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43 Students Mysteriously Disappear In Mexico, Prompting Mass Protests (Updated)

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Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Mexico on Wednesday, in response to the disappearance — and possible murder of — 43 student teachers from Iguala. Marches were held in 19 of 32 Mexican states, as citizens demanded justice for the missing persons.

Along with 15,000 marchers led by relatives of the students in Mexico City, mass demonstrations took place across the country, including Guerrero, the state where Iguala is located. “Teachers, union members, activists, and empathetic citizens,” took part, as well as students in the higher education system. Participants carried banners and pictures of the missing persons, calling on the government to find the 43 students and take action against leaders connected to organized crime. Demonstrators also called on the governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, to step down.

Mexico Violence

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According to numerous reports, the 43 students were taken by authorities on September 26 while they were trying to raise money for a demonstration against cuts to their state-financed teaching college, Ayotzinapa. Iguala’s municipal police allegedly opened fire on buses the students were traveling in, after which anonymous gunmen continued to shoot at the convoy. The attack culminated in the death of 3 students, and 3 others caught in the fray. Although 57 students were originally reported missing after the confrontation, 13 made it home, and 1 name was accidentally counted twice.

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Last weekend, a mass grave with 28 disfigured bodies was found in an Iguala suburb, and many fear that the missing students are among the deceased. It is believed that police officers collaborated with members of the Guerreros Unidos gang in the killing of the students. The state government arrested and charged 22 officers with murder, but protesters remain skeptical.

“We blame the state for the forced disappearance of our fellow students,” said Mexico City protester Omar Garcia, a student who was present during the attack.

Mexico Violence

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Details about the 43 student teachers remain unclear. Motives for taking the students are unknown. And there are additional questions about the students’ whereabouts, if they are not the bodies that were found in the grave last weekend. But people have long suspected ties between the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez, and organized criminals. Detailed accounts of his corruption and violent tendencies have come to the fore, and many believe the fugitive played a role in the recent chaos.

The recent disappearance also comes on the heels of a tragedy in June, when soldiers shot 22 people pointblank in a warehouse. Citizens are increasingly disillusioned with the investigation surrounding that incident as well.

Behind protesters’ demand for justice — and answers — is a larger frustration with the nation’s corrupt politicians and rampant violence. Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report found that gross human rights violations occur in Mexico, many of which are perpetuated by law enforcement officials. Humanitarian watch dogs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International claim that the government’s response to the rampant rate of disappearances has been “slow and limited.” The criminal justice system has done little to mitigate crime.

Mexico Violence

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The disappearance and subsequent investigation also raises questions about Mexico’s relationship with the U.S. Though Mexico is well-known for government corruption and systemic violence, the U.S. cannot be absolved of its involvement. The U.S. has contributed billions in financial aid to Mexico’s military under the Merida Initiative, with very little oversight. Indeed, due to concern over the U.S.-Mexico partnership and little knowledge of how the money is actually spent, Amnesty International stated, “In August [2012], despite the failure of Mexican authorities to meet human rights conditions set by the US Congress as part of the Merida initiative, the US State Department recommended that Congress release the 15% of funds subject to the conditions.” The Washington Office on Latin America, also attributes the overall militarization of Mexico’s public security to a U.S.-backed remodel, under which law enforcement officials are military-trained.

Though Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto pledged to curb military brutality, with financial assistance from the U.S., crime is still a grave concern in the country, fueling distrust of his leadership.

UPDATE

Suspects informed authorities of 4 additional mass graves close to Iguala on Thursday. The number of bodies found is still unknown.

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