"It was like putting a package of fireworks into a bonfire, like a rain of bullets."
That's how "Mario" described the bursts of gunfire that were used against him and his classmates as they returned to their school on the night of Friday, September 26, in Iguala, Mexico. The attack claimed six lives that night and left 43 students missing in a case that has shaken the country and led to international calls for a just investigation.
Mario, who asked that his real name not be used in this story, is a first-year student at the Raul Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, in the volatile southern state of Guerrero. It is the only all-male boarding school among nine rural teachers colleges in the state, the only one where the students say they run the place, not the professors.
All decisions at the 88-year-old campus are made democratically among the students, and activities are carried out through commissions. Those sort of activities led a group of normalistas, as they are called, to depart from their campus on September 26 to the city of Iguala — on two commercial buses they had taken without force from drivers.
In recent days, VICE News spoke to a dozen survivors who reconstructed what happened the night of the police attack in Iguala.
The families and supporters of the missing normal school students have protested in cities across Mexico. Above, a demonstration in Chilpancingo, Guerrero. (Photo by Lenin Ocampo.)
Student-Organized Bus Hijackings
Earlier in the day, the student commissions for "Struggle" and "Transport" scheduled "carteras," a term used to describe student activities outside the school. In "carteras," the students take over passenger buses and occupy toll stations on highways, asking for donations in exchange for letting automobiles pass.
That day, they planned to protest before a scheduled event for María de los Ángeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala's now fugitive mayor, Jose Luis Abarca.
Pineda, like many first ladies across the government ranks in Mexico, served as honorary local president of Mexico's family welfare agency, known as Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, or DIF, in Iguala. Her family's alleged links to the Beltran Leyva cartel were well known across the state, but authorities had done nothing about the serious accusations — including kidnapping and homicide — surrounding the mayor and his wife.
Instead, Pineda's name was already being floated as a mayoral candidate for Iguala in elections next year. The students decided to protest at one of her ceremonial DIF events in the community of Tixtla that day "because she wanted the power to stay in one family," Mario said.
They returned to the Ayotzinapa campus by 4pm. The teaching students had two private Estrella de Oro buses already under their control, but they needed more.
'When it started, one of us said, don't be afraid, friends, they are firing to the sky,' Mario went on. 'The buses stopped, and that's when I saw the bullets were coming toward us.'
The commissions then decided to head to Iguala to claim more buses — a soft hijacking so commonplace for the Ayotzinapa school that students paid the drivers off — so that they could travel to the October 2 memorial march in Mexico City the following week.
The Aytozinapa Normal School is usually the only option available for Mario and his classmates. They are mostly the sons of poor campesinos forgotten by Mexico's globalized agricultural economy, families where paying for a college degree is out of the question. The normal schools are free, but chronically underfunded and neglected.
One-hundred and twenty students, none older than 25 and most in their first year at Ayotzinapa, squeezed into the two buses, which had been sitting at their campus for three days. They would take four more from the Iguala central terminal and return to Ayotzinapa, survivors said.
"That Friday we left [the school] on two buses that we had already agreed on with the drivers. We got to the terminal [in Iguala] and we took the others without any problem," Mario said.
"In total, we were on six buses that left the station, two that we already had and four others that we had taken. Three took off in a caravan through downtown, and the other three took another route."
One of the injured normal school students, in a hospital in Iguala, the day after the police attack. (Photo by Pedro Pardo.)
It Sounded Like Fireworks
That night Mario wore only a white T-shirt, a red-and-blue cap he used to help cover his face, his red Ayotzinapa uniform jacket, and one of the only two pairs of black shoes he owns.
The buses arrived at the Iguala terminal just before 7pm, as the sun was setting. They showed up in a city where any stranger is seen with suspicion, where in the past year more than 50 bodies have been found, according to news accounts, in clandestine graves on the city's outskirts. The pervasive sense of fear is due to a fight between local drug gangs Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos, both splinters of the Beltran Leyva cartel.
Mario rode on the third bus in the caravan, taking Juan Alvarez Street, into the horror.
At the intersection with Mina Street, in the very center of Iguala — Guerrero's third-largest city and a key smuggling point for narcotics controlled by the gangs — the attack began.
"When it started, one of us said, 'Don't be afraid, friends, they are firing to the sky'," Mario went on. "The buses stopped, and that's when I saw the bullets were coming toward us."
The young men began panicking. Mario and three other friends got off, each also wearing the red jacket of their Ayotzinapa uniforms. They saw that the gunfire was coming from men inside two municipal police cruisers. Trying to defend himself, Mario threw rocks in their direction.
As bullets kept hitting the buses, they ran to the first bus. "But then we saw that they were ten police cars, surrounding us. We had no where to run and no rocks to defend ourselves," Mario said.
"One of the bullets hit Aldo, who fell right next to me. I saw how a pool of blood formed. I yelled at them that they already hit one of us, and they began firing more," he went on. "If you moved, they fired, if you yelled or talked, they fired. They fired so much, from in front, and from behind, that us, the ones who got off, we hid in between the first and second bus."
A federal special operations police officer stands guard near an entrance to Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.)
In the midst of the gunfire, an ambulance took Aldo Gutiérrez Solano, one of the 25 injured by bullets that night, to a hospital. Lázaro Mazón, Guerrero state health secretary, told VICE News the student did not die of his wounds but remained in a coma.
As this occurred, the normalistas on the third bus, the same one that Mario exited seconds after the gunfire started, were being loaded into police cars. The students interviewed by VICE News counted at least 30 of their classmates who were taken away in vehicles marked by the numbers 017, 018, 020, 022, 028, and 302.
Mario returned to the bus and collected bullet casings he described as being from rifles and handguns. He watched as friends, all identified among themselves by nicknames, were taken away: "Comelón," "Amilcingo," "Chabelo," "El Chicharrón."
Then a second group of officers arrived, but these, Mario said, wore "helmets, bulletproof vests, body armor, black gloves, and anti-riot gear." These police officers surrounded the first two buses.
"They looked like state police, because of how they were equipped, and they told us, 'Sons of bitches, you're getting the fuck out of here! Get on your buses and get the hell out, you're not welcome in this city,' " as the municipal agents took off in vehicles, with normalistas in their control, their wrists bound, Mario said.
Federal helicopters fly over the location of a suspected mass grave outside Iguala. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.)
Escaping the Bullets to a Clinic
Mario saw everything. Javier only heard it.
With the first bullets that hit his window on the third bus, he hit the floor. Javier was in Seat 24, whispering pleas for help into his cell phone so that the police outside wouldn't hear. The driver of the second bus never opened his cabin's door.
They called for help to Ayotzinapa. As soon as he heard the message, the school's student secretary general mobilized a group of Ayotzinapa students and professors in two trucks. They made it to Iguala about an hour after the first attack, accompanied by three local journalists.
Hoping to receive them, Javier left the bus. The bullets had stopped and the police were nowhere to be seen for a few moments.
"As soon as I got off the bus, I went to a friend who was injured," Javier said. "He had his lip ripped open and was trying to get up when the second shooting started. I thought they were fireworks, but they were bullets again, hitting the floor, jumping."
He and three other students managed to carry Edgar Andrés Vargas, whom they called "El Oaxaco," to a clinic a block away.
"There were no doctors, and the watchman said he couldn't help us, but we went up to the third floor, where other patients saw us and ran away," Javier went on. "I think they thought we were in a cartel. We stayed there listening to the shooting."
Two of the victims remained where they fell in the hours after the Iguala bus attacks. (Photo by Lenin Ocampo.)
The second attack against the normalistas — when many were already wounded — came from a group of police trucks that sped toward them from the opposite direction on the street. That is when Julio Cesar Ramírez, 23, and Daniel Gallardo, 19, were killed, along with a woman riding in a taxi and a driver of one of the buses.
The gunmen in the police trucks were armed civilians, witnesses told VICE News. One of these gunmen hit another passenger bus carrying members of a local soccer team called "Los Avispones de Chilpancingo." That is where David Josué García, 15, was killed.
'I feel safe here, and if they're going to take away my life, let them take it as I defend myself and do something.'
As Javier and the wounded student "El Oaxaco" hid in the third floor of the clinic, Mario stayed on the floor of the third bus. He said the second attack from police and armed men lasted fifteen minutes. The rest of the young men ran off in any direction they could.
One of them, Martin, who also did not want to use his real name, darted through the gunfire that hit the buses. He and a fellow student named Julio Cesar Mondragón rushed out help their wounded classmates. They ran up into a hill, where the light of the street faded into darkness.
"We ran. We ran into an empty lot and we stayed there about 30 minutes. We saw two police trucks and heard people yell, 'Tírenles, tírenles!'"—or 'Shoot at them, shoot at them!'—Martin told VICE News. "El Chilango got scared and ran off. I didn't see him again, until he showed up in the newspapers."
Martin might be the last survivor of the Iguala attack that saw "El Chilango" alive. Julio Cesar Mondragón was found the next day with his eyes gouged out and the skin of his face sliced off, just a few streets away from where the police attack took place.
"I recognized him for his handkerchief," Mario told me. "It was the same one he used to cover his face. It was brown, a thick fabric."
Mario said Julio Cesar was a father of a small girl and, like him, listened to hip-hop.
Members of a Guerrero self-defense militia arrive in Iguala to aid the search for the missing. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.)
'You Took Them Alive, Alive We Want Them'
Mario, who is 23, forced out a smile as he recalled his friend "El Chilango." Tears welled in his eyes and trickled down his cheeks.
Mario doesn't have any contact with his parents. He is from Tlapa, another municipality in the mountains of Guerrero. His mother abandoned him and two younger siblings when Mario was 15. He fought with his father, a campesino who eventually formed a family with another woman.
For a few years, Mario and his little brothers lived with uncles. He worked at a laundry, an office supply store, and a nursery school. He didn't have contact with his mother until she heard he had enrolled in the normal school. She called him on the phone one day to congratulate him.
Mario said he has now lost his family, the family he found when enrolled in the Ayotzinapa Normal School.
"That's why I am going to stay here, until I find my compañeros," Mario said. "I feel safe here, and if they're going to take away my life, let them take it as I defend myself and do something."
The normal schools are free, but chronically underfunded and neglected.
The walls of the Ayotzinapa Normal School are decorated with the faces of historic communist leaders and famous phrases uttered by Ernesto "Che" Guevara. No longer just a school, it has a different atmosphere these days. Sometimes it feels like an aid center, sometimes like a funeral parlor, and in recent days, like a market for the various organizations that have arrived with promises of helping the Aytozinapa students and their families.
Every morning at 6am, federal police forces in Iguala gather for a ceremony for the Mexican flag. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.)
Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, historic guerrilla leaders from Mexico's "Dirty War" period in the 1960s and 1970s in Guerrero, studied at the Ayotzinapa school. Their faces also adorn the walls, where banners now hang that read, "You Took Them Alive, Alive We Want Them," along with the faces of the 43 missing.
The discovery of nine mass graves around Iguala make no difference to the parents holding vigil here. They said they wouldn't believe a word spoken by the governor, Angel Aguirre. They call him a "murderer."
According to statements of two of the 34 suspects now under arrest in connection to the case, authorities in Guerrero say the missing students were most likely killed, burned, and buried in the mass graves later discovered in the forested hillsides outside Iguala.
The parents have deposited their trust in a team of forensics investigators from Argentina, who are collecting DNA samples from the relatives of the missing normalistas, to compare with data gathered from the bodies being pulled from the graves.
The parents also seem to care little about the arrival of Mexico's recently formed militarized police force, the gendarmerie, on the order of President Enrique Peña Nieto, or for the arrival of Guerrero self-defense militia groups who are aiding in the search for more bodies.
One of the mass graves cordoned off by police and being examined forensics investigators. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.)
Their hope is fueled by memories.
Cornelio Flores grows corn and bean with his wife in the municipality of Tixtla. His son, also Cornelio, is 20 years old and entered the Ayotzinapa Normal School a year ago. He likes tostadas, enchiladas, and the Chivas soccer team.
Cornelio called his father the night of September 26, that's why the man reaching his 60s said firmly that he is sure his son is alive, even if he might have been kidnapped by the police.
The older Cornelio got the call at 11:30pm that night. At the other end of the line, his son said he was escaping from police that were chasing him and had just killed one of his classmates.
Flores told his son to run and hide. He said he still hopes his son will arrive at Ayotzinapa the way he instructed him to do that night. Running.
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps