The minute they heard their son was one of the missing normalista students believed to have been killed by police in Mexico, Manuel and Hilda González got on a bus and traveled nine hours to make it here, the Raul Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, in the southern state of Guerrero.
Their son, César Manuel González Hernández, is 19 and a second-year teaching student at Ayotzinapa, a Revolutionary-era rural teachers college known nationally for the ardently leftist politics that guide everything the students do and study.
His parents, campesinos from the state of Tlaxcala, made it to the Ayotzinapa campus with more cash in their cell phone's credit line than in their pockets, they said, and not much else.
They've been joined by dozens of other parents who are in shock and mourning, waiting for word on the fate of their missing children. Guerrero's chief prosecutor said Sunday that 17 of the victims found in mass graves near the site of the shootings are the remains of normalistas from the Ayotzinapa school, according to confessions reportedly made by a drug-dealer and a hitman detained in connection with the disappearances.
A total of 28 bodies have been found as of Monday morning, although authorities have yet to confirm the identities of the victims.
A Mexican army vehicle fixed with a sign showing the faces and names of missing teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Lenin Ocampo)
"We came just like this, nothing else," Cesar's mother Hilda told VICE News a few days ago at Ayotzinapa, where the walls are peppered with revolutionary slogans and images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Her entire family, including two other daughters, live on $50 a week, she said. Cesar's parents have been sleeping at the school since Wednesday. A classmate of their son offered them his bed.
"Every night, I start thinking, Why don't they do anything to the bad people? I don't know why the government doesn't support these schools of young people, who are the only ones who know how to express themselves," Hilda said.
Local police officers allegedly in the pocket of a criminal gang known as the Guerreros Unidos are believed to be responsible for the shootings and disappearances of the students, Guerrero state prosecutor Iñaky Blanco Cabrera said Sunday.
Two of the 22 police officers detained since last week in relation to the case told investigators that they were sent to stop three buses that had been temporarily hijacked by a group of Ayotzinapa normalista students. A Guerreros Unidos leader known as "El Chucky" allegedly gave the order to "finish off" the students that were captured in the operation.
Authorities were also searching a property owned by missing Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca, who is wanted for questioning for his alleged links to the Guerreros Unidos. The mayor's wife is siblings with one of the cartel leaders, news reports said.
A view of the Ayotzinapa Normal School campus, where images of "Che" Guevara adorn the walls. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)
Inside the Normalista School
Visiting the Ayotzinapa Normal School is like entering a time warp, or landing in Communist Cuba. Portraits of Che, Marx, Lenin, and Engels adorn the interior walls, accompanied by images of the 1970s Mexican guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas. Its nearly 600 students are all male and live on the campus amid rallying slogans for a variety social causes.
The school sits about 20 minutes outside the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo, at the end of a dirt road, where a stone archway welcomes visitors. On most days, the campus feels like a tiny city of teenagers and twenty-somethings, although the population now includes a jumble of relatives of the normalistas who were apparently kidnapped by the Iguala municipal police.
The words "If I go forward, follow me/If I go forward, push me/If they kill me, avenge me/If I betray you, kill me," are visible on a wall in the main building, one of nine that are used as dormitories, classrooms, and dining halls. A sign over the main entrance reads: "Ayotzinapa, the cradle of social consciousness."
The students, usually masking their faces, block passage to buses before boarding and requiring that passengers exit so that they can use the vehicles for their own transport.
Students collectively decide on nearly every aspect of life, as well as their instruction at the school. "We have the power here," said one normalista who called himself Diego, a pseudonym.
He isn't the only one using a different name. All of the students at the Ayotzinapa Normal School change their names once they cross the threshold of the entrance. Many take on nicknames that refer to their hometowns. The missing student Cesar Manuel González Hernández, for example, is known as "El Tlaxcaltequita," in reference to his home state of Tlaxcala.
"We are a school in the struggle," said a student who called himself Eduardo. He is the head of the "propaganda committee," one of nine groups that organize the students. "The one in charge here is not the teacher," he said.
VICE News spent five days at the campus. In recent days, it has become a hub of planning and organizing for protests as students and relatives have taken to blocking major highways and protesting in Chilpancingo.
By Monday, the school had been swarmed by national and foreign reporters, many of them pressing parents insensitively about their missing children. As a result, the Ayotzinapa parents decided to rely on a single spokesperson to deal with the crush of journalists.
"[Governor Aguirre] knows where they are, so he must return them to us, because instead of tiring we are getting angrier by the day, and it is time to put a halt to this situation," said Manuel Martínez, the spokesman appointed by the families.
Two normal-school students with their faces covered during a Friday blockade of the highway connecting Mexico City to Chilpancingo. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)
Hijacked Buses in the Name of Social Struggle
A clearer picture of what happened that night in Iguala has emerged, pointing to a string of confrontations that in many ways reflect the complicated web of political and social conflicts that have been stewing in Guerrero for years.
According to interviews with survivors of the attacks in Iguala, the students had just been protesting outside an event featuring the Iguala mayor's wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda. The group of normalistas had also been in Iguala to solicit funds for supplies for their school. In order to return to Ayotzinapa, the students stopped and temporarily hijacked three commuter buses — a standard practice for normalista students that they say reflects their ideals of social struggle.
The students, usually masking their faces, block passage to buses before boarding and requiring that passengers exit so that they can use the vehicles for their own transport. They argue the government gives the normal schools scarce resources, and that commercial buses — as well as delivery trucks linked to large food companies, which the normalistas also hijack and in many cases sack for goods — represent the corrupting power of business interests in Mexico.
The non-violent hijacking of passenger buses has become so common that bus drivers know to turn over their vehicles to the students, who customarily pay off the drivers later for their trouble, several students told VICE News. The practice of bus hijackings is also well organized: the Ayotzinapa school has a committee in charge of the activity, called "lucha," or "struggle."
For this reason, normal school students in Guerrero have often been labeled in the local press as "vandals" or "criminals," as they also steal gas or negotiate with gas station attendants to acquire it.
A student named Carlos, who heads the bus-hijacking operations, explained why he believes the tactic shouldn't be considered stealing.
"We do this because the food [the government] gives us isn't enough," he said. "We only take from the companies that belong to the system, because we are against capitalistic corporations, like Coca-Cola and Lala," a milk producer.
In 2011, a confrontation with police on a federal highway in Guerrero led to the shooting deaths of two students from the Ayotzinapa campus. It's also no secret in Guerrero that the normal schools are historically linked to nascent guerrilla movements in the troubled southern state, although current Ayotzinapa students said they had no contact with such groups now.
Two guerrilla groups in Guerrero have reportedly released statements since the Iguala attacks and disappearances, although their authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
The Ejército Popular Revolucionario, or EPR, said in a statement that the incidents constituted a "political crime" of the state. A smaller guerrilla group calling itself the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, or FAR, called on normalistas to prepare for a "general offensive" against Mexico's government as a result of the disappearances.
Separately, a so-called narcomanta — a printed message placed in public by criminal gangs — appeared early Monday in Iguala, allegedly signed by the Guerreros Unidos cartel. The message warned that if the 22 Iguala officers are not released, the cartel will reveal the names of politicians linked to their operations.
One of the pits used to bury burned bodies believed to be among the missing normal school students, outside Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Alasdair Baverstock)
Stench of Burnt Flesh
A VICE News reporter on Monday gained access to several of the six grave sites where the missing normalistas were likely buried.
The site sits about 30 minutes by car outside the center of Iguala, and requires another half-hour hike to reach from a roadside. The graves were slimy with grease, or what appeared to be sticky fat. The area gave off a disgusting stench of burnt flesh.
Authorities said the bodies that have been recovered so far have all been burned. Forensics investigators from Argentina have joined the effort to exhume and identify the victims.
"This is the favorite cemetery of the killers," Virgilio Rodríguez, a resident of the nearest village to the site, Pueblo Viejo, told VICE News.
Iguala sits at a critical juncture between Guerrero and the states of Mexico, Michoacán, and Morelos. It is about 22 miles south of the colonial city of Taxco, a popular international tourist destination.
In recent years, Iguala has become a key transfer point for drugs, and, as a result, a battleground for two criminal groups, Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos, which are both offshoots of the crippled Beltrán Leyva cartel, a former mayor, Lázaro Mazón, said in an interview.
The residents of this formerly agricultural area have largely stopped cultivating corn, watermelon, squash, and peanuts — often under the threat of criminal cells — and have been forced to become lookouts for the cartels.
Between April and May of this year, Mexican soldiers discovered and dismantled a meth lab in Iguala, and later found a series of mass graves in which 28 bodies were found, news reports said. Those victims have yet to be publicly identified.
On Saturday night, the relatives of the missing agreed collectively to reject any conclusions on the matter from Guerrero governor Ángel Aguirre. They said they would hold the governor responsible for the crimes if their missing loved ones are found and confirmed to be dead.
More protests are planned, including a "national strike" among normal schools across the country, scheduled for this Wednesday.
"I have faith he will return," said Hilda, Cesar González's mother. "I will be here waiting for him. I want to tell him that I love him. That is my priority."
VICE News reporters Marisol Wences in Acapulco and Alasdair Baverstock in Iguala contributed to this story.