"I thought that if we were going to meet the president, it would be because he had something good for us," said Agustín Lauro, father of one of the missing teaching students in Mexico, on the day he and more than 60 people aboard three buses entered the presidential residence, Los Pinos, for a meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
For the entire ride from the Ayotzinapa Normal School campus in central Guerrero to Mexico City, Agustín's gaze seemed to sink toward the window of his seat on the bus, where he sat alongside his wife Gloria.
Their son, Magdaleno Rubén Lauro Villegas, is 19 years old and among the 43 Ayotzinapa students missing since September 26, when Iguala policemen attacked their caravan of buses, killing six. His fellow students called their son "El Magda." Agustín and Gloria want to see their son alive once more, but with each day that passes since his disappearance, the rumors and false reports regarding the whereabouts of the students grow, clouding the tough reality facing them: Rubén and his classmates have vanished.
The afternoon of the meeting — Wednesday, October 29 — Lauro, his wife, and a brother-in-law arrived in Mexico City after a four-hour bus ride from Ayotzinapa along with the other parents. They've attended marches, meetings, and caravans, always with a printed photo of Rubén in their hands, "in case someone sees him," Gloria Lauro told VICE News.
Agustín Lauro is a short man, with dark hair. He never lets go of the image of his son. He holds it before his chest whenever he can, clutching it with visible intensity.
"The media says just about anything," Lauro said. "I've read that the students were narcos, that they are guerrillas, that they are in the mass graves, that they were incinerated, everything. I don't believe anything anymore, but the government knows where they are."
'I don't believe anything anymore, but the government knows where they are.'
Rubén Lauro's parents got off their bus holding hands. Under the watch of Mexico's presidential guard, they passed a large green door toward a hall that was "very big, with tall ceilings, with a shiny wood floor," the father said.
In the center of the room, chairs were placed in a semi-circle, and against a wall. Lauro's father said he saw a logo that was large, "like the Mexican flag, with an eagle, and there was also a high table with a microphone, where the president spoke."
Peña Nieto arrived at 1:45pm. His guests barely had time to taste the simple ham sandwiches that were laid out for them on a large table covered in white linen in a corner of the room.
The visitors were exhausted and hungry.
"I thought they were gonna give us a huge meal, maybe barbacoa [slow-roasted goat] or something like that. We hadn't eaten a thing," said another person present at the meeting.
Rubén Lauro's parents also hadn't had breakfast. In recent weeks, in fact, they've barely eaten at all, stemming their hunger with bites of snack foods and oranges.
A shopkeeper places bottled water out for parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students marching last Thursday in Tixtla, Guerrero. (Photo by Daniel Hernandez)
Inside Los Pinos, a place that few Mexicans in their lives ever see, they thought they would have "something substantial in the house of the president, a soup, or maybe a soft drink. But no, they had grapes, sandwiches, and bottled water we could serve ourselves in glasses," Agustín Lauro said.
Peña Nieto appeared through one of the four wooden doors that opened onto the room while the parents nibbled on the sandwiches. Along with the president came the interior secretary, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, and the attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam.
"I'd only seen Peña Nieto on the news, on the television set inside a store in Tixtla," Agustín Lauro said, referring to their town nearest the Ayotzinapa campus. For the first time last week, Lauro saw the president in person: a fair-skinned man with slicked black hair, and his famous pompadour.
"I thought he was taller, that's how he seems on TV. But actually he's about my size. Anyway, he was normal. He spoke to us," the father said.
The meeting lasted five hours. The president spoke briefly with each parent face-to-face. Once the meeting was over, Peña Nieto went on national television to give his version of what happened inside.
The president said he committed himself and the government to strengthen the search for the missing students as missing persons, not as bodies in one of the many graves that dot the hills around Iguala and in neighboring communities. He promised he'd form a commission to better support the families, and that his administration would support and aid the 25 others who were injured in the Iguala attacks, as well as the families of those who died.
It was the first meeting Peña Nieto had with victims of Mexico's violence inside his residence. In almost two years in office, the president has not confronted a crisis of this magnitude, and he certainly has never spent five hours meeting with a large group of rural citizens looking for their lost children.
'We are not going to trust the president's words or the promises he just made on national TV.'
Before the Iguala case erupted, Peña Nieto had almost grown accustomed to appearing on the covers of glossy international magazines, posing as the "great reformer," a title bestowed for his initiatives aimed at opening up and modernizing the oil and telecom industries. Last Wednesday night, the present looked tired, slack, and far from the formal trappings that have carefully guarded his image.
As the president gave his address on national TV, Agustín and Gloria Lauro and the rest of the Ayotzinapa parents headed to a human rights center in Mexico City to give their version of what happened inside Los Pinos.
They uniformly expressed disappointment and frustration, saying that, in essence, nothing new was said to them. Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, the spokesman for the parents, said it was "yet another meeting with more of the same that did not surpass our expectations."
"We are not going to trust the president's words or the promises he just made on national TV until we see the 43 normalistas alive," de la Cruz said. "We are demanding that they stop looking for them in mass graves, or in trash dumps, because we are certain that they are alive."
Exasperated, the parents returned to Guerrero that same night. On Thursday, they and their supporters said they would "paralyze the country until the compañeros were returned to them alive." Ayotzinapa students called for a national strike on November 5. Universities across the country promised solidarity.
Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said the government was reinforcing the search with 10,000 federal police officers, on top of helicopters and search dogs.
Rubén Lauro's mother and father are hoping for a second meeting, one where they will receive good news in addition to ham sandwiches.
"Let us be clear, we want answers as soon as possible, since as it is, governability in the state of Guerrero has slipped from their hands," Agustín Lauro said. "We call on Mexican society to keep protesting, from their houses, with signs on their walls, their doors, until they are found."
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps