Felipe de la Cruz got the phone call on September 24 last year.
It was his son, Cristen. The group of 100 students-from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa-he was traveling with was under attack. When the student activists-traveling on a caravan of three buses to a fundraising event that police had tried to put a halt to-went to remove patrol barricades blocking their route out of the town of Iguala, authorities opened fire, he Cruz said.
“I told him ‘don’t separate yourself from the group’,” Cruz said. “‘Throw yourself on the ground behind the buses’.”
The instructions would save Cristen’s life, but others were not so lucky-six of the students were killed, while another took a bullet to the head and survives only in a comatose state.
And 43 of the others? Well, that’s the issue that has brought Cruz, along with Clemente Rodriguez Moreno, and Anayeli Guerrero de la Cruz to the front of former Mexican President Ernesto Zerdillo’s Prospect Street office building for a vigil and protest with students activists from the Yale Divinity School. The 43 missing students-their faces and names taped in a row of pictures along a short wall separating Yale University property-were reportedly arrested during the incident, went missing, and now the Mexican government claims to have evidence that they were killed by the criminal organization that allegedly kidnapped them.
“We don’t believe a shred of it,” says Anayeli, whose brother and two cousins are among those that went missing. “It’s been almost seven months of anguish, not knowing where our children are, and now we want a real answer-a clearer answer.”
Not only do their family members think that they are alive, but they suspect that the authorities are behind their disappearance.
“I know in my heart that my son is alive,” Moreno said. “I’m not going to stop until I find him.”
As the United States doles out $1.6 billion-courtesy of the Merida Initiative agreement it has with its neighbor to the south-to help Mexico go to war on its own drug problems, human rights advocates have been assessing the extent of the collateral damage. Since 2007-the start of the country’s War on Drugs-26,000 of Mexico’s citizens have gone missing, according to the organization Human Rights Watch. In more than 2,400 of those cases, evidence indicated possible state involvement, according to the group’s human rights report on the country.
Drug violence in Mexico had claimed 22,000 lives between 2006 and 2010, by 2010 estimates, and the Initiative was launched in an effort to curb the flow of narcotics over the U.S./Mexican border.
“The idea was to protect both countries in the ongoing drug war, but what’s happened is is we’re funding all levels of government-from the municipal police, all the way up to the army-with guns and money,” said Joe Foran, an activist with Unidad Latina en Accion, an immigrant and labor rights advocacy group in New Haven. “These guns and money are being used against social movements.”
Which often find themselves at odds with mining companies and other business entities in battles over indigenous land rights and natural resource extraction. Between 2010 and 2012, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights fielded 89 complaints alleging abuse against activist groups at the hands of authorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
But one of the most notorious incidents occurred in 1997, when reported paramilitary personnel massacred 45 Roman Catholic activists supporting the Zapitistas-an indigenous rights movement-in Acteal. The perpetrators were alleged to have ties to Zedillo’s Administration, although the former president himself-now a professor at Yale and the Director of its Center for Globalization-vehemently denies that claim.
“The Mexican federal government over which I presided never created or tolerated any paramilitary group,” Zedillo told a Yale Daily News reporter in an email that Yale Center for Globalization Associate Director Haynie Wheeler forwarded to The New Haven Beat. “Consequently if that allegation is being made, it is a calumny.”
Activists disagree, and the parents of the missing students see the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of their family members as another example of systemic suppression perpetrated by Mexico’s government. The school in Ayotzinapa is known for helping impoverished students become self-sufficient through agricultural training, as well as imparting a spirit of activism-something that would have made it a target-the parents say.
They have been touring the country and held events in New Haven and Hartford throughout the week, even joining an anti-police brutality march that took place on Tuesday.
“Their desks are empty, and we have hope that those desks will be filled again,” Moreno said. “if my son is hearing this right now, I want to tell him that I love him.”
In his email with the Yale Daily News, Zedillo condemned the students’ disappearance as “a consequence” of the country’s rampant drug violence, but would not comment as a representative of the Mexican government or weigh-in on the allegations of state involvement.