their first trial, but both tried again the following year, and made it in.

"[Crispin] could have never guessed that he would die this way," Jose told VICE News while holding back tears. "He tried for two years to enter the school, and finally did, and then they took his life at such a young age."

Detainees Claim Police Threatened to 'Disappear' Them Like the Ayotzinapa Students. Read more here.

The Chilpancingo demonstration on Friday ended without major incident. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

While the truck driver was not a government employee, the students still placed the blame on the state, arguing that authorities are responsible for a campaign of criminalization against them in the Mexican news media. Guerrero state authorities were contacted by VICE News for comment for this article, but did not respond.

"They have engaged in a war on us since 2011," said Salado, the Ayotzinapa alum. "But it's not the authorities, it's the media that is waging it."

"Here in Guerrero, if you study they kill you," Jose told me. "They kill you just for demanding justice, demanding that as a student you have the conditions necessary to study and get ahead."

Almost three months have passed since the September 26 Iguala attack, and almost all academic activities in Ayotzinapa remain on hold. Some Ayotzinapa students told VICE News they fear that they will not be able to graduate, or go on to become teachers. Other students are worried the school will be shut down completely.

History fuels those concerns. Following the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, in which an unknown number of students were killed in Mexico City at the hands of government snipers and soldiers, more than a dozen normal schools were forced to close under pressure from the administration of then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. The current interior minister of Mexico, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, closed a rural normal school called El Mexe in his home state of Hidalgo.

"If Ayotzinapa and the other normales rurales today continue to exist, it is because the struggle of their students and the communities that support them make it too politically costly for authorities to close them," said Tanalis Padilla, a Dartmouth College history professor who has been documenting the decades-long struggle to preserve these schools in Mexico.

When asked if all these murders would lead to the school's closure, Salado responded: "There is still poverty in Guerrero, and while there is still poverty, Ayotzinapa has a reason to exist."

Watch The Missing 43: Mexico's Disappeared Students, Part 1.

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter @Andalalucha.