There are more than 43 families looking for their missing sons and daughters in Guerrero, Mexico. The Pita family is one of them.
Felix and Guadalupe Pita's son, Lenin Vladimir Pita, was 17 when he disappeared on March 1, 2010. He went missing in Iguala, the same city where 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School vanished eight weeks ago.
"Talking about my son breaks my heart," Felix Pita, a weather-worn man with greying hair and a gravelly voice, told VICE News. "If they could take my son, they can take more. I have been told that they kidnap them and make them work or they sell them to hitmen."
Lenin Vladimir is one of three children born to Felix and Guadalupe.
"He gave strong hugs," the young man's father added. "He was a hard worker, he liked to go to school and used to tell me that he wanted to follow in my footsteps, but go beyond me. He wanted to be an architect."
Cows grazing in hillside country outside Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
In late February 2010, Lenin Vladimir was hired to install an audio system by the owners of an Iguala bar called Cherry's. On March 1, just before 11 pm, three vans escorted by a military pickup truck stopped in front of the bar where Lenin and another five others were working, kidnapping them all.
The vehicles headed toward the 27th Infantry Battalion military base, right in Iguala.
Witnesses later saw these same unmarked vans used to pick up the youths stationed at the base. Family members delivered this information about the forced disappearance to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which in 2011 said "there is evidence that suggests strongly that members of the armed forces participated" in the six men's disappearance.
Witnesses said between 15 and 20 officials were involved in the kidnapping of the six bar employees: Antonio Orduña Vázquez, 21, Sergio Menes Landa, 22, Zózimo Chacón Jiménez, 22, Alejandro García Orozco, 32, and Olimpo Hernández Villa, 34, and Lenin Vladimir Pita, listed by authorities as 18.
Felix and the family members of the men who disappeared have received footage from nearby municipal surveillance cameras that show the exact moment when they were kidnapped by the military or military-covered cartel hitmen. Human Rights Watch recommended that Mexico's national human rights commission investigate the case further.
But the case has not moved forward. And Felix's son has yet to reappear.
A Mexican soldier on patrol in downtown Iguala, Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
Last Thursday, Ayotzinapa parents and students embarked on a three-pronged cross-country caravan, seeking to rally support among the public and to familiarize other local officials with their children's faces, "in case someone sees them," said Epifanio Álvarez, the father of a missing student named Jorge.
Álvarez and others began traveling north towards the state of Chihuahua this week. A second caravan headed south, toward Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, and a third protest is traveling through Guerrero itself to lend a hand in neighboring municipalities, organizers said.
On November 20, the holiday marking the start of the Mexican Revolution, the three caravans and the rest of the parents will gather in Mexico City, where every year an official commemorative march is held by the government. This year, however, civilian crowds are expected to be marching for justice for the missing Ayotzinapa students and all of Mexico's thousands of disappeared people.
'There have been moments where I think about just taking a rest, to not think about the pain, but I can't separate myself from it.'
From the start of former President Felipe Calderón's term in December 2006 to July 2014, a total of 22,322 people are reported missing in Mexico, according to government figures. These numbers fluctuated earlier this year, however, leading human rights advocates to believe that the actual figure could be much higher.
In 2011, the Mexican poet and columnist Javier Sicilia led a caravan across the country to ask then-president Calderón about his son's disappearance. Felix Pita joined Sicilia in solidarity and to ask about his own child, who would now be 21 years old.
In a meeting that Calderón and his cabinet held with parents of the victims of Mexico's drug war, Pita said he told the president: "Can I tell you something, without reprisals?" The president answered, "Tell me," and Pita said: "How I wish one of those six who were taken were one of your sons."
Álvarez now thinks alike. "I'm not sure if Peña Nieto [Mexico's current president] doesn't love his kids or what, but if he has a heart, if he is a father, he would understand, and he would have already found our kids, because he has them," he said.
Newspapers hang for sale at a stall in Iguala. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
'The Army Took My Son'
Since Lenin Vladimir was taken, his parents have gone to every legal institutional outlet available to them to denounce their son's kidnapping.
"I've gone to every office, to the interior secretary, with the former defense minister [Guillermo] Galván, to the public prosecutor, to the governor, but all of them have been ironic, mocking," Felix Pita said.
Near the end of Calderón's term, the interior ministry handed Lenin Vladimir's case to the next administration. That was in December 2012. Last month the Pita family received a visit from a set of officials from the interior ministry for the first time. They opened a new case, as the file that was turned over between administrations is now called "not found." The government had simply lost it.
Lenin Vladimir's father said: "There have been moments where I think about just taking a rest, to not think about the pain, but I can't separate myself from it for one second. I see my son's clothes, I see his bed. If my son has matters to settle with the authorities, let them judge him, but it is another thing to not be able to see him, that they took him."
Pita said his other children continue studying. His daughter is pursuing a master's degree and another daughter is studying law. On weekends, they practice foreign languages. "They want to get ahead in life," he said.
"That's what gives me strength to keep looking for my son, and I will go wherever possible, wherever they call me. That's why I understand the desperation of the normalista parents. I'd do whatever necessary for them. I'd even take up arms."
(Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
One of the surviving students of the Iguala police attack, who asked to be identified by the name "Javier," told me that soldiers responded to the police shooting, despite what authorities say.
Javier hid in the bus he was riding during the first round of police gunfire, and watched as his fellow Ayotzinapa students were being loaded into police trucks.
"As soon as I got off, I saw that a friend of mine was injured. His lip was destroyed and he couldn't stand, when another round of fire started. I thought they were fireworks, but they were bullets that ricocheted off the floor," Javier told VICE News.
With three others, Javier helped carry the injured student, Edgar Andrés Vargas, whom they called "El Oaxaco," to a clinic near the scene of the shootings.
"There was no doctor and the people there said they couldn't do anything. We took him to the third floor, where the nurses saw us and took off running. They thought we were narcos, but we stayed there and listened to the shooting," he said.
Javier stayed in the clinic and attempted to stop El Oaxaco's bleeding. That's when Javier said they heard a vehicle arrive at the clinic. It was a military vehicle, and seven soldiers emerged and entered the building. The soldiers detained them and forced them out of the clinic. He said he joined a group of 15 students who were forced to face a wall in a line and wait. Four of them, including Javier, were interrogated by a commanding soldier who did not identify himself.
The young men told the officer they had been attacked by police and now just wanted to help their injured friend, Javier recalled. The infantrymen confiscated their cell phones and a few backpacks, and told the students to "stay out of problems."
"They asked us again and again what we were doing there and if we were robbing," Javier said. "Then they left and told us to stay out of 'these things.'"
"As soon as they let us go, we took off running, and we went wherever we could, different places, because the army was still patrolling," Javier told VICE News in a second interview recalling the encounter.
The 27th Infantry Battalion in Iguala officially houses 564 soldiers. VICE News requested an interview with the commander in charge of the post, Antonio Reyes Rivera, but this request was rejected. The central press office of Mexico's national defense ministry also did not respond to a request for comment.
Mexico's military is facing growing scrutiny in recent months since soldiers in the neighboring state of Mexico are facing charges of carrying out an extrajudicial massacre in the municipality of Tlatlaya that left 22 dead. Three soldiers are currently facing homicide charges in civilian courts over the incident.
Regarding the attack in Iguala, Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico's defense minister, told lawmakers last Thursday that no soldiers from the 27th Infantry Battalion participated in the police attack and possible massacre. He said only 21 soldiers were present at the base that night.
Cienfuegos said that on the night of the attacks, battalion officers reached out to the Iguala police department to ask if any shootings had been reported. The then police chief, current fugitive Felipe Flores, told the base that nothing was out of order.
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter @melisadps.