A Confused State: The Lessons of Ayotzinapa

By Michael Lettieri and Cecilia Farfán Méndez

November 24, 2020

“Fue el estado.” It was the state: that was the cry that emerged in the days after 43 students were disappeared in the city of Iguala on September 26, 2014. In the years since, it has remained a rhetorical pillar of protest and activism, an accusation loaded with historical significance and political consequence. But what, exactly, did the state do? What, even, do we mean when we talk about the state? These questions challenge many broad assumptions about organized crime and violence in Mexico and the relationship between criminals and state actors. Iguala was not a remote hamlet, with a state apparatus easily captured by well-armed gangsters: it is the third largest city in Guerrero, with over 100,000 inhabitants. It is a place where we can see the complexities of “the state” in sharper focus.

As we reflect on this atrocity six years later, it is not enough to attempt to illuminate the events. We also need to bring to the fore the systemic factors surrounding it. Three observations emerge from this approach. First, violence in this context was related to the weak junctions between different levels of the state, rather than the product of a conflict between criminals and state actors or a question arising from the absence of the state. Second, in the disappearance we see actors indifferent segments of the “state” not only coordinating to commit and cover-up criminal acts, but also interacting with a sort of inept inefficiency. Third, the cross-cutting activities of “state” actors meant there were both crimes of commission and crimes of omission, but it was with the latter where the cry it was the state resonates most profoundly.

November 20, 2014: A man passes in front of an installation commemorating the 43 Ayotzinapa students in Xalapa, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Credit: Montecruz Foto

A minute-by-minute chronicle of what happened is beyond the scope of this essay. Others, like the platform developed by Forensic Architecture, have done a superb job of reconstructing the known events of that night. However, for the purpose of this essay, it is important to remember the broad strokes of what happened.

That evening, a group of students from the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teachers’ college had arrived in Iguala with the hopes of commandeering buses. This was not a new practice and had mostly been tolerated by officials and bus companies—for the mostly poor students at the drastically underfunded college, it was the only means of transportation. After seizing five buses at the Iguala bus terminal, the students set out for Ayotzinapa. Two buses became lost and headed through the city, while another three proceeded toward the highway. The two buses traversing the city were stopped by Iguala’s municipal police, who opened fire on the buses on multiple occasions and apparently abducted a number of students from one of the buses. Two of the other buses were stopped on the highway after police again opened fire, and the students aboard them were taken away in police trucks from the neighboring municipality of Huitzuco. Police stopped the fifth bus as well, however the assault on it was less vicious and the students successfully fled.

Just after midnight, the students who had not been abducted met with journalists at the scene of the first attack in the center of Iguala, along with other students who had come from Ayotzinapa when they received word of the events. Almost immediately, three men in black tactical gear and armed with automatic weapons opened fire on the impromptu press conference, killing two students and forcing the gathering to scatter. In the chaos, another student was seized and disappeared. Following the attack, a group of students sought medical care for a wounded companion in a private clinic nearby, where they would later encounter soldiers from the nearby military base, who forced them to depart the clinic without medical care and accused them of being criminals.

By the following morning, the dimensions of the atrocity became clear. Forty-three students were missing, and the tortured body of one had been found on the city’s outskirts. As national and international attention grew, the federal government bungled the response, haughtily dismissing the families of the victims, mishandling the investigation, and refusing to cooperate with an international team of independent investigators. At best, this created the impression of a coverup; at worst, it was one.

The 43 students disappeared in Iguala. Source: The Guardian

Families of the disappeared students will not have justice until the truth of what happened that night comes out and they have their day in court. However, even without all of the facts, it is still possible to understand the significance of the events. The systemic factors and dynamics that created the conditions for the disappearance that night are what concern us, because they are present across Mexico, in places where disappearances are a tragically common occurrence. According to the most recent data released by the National Search Commission, since 2006 75,629 people have gone missing in Mexico.

The disappearance in many ways became a proxy for narratives of violence across Mexico. The Ayotzinapa case successfully challenged both official rhetoric and popular beliefs that most violence is the product of confrontations between criminals or between criminals and the state. By clamoring “fue el estado” from protests on social media to spelling it out with candles in Mexico City’s iconic Zócalo, the events and their aftermath forever fissured the simplistic explanation of “narco” violence that had prevailed since 2007.

The story of the disappearance is not one of an isolated incident on a single night. In Guerrero, “the state” had long been both participant in, and arbiter of, violence; it upheld the rule of law only insomuch as “law” referred to informal codes rather than jurisprudence. This was as true in 2014 as it had been in the 1970s, when military repression of rural communities mingled with state governors violently enforcing the payment of kickbacks by drug traffickers. Neither were corruption and brutality the only indications that the edifice of the state was an irregular construction. Repertoires of protest and survival, such as seizing tollbooths to raise funds, or commandeering buses to obtain affordable transportation, were allowed not because the state was unable to stop them, but because the informal system provided a more effective means of rule.

Thus, when they entered Iguala on the night of September 26, although the students had no idea of the violence they were about to experience, they were intimately familiar with the complexities of the state. In Guerrero, as was the case elsewhere in Mexico, local actors frequently operated violently with the tacit approval of state or federal authorities, and on occasion authorities even condoned or encouraged conflict between those actors. Just as the students had no assurances that “the state” would protect them, the municipal police of Iguala could not be assured that the State Police or armed forces would necessarily support them. Ayotzinapa underscores how violence in this context was related to the weak junctions between different segments of the state rather than an absence of the state.

While different levels of the state were involved in the disappearance and its coverup, from municipal police to the military to federal investigators, it should not be surprising that the articulation between these levels was geographic not legal. Municipal police from two localities and military authorities from a local base cooperated or colluded with criminal actors that night to commit the disappearance, harass survivors and journalists, and obscure the truth. While federal authorities may have known about the events almost in real time, due to the country’s security communications systems, neither were they able—or willing—to stop the atrocity, and they were wholly unable to disguise the role of state actors.

It was in this ineffective coverup and subsequent obstruction of justice that the Iguala disappearance most resembles the tens of thousands of other disappearances. Even as independent investigators provided forensic evidence to disprove it, the administration of then-president Enrique Peña Nieto never disavowed what it called “the historical truth,” a narrative of the fate of the students that had been presented by the Attorney General’s Office soon after the disappearance. In this, and in refusing to allow the independent international commission of experts to undertake a full investigation, the state not only eroded its own credibility and authority, but began a process of ongoing revictimization of the families.

That experience is typical for those whose loved ones have disappeared. Case files are lost or abandoned, investigations are cursory, evidence is lost, and official indifference is rampant. It is in these omissions, this bureaucratic violence that follows a material crime, where we can truly say, it was the state.

Michael Lettieri is a Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego and has a PhD in Modern Latin American history from UC San Diego. Cecilia Farfán Méndez is Head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego and has a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara. They are the co-founders and managing editors of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.

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