Relatives of 43 Missing Students: U.S.-Backed Drug War Fights Organized People, Not Organized Crime
HAVANA TIMES – As protesters in Baltimore set fire to buildings and vehicles last Monday to protest the death of Freddie Gray, protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero drove a burning truck into the congressional building in the capital Chilpancingo.
The protesters were marking seven months since the disappearance of 43 students. Relatives have continued to question the Mexican government’s claim the students were attacked by local police and turned over to members of a drug gang, who killed and incinerated them.
We speak with three relatives of the missing students: María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello, mother of José Eduardo Bartolo Tlatempa; Clemente Rodríguez Moreno, father of Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre; and Cruz Bautista Salbador, uncle of Benjamín Ascencio Bautista.
The relatives have criticized U.S. support for the drug war, saying Mexico is using the aid to kill innocent people. “If they were really fighting organized crime, as the United States government says, then the crime rates would have gone down,” Bautista Salbador says. “Apparently they are not fighting organized crime; they are fighting organized people.”
AMY GOODMAN: As protesters in Baltimore set fire to buildings and vehicles last Monday to protest the death of Freddie Gray, protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero drove a burning truck into the congressional building in the capital Chilpancingo. The protesters were marking seven months since the disappearance of 43 students. It was the night of September 26, 2014, when the Mexican government says municipal police, acting on the orders of the corrupt mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, attacked the students from Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, then turned them over to drug gang members, who killed and incinerated them. Six people were killed in the initial attack. Mexican news reports have pointed to involvement by federal police and found federal authorities likely tortured key witnesses.
Relatives of the missing students have continued to question the Mexican government’s account, particularly since only one of the 43 missing students’ remains have been identified. They recently brought their struggle to the United States, launching a series of caravans which traveled across the country and converged here in New York. One of the mothers, María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello, spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues here in New York City.
MARÍA DE JESÚS TLATEMPA BELLO: [translated] I am María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello, mother to José Eduardo Bartolo Tlatempa, one of the disappeared students. I’ve come here to testify and represent the 43 families. We are indigenous people, farmers, humble, and from various communities. We taught our children to work and, at the same time, to study. It was a privilege that our students could enter the normal school of Ayotzinapa, for many of them would have otherwise been left without an opportunity to study. And to be left without an opportunity to study means that they immigrate to other countries in search of a better life and other opportunities. In our communities, it’s an honor to be a normal school student. Our children actualize their right to education, and to disappear them is to violate their right of a full life. We are worried by the lack of guarantee in the matters of security, education and healthcare in Mexico, especially for indigenous youth.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!‘s Juan González and I spoke to María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello and two other relatives of missing students who were in New York with the caravans. Cruz Bautista Salbador is a teacher and the uncle of Benjamín Ascencio Bautista; and Clemente Rodríguez Moreno is the father of Christian Alfonso Rodríguez Telumbre. We started by asking María why she doesn’t believe the Mexican government’s conclusion that her son and the other students are dead.
MARÍA DE JESÚS TLATEMPA BELLO: [translated] Of course not, because we feel our children are alive, because it was police that took them. And they didn’t take any more, because no more fit in the police car. And the public feels our pain as parents. We need information for our children. And we have received information that we’ve passed to the government; however, they have not helped us, because they don’t want to help us find our children. And because of this, since that day, on the 26th and 27th of September, we have not stopped searching. We will continue to search for them until we find them.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Cruz Bautista Salbador, I wanted to ask you why you have taken this trip, what you’re hoping to accomplish.
CRUZ BAUTISTA SALBADOR: [translated] Well, we’ve been doing diverse activities in our travels through the United States, and we’ve met a lot of people who are misinformed. That is the reason why we are here. That is the principal objective, because many people have confused the information of what really took place that day, and that is why we’re here, to inform the American public and also connect with the people who are supporting us.
AMY GOODMAN: Cruz, you’re a teacher yourself in another normal school, and your nephew is Benjamín, one of the missing students. Can you tell us about Benjamín, why he went to this school, and the role of these schools?
CRUZ BAUTISTA SALBADOR: [translated] It brings hope to students who are that age that want to study, because access to education in Mexico is very difficult, so people of scarce resources just don’t go to the university. So my nephew Benjamín is the exception, because he had worked as a community teacher for a year in a program in Mexico. He worked in the communities most marginalized, where there is no public transportation, where there is no basic services that everyone should have. So that’s what inspired him to become a teacher. And because our family is from scarce resources, that’s why the normal school is—one of the requirements for entering into the normal school is to be from scarce resources and also to be bilingual in Spanish as well as an indigenous language, such as Nahuatl.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Clemente Rodríguez Moreno, I wanted to ask you—the government claims that what happened here was the action of a corrupt mayor conspiring with a drug gang. You don’t believe that. Why not?
CLEMENTE RODRÍGUEZ MORENO: [translated] On September 26, what happened in Iguala, the ex-president, the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife—the mexican government knew that this mayor was involved in organized crime. And it was them who took our 43 students, our children, the 43 normalists. Well, they disappeared them. It was the police. It was the federal police and the Mexican military that knew all about it, and the Mexican government wants to close the case and tell us to get over our pain. We—as a parent, I am not going to accept the government’s version. We are more focused on the Argentine forensics team, who have given us DNA tests, and they have demonstrated scientifically that our children are alive. And now the government is saying as fact that we should not be looking for them further. And that is why we came to the United States, to let the American public know and understand, to not let yourself be fooled by television. Some people are more focused on television, and the television says that the 43 students are dead. And that is just not true.
Also we are here to remind the United States government of agreements with Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, who has not complied with these agreements. The agreements entailed that all the resources sent to the Mexican government, that was to—well, to combat delinquency, crime, but the Mexican government has done everything backwards. They’ve sent military equipment. They’ve sent intelligence apparatus, trucks, dogs, cavalry. And they have not used these resources as they should have. They’ve disappeared people, killed people, raped people. And so, we want to tell the United States government that they should not send these resources to the Mexican government. And we came here to the United States, because we want you to know that the 43 are alive, because alive they took them, and alive we want them back.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama hosted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the White House in January, amid the political crisis caused by the disappearance of your loved ones, of the 43 students. Peña Nieto praised Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, while President Obama said he backs Mexico’s drug war. Cruz, your response to this?
CRUZ BAUTISTA SALBADOR: [translated] We know that the American government has always supported the effort to fight organized crime; however, we have seen, as Mexicans, that they are not fighting it. On the contrary, they are encouraging organized crime. They are killing innocent people. There has been more extortion in the last 10 years. There have been more than 30,000 people disappeared in Mexico at this point. The NGOs have shown this. And as for the Mexican government, they say there’s 23,600 disappeared people. It’s a wide range, no? The nongovernmental organizations say there are 30,000 disappeared people. And that’s troubling, what is happening in Mexico. If they were really fighting organized crime, as the United States government says, then the crime rates would have gone down—disappearances, extortions, etc. On top of that, there have been more than 150,000 people extrajudicially executed also in the last 10 years. And they keep disappearing our young people to this day. After the 26th and 27th of September, there have continued to be extrajudicial executions. We just saw it happen on the 6th of January in Apatzingán in Michoacán, Mexico. Apparently they are not fighting organized crime; they are fighting organized people, community people who defend their people. There have been citizens in various regions of Guerrero, in various states in Mexico, who have been very concerned about the insecurity in Mexico. And what do they do? What do they do then? Then they send in the Mexican military or the federal police to disarm the citizenry. So we ask: What kind of game is this? The Mexican government, the Mexican military, whose side are you on? On the side of the citizenry or on the side of organized crime? Because what we have seen is that instead of reducing organized crime, they’re making it worse.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: María de Jesús, what has been the impact of this tragedy in the rest of Mexico among the people in terms of how they view the work of the government?
MARÍA DE JESÚS TLATEMPA BELLO: [translated] In Mexico, all the people are very sad because they are in solidarity. As parents, they understand the pain, the suffering. How is it possible that our own government is doing this to us? How is it possible that this still happens to this day, that the government blames organized crime, but they are themselves part of the organized crime? How is this all possible? We know where you work. We know who is your husband. We spend all our time working, and we still don’t have money. They say that our children are throwing stones. How can you compare stones to weapons? How is it possible for the government to be doing this? People tell me, “I’m a mother (or I’m a father), and I feel your pain. I don’t know what I would do if my children disappeared.” And I want to tell you that we’ve had a lot of faith, a lot inner strength to continue, because it is very sad to remember the 26th and 27th. We don’t know anything about our children. We don’t know anything. And why did they do this to them? And that is why we’re here, asking for support, urging America to help us find our children.
AMY GOODMAN: María de Jesús Tlatempa Bello, mother of José Eduardo; before that, Cruz Bautista Salbador, uncle of Benjamín; and Clemente Rodríguez Moreno, father of Christian Alfonso—three of the 43 students missing in Mexico since September. To watch the extended interview, you can go to democracynow.org. We also have it in Spanish at our Spanish website. When we come back, The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux on his explosive two-part investigation, “Ghosts of Iguala,” which tells the untold story of how 43 students disappeared in the night in Mexico. Stay with us.
“The Army Knew”: New Investigation Unravels Mexican Govt. Account of How 43 Students Disappeared
HAVANA TIMES – An explosive new investigation published today by The Intercept reveals the untold story of how 43 students disappeared in Mexico on the night of September 26, 2014. It is based on more than two dozen interviews with survivors of the attacks and family members of the disappeared, as well as Mexican historians, human rights activists and journalists.
The Intercept also reviewed official Mexican state and federal records including communication logs by security forces and sealed testimony from municipal police officers and gang members. The evidence shows repeated inconsistencies and omissions in the government’s account of what happened when the students went missing.
We speak with Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter at The Intercept and author of the two-part investigation, “Ghosts of Iguala.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an explosive new investigation called “Ghosts of Iguala,” which tells the untold story of how 43 students disappeared in Mexico. The six-month investigation by Ryan Devereaux for The Intercept is based on more than two dozen interviews with survivors of the attacks and family members of the disappeared, as well as Mexican historians, human rights activists and journalists. The Intercept also reviewed official Mexican state and federal records, including communication logs by security forces and sealed testimony from municipal police officers and gang members. The evidence apparently shows repeated inconsistencies, obfuscations and omissions in the government’s account of what happened on that night of September 26, 2014, when the students went missing.
For more, we’re joined by Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter for The Intercept, his two-part investigation, “Ghosts of Iguala.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ryan. So you spent last November in Mexico, and you’ve been researching this for many months. What is the latest information on what these parents desperately fear but do not believe at this point that the students, the 43 students, are dead?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, the latest sort of official statement coming out of the federal government in Mexico, the last major sort of turn of events in the case, was in January, when the federal government declared that they had arrived at their legal certainty regarding the students’ fate—namely, that the students were taken by municipal police, handed over to a gang and then incinerated in a trash pit outside of a small town named Cocula. They said that this was the historical truth. And this historical truth was based on testimony provided by detained gangsters, who said that they took part in the events. And there are numerous reasons to question this account that the government has delivered. The Argentine team of investigators that the parents have brought on are continuing their investigation, but the government, the federal government, has worked very hard to effectively say that this case is closed, that they know what happened, but there are all sorts of reasons to question that.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, it has been said that one set of remains were found of one of the students?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: That’s true. One of the students, Alexander Mora Venancio, his remains were recovered, and that was confirmed by the independent Argentine investigators, the team that works with the parents. But it should be pointed out the Argentine team wasn’t present when the federal government recovered those remains in the area near Cocula in the trash pit, where the government says the students were incinerated. In other words, there has been no independent confirmation that the remains were recovered in the area where the government says they were recovered, and, furthermore, that Mora Venancio died in the way that the government described. The government says that because they discovered these remains, that means that the narrative provided by their detainees is true and that the other 42 students shared his supposed fate. And to date, there’s no evidence to indicate that’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: So, take us through the official account of what happened. And what were the key findings in your investigation, Ryan?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: So, according to the government’s account, the students arrived in Iguala on the night of September 26, and there was a confrontation with municipal police. The local mayor, his wife was having an event that night that a lot of people in the area sort of believed was an unofficial kick-off of her campaign to replace him in office, and the mayor supposedly was concerned that the students were going to disrupt this event. The students had been attempting to secure buses. That’s sort of what they do as sort of activist students. They commandeer buses and use them to travel around to observe rural school teachers at work—that’s what they’re all studying to become—and to go to protests. There was a large protest coming up in October, this past year, that the students were preparing for.
AMY GOODMAN: In Mexico City.
RYAN DEVEREAUX: In Mexico City. And this protest was going to sort of commemorate one of the darkest days in Mexican history. Sort of tragically, ironically, this was the massacre of student activists in 1968. So they were trying to get buses to attend this event. They end up in Iguala, and there’s a confrontation with the municipal police. Three of the buses that the students have are traveling through the center of the city, and two are heading out onto the highway. The police attempt to cut them off. There’s gunfire. The students believe initially that the officers are firing warning shots but soon learn that they’re actually shooting at the students. The majority of the students are taken in Iguala off of the third bus trying to make it through the city. The attacks spill over onto the highway. Students are attacked on the highway, removed from their bus. Another group of totally unarmed civilians, totally unrelated to everything that was going on, a team of semi-professional soccer players, is also attacked by gunmen on the highway. A number of people are killed. By the time the sun comes up the next day, you have dead bodies in three locations. You have students killed at the intersection. You have bystanders killed on the highway. And you have one student, Julio César Mondragón, who’s found in a dirt lot not far from the scene of the attacks. His face has been cut off. His ears have been cut off. His eyes have been removed. It’s a truly gruesome crime.
The government says that once the students were taken, they were handed over to local gangsters, where they were driven out to a trash pit outside of a small town near Cocula. The government claims that the remaining students, those who hadn’t suffocated on the way out to the pit, were interrogated about their presence in Iguala that night and then executed one by one. They were thrown into a pit, a pyre was made out of their bodies, and they were incinerated over the course of something between 12 and 15 hours. Their remains were smashed to dust, loaded into trash bags and tossed into a nearby river. The government claims that it recovered remains from those bags. And those remains were sent to experts in Austria and examined. And it was through the examination of those remains that the government was able to announce its positive identification of the one student, Alexander Mora Venancio.
But, as I said, the Argentine investigators weren’t there when the federal government recovered those remains. And the Argentine investigators, in February, after the federal government announced its historical truth and legal certainty, issued a blistering report about the numerous forensic problems with the government’s case—its misidentification of DNA profiles, its breaking of the agreement with the Argentine team in going to the location in Cocula and gathering evidence independently without informing the Argentine team. And it should be said that this Argentine team is one of the most respected forensics teams in the world, and they don’t typically speak out on ongoing investigations. But they had so many problems with what the federal government has done in this case that they broke their silence in February.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the local mayor and his wife are ultimately arrested. They had fled, were found in Mexico City. The government says it was the combination of them working with local drug gangs. What indicates it goes higher?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, the files that we revealed—or, that we reviewed, I should say, detail communications among security forces in the area. And these include communications that were sent to army, federal police, state police working in the area at the time. Through Mexico’s transparency law, earlier this year a small handful of journalists managed to get a hold of military records, logs from—logs and documents pertaining to the night in question. And those records show that the Mexican army knew full well of the students’ presence in the town that night. They were on the street patrolling. They intercepted students at a hospital, a sort of a medical clinic where they were attempting to get care. And so, the army, for sure, knew that the students were there that night. There were records of the students coming into Iguala before they got there, well before the—well before the shots were fired. And so, in cases of enforced disappearance, which is a sort of key question in this case—whether or not this was a case of enforced disappearance—you don’t need to have directly participated in taking students for an investigation to be triggered. State actors that have knowledge of a disappearance happening can be held accountable. And what the records that we have reviewed indicate is that the army certainly had some sense of what was going on that night.
AMY GOODMAN: And why, in this last two minutes that we have—why do you think it’s so important to bring this charge of enforced disappearance? What would it do? Who would be arrested?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, we don’t know who would be arrested. What’s important is that the enforced disappearance investigation is opened, because that will lead us to who we can sort of place blame on. The enforced disappearance charge is key because under Mexican law, government is required to disclose public records of its investigation when evidence of grave human rights abuses, including enforced disappearance, emerges. So, if an enforced disappearance investigation is actually actively pursued, then we would have the possibility of learning more about what actually happened that night and potentially have the ability to understand how this all came to be.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this relate to the U.S.-Mexico relationship and the enormous amount of money the U.S. gives to the Mexican government?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, in the clips you played earlier, there was discussion about Peña Nieto and President Obama’s meeting in January. That was on January 7th. One day before, in the state of Michoacán neighboring Guerrero, at least 16 people were killed by federal police. It was the third state-sponsored massacre in less than a year. You have that case, you have Iguala, and then you have the Tlatlaya case earlier last year in which the army was accused of killing 22 innocent civilians. Those are three cases in the course of a single year, three different levels of Mexican security forces. The United States has sent billions of dollars to Mexico since the beginning of the so-called war on drugs in Mexico, and we have evidence of just tremendous systemic human rights abuses. And those need to be addressed in a real, substantive way in the United States, and they haven’t been so far.
That does it for our show. Congratulations to our director, Becca Staley, on the birth of her daughter, Reese Anne Staley, born May 1st, weighing seven pounds eight ounces. And a very happy birthday to—a landmark birthday for Denis Moynihan.