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The Disappeared

The story of September 26, 2014, the day 43 Mexican students went missing — and how it might be a turning point for the country

By the first days of October, the outdoor basketball court at the Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, a town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, had become an open-air waiting room of despair. Pain emanated like heat. Under the court’s high, corrugated tin roof, the families of 43 missing students gathered to face the hours between search expeditions, protests, and meetings with government officials, human-rights workers, and forensic anthropologists. Assembled in clumps at the court’s edges, sitting on the concrete floor or in plastic folding chairs formed in semicircles, they spoke in hushed tones and kept to themselves. Most had traveled from small, indigenous, campesino communities in Guerrero’s mountainsides. Many had arrived without a change of clothes. They had all come to look for their sons.

On the night of September 26, 2014, in the city of Iguala, 80 miles away, uniformed police ambushed five buses of students from the college and one bus carrying a professional soccer team. Together with three unidentified gunmen, they shot and killed six people, wounded more than 20, and “disappeared” 43 students. One victim’s body was found in a field the next morning. His killers had cut off his face. Soldiers at the 27th Infantry Battalion army base, located less than two miles away and tasked with fighting organized crime, did not intercede.

News of the attack was met initially with muted outrage, mostly because the reports out of Iguala, a highlands city of 110,000, were confusing. For several days, conflicting counts of the missing students circulated. It wasn’t until October 4, when state prosecutors announced that they had uncovered the first in a series of mass graves on the outskirts of Iguala that the national and international media descended on the region. When forensic workers confirmed that the first of the 30 charred human remains were not the missing students, anger and horror became widespread. Throughout October, marches and vigils took place across the country. In Chilpancingo, the Guerrero state capital, Ayotzinapa students smashed windows and set state government buildings on fire. In Iguala, protesters sacked and burned the municipal palace.

Although it was neither an isolated event nor the largest massacre in recent years, what occurred in Iguala has struck at the core of Mexican society. Perhaps it was the scale of the violence, or the sheer brutality, or that the victims were college students, or that the perpetrators were mostly municipal police, or that the mayor of Iguala, his wife, and the police chief were probably behind the attack, or that the state and federal governments were deceptive in their investigation and callous in their treatment of the mothers and fathers of the murdered, wounded, and disappeared. Whatever the cause — and it was likely a combination of all these reasons — it is impossible to overstate the effect of the attacks on the country. Mexicans speak of Iguala as shorthand for collective trauma. Mexico is now a nation in mourning, and at the heart of that grief are those 43 families on the Ayotzinapa basketball court and their agonizing demand: Bring them back alive.

Every year, 140 first-year students arrive at the all-male Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College from some of the most economically battered places in the hemisphere, where elementary schools are often single-room, adobe structures without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. These are among the most committed youth of their communities for whom the system says there is no place: The ones apparently destined to enter the lowest ranks of the drug-warring armies or to scramble across the Arizona desert and pick bell peppers in California or wash dishes in Chicago. The teachers college, known as Ayotzinapa, offers them a different route: a profession. Ayotzinapa says to them, “You belong here.”

Tuition and board are free. The state government provides a meal budget that amounts to $3.70 per student per day, which usually means a diet of eggs, rice, and beans. The students do all the cleaning, tending, and a large part of the cooking. The first-year dorm rooms are windowless concrete boxes with no furniture. As many as eight sleep to a room, laying out cardboard and blankets for bedding. Some fasten empty milk crates to the walls to use as dressers. 

Rural teachers colleges were created after the Mexican Revolution to promote literacy in the countryside. By the mid-1900s, they numbered as many as 36. In 1969, the federal government closed numerous schools, and now only 14 remain. Ayotzinapa was founded in 1926, and, like all the colleges, has a long tradition of left-wing student organizing. Murals on school buildings depict not only internationally renowned revolutionary figures like Che Guevara and Zapatista rebel Subcomandante Marcos but also ’70s-era guerrilla leaders Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, both Ayotzinapa graduates. Several murals memorialize two students who were killed by police in 2011 during a protest demanding an increase in the school’s enrollment and meal budget.

One of the most common “activities,” as the students call their actions, is commandeering buses. Traveling to observe teachers in rural areas is an essential part of the curricula, but the school has never owned many vehicles or had a budget to rent or acquire them. (In early September, the college had only two buses, two vans, and a pickup truck at its disposal.) The students have long secured transportation by heading to nearby bus stations or setting up a highway blockade, boarding a stopped bus, and informing its driver and passengers that the vehicle would be used for “the educational purposes of the Ayotzinapa Teachers College.”

Government officials decry the students’ actions as outright robbery. The students insist they are not thieves and that they always “reach an agreement” that includes payment. The bus drivers don’t abandon the vehicles; sometimes they camp out at the college, with meals provided, for weeks and occasionally months. When the students block highways, they typically do so at tollbooths. Surrounded by the students, drivers are inclined to “donate” the toll to the college’s transportation fund. None of these tactics is unique to Ayotzinapa, but what distinguishes them is that they have become integrated into the basic functioning of the school.

In May 2013, Televisa reporter Adela Micha interviewed Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre. She asked him how it was possible that the Ayotzinapa students had made a habitual practice of stealing buses. Aguirre responded that Ayotzinapa “has become a kind of bunker. Neither the federal nor the state governments can access the school. It is a place that has been used by some groups to indoctrinate these youths and cultivate social resentment amongst them.” Micha asked, “Who is indoctrinating them?” Aguirre responded, “A few insomniac guerrillas.”

The plan for September 26 was never Iguala. “We were interested in Chilpo,” Iván Cisneros, one of the second-year students who coordinated the activities that evening, told me, referring to Chilpancingo. “We always go to do our activities in Chilpo, but things had heated up there, and we didn’t want to put people at risk, so we opted to head toward Iguala.”

(The following account of what occurred on the night of September 26 is based on interviews with 14 students who survived the attacks and with more than ten residents, including four journalists, who also witnessed them. The names of the surviving students are pseudonyms.)

In mid-September, a group of second-years expropriated two buses at the Chilpancingo bus station. They needed the vehicles to transport students for three days of classroom observation. Upon their return, they held onto the buses — and the drivers — because many in the school were planning to travel to Mexico City for the October 2 march commemorating what’s considered the most infamous event in modern Mexican history: the 1968 army massacre of hundreds of students. The problem was that Ayotzinapa didn’t have enough buses to take everyone.

To get more buses, student coordinators — almost all second-years — scheduled an action for the evening of Friday, September 26. They decided, though, to avoid Chilpancingo because riot police had been posted at the bus station. Instead, the action would take place in the opposite direction, near Huitzuco, a small town about 70 miles from the school.

Around 5:30 p.m., coordinators filled the two buses with about 80 first-year students and headed out. By all accounts, the mood on the buses was festive. The students had been on campus for about a month. For many, Friday had been the first day of classes, and now they were about to participate in one of the school’s rites of passage, their first action. “We didn’t know what activity we were going to,” a first-year student told me. “They just told us, let’s go.”

They stopped outside of Huitzuco, and the students began to ask for donations and to keep an eye out for buses heading to Chilpancingo. Darkness fell, drivers were hostile, and no buses were coming. Cisneros called one of the other coordinators and said, “This is hopeless. We’re not going to be able to grab anything.”

The coordinators were getting ready to head back to Ayotzinapa when a bus approached. Students came to terms with the driver, who requested that he first drop off his passengers in Iguala, about 20 minutes away. The bus reached the city by 8:00 p.m., and all the passengers disembarked, except the nine students who had commandeered the bus. The driver said he needed authorization before departing for the college. “Wait for just a minute,” he told them.

A few blocks away, the political elite of Iguala and some 4,000 acarreados, people bused in to fill political events, were gathered in the Civic Plaza to hear what was billed as the second annual report of the National System for Integral Family Development’s Iguala office. A regional development agency is hardly one to lavish money on flowers, lighting, sound, food, and bands for an annual report. Journalists who covered the event say that it was a thinly veiled pre-campaign party for the mayor’s wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, who was hoping to succeed him. Notable among those present was a colonel of the 27th Infantry Battalion.

Elected in 2012, Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife have long treated Iguala as their fiefdom. In recent years, they have acquired 31 houses and apartments, nine businesses, and 13 jewelry stores. The Mexican Army donated part of the land on which the couple built a $23 million shopping center on the edge of town. At different times, state and federal prosecutors have accused Pineda’s parents and three brothers (two of whom have been murdered) of running an organized crime group known as Guerreros Unidos, or the United Warriors. In Iguala, the widely held view is that the police and the Warriors are synonymous. Pineda once threatened a reporter in public, telling him, “If you keep it up, I’ll cut your ears off.” Abarca has been accused of murdering a local activist named Arturo Hernández Cardona in 2013. A witness testified before federal prosecutors that Abarca shot Cardona in the chest and face. Cardona had been missing for four days when his tortured body was found on the side of the road.

Among those who did not know the accusations against Iguala’s political couple or that they were speaking at a rally a few blocks away were the nine students impatiently waiting for the bus driver to return. They watched him, as he continued to talk with the station’s security guards, who in turn spoke into their phones and radios. Fearing that the driver would refuse to get back on the bus, the students called their compatriots out on the highway, whose response was swift: They gathered rocks, got back on their two buses, and headed for the station.

When they arrived, the students parked the buses on the street and charged the station, their faces covered with T-shirts tied over their heads. The nine waiting students abandoned their bus and, along with the others, commandeered three more. Now aboard five buses, the police nowhere in sight, the students told the drivers to get them out of town as fast as possible. Two buses drove east toward Periférico Sur Avenue, which skirts the center of town and offers a direct route to the highway. The other three buses went north on Galeana Street toward the Civic Plaza. Ignoring the students’ demands to speed up, the lead driver cruised slowly down the street. By this time it was around 9:30 p.m. At the political rally, the talking was over, and the band had started to play.

As the three buses passed the Civic Plaza, police trucks approached from the side, sirens flashing. One truck pulled in front of the first bus, bringing the caravan to a halt. Students jumped off to clear the truck out of the way. More police arrived and started firing in the air. The students of Ayotzinapa presumed that fighting with the police was a kind of cat-and-mouse affair: If you were caught, you would be beaten and arrested, but being gunned down was not part of the game. They rushed forward, pelting the police truck with rocks and forcing its driver to pull back.

“I was in the third bus. When we heard the gunshots, we jumped out into the street,” Ernesto Guerrero, a first-year student, told me. “One of the second-year students said, ‘Don’t be afraid. They are shots in the air.’ But as we approached, we realized they weren’t shooting in the air. They were shooting at the buses and at us. So we decided to defend ourselves. I found four rocks and threw them.”

With the path clear, the three buses drove by the plaza and down Juan N. Álvarez Street, which runs some 15 blocks before it reaches Periférico Norte Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Police trucks pursued, along their side and from behind, firing repeatedly. The buses were a few yards from the intersection with Periférico Norte when a police truck cut them off. This time, the driver abandoned the truck. When students on the lead bus started to push the truck out of the way, police opened fire. A student named Aldo Gutiérrez Solano was shot in the head. In the confusion, the students who were moving the truck almost ran him over. “They finally saw him on the ground, bleeding from the bullet wound in his head,” Edgar Yair, a first-year student, told me. “We wanted to pick him up, but instead of the police letting us lift him, they fired more intensely at us.” At that moment, the students realized, everything changed. The presumed rules disintegrated.

The students ran, some jumping back onto the first bus, others hiding between it and the second bus. More police arrived, firing but not coming closer. Students shouted for an ambulance. When one finally arrived, the police prevented it from approaching, but the ambulance circled back, and paramedics took Solano to the hospital, where he was pronounced brain dead.

Most of the police had massed at the rear, behind the third bus, trapping the students inside. “After awhile, we heard screams,” Jorge Vázquez, a first-year who hid in the back of the lead bus, told me. “I peeked through a window and saw where the police were piling a number of compañeros in the police trucks and taking them away.” During the next 90 minutes, survivors say the police forced the students from the third bus to lie facedown on the street, hands behind their heads, before loading them into the back of police trucks and driving off. These account for 25 to 30 of the students who have not been seen since.

While this attack was occurring, the two buses heading directly out of Iguala became separated. One bus, with 14 students, found itself behind a bus carrying members of the Avispones, Chilpancingo’s third-division soccer team, which had won a game against Iguala earlier that day and was on its way home. “We were at the last overpass,” Alex Rojas, who was among the 14 students, told me, “when we saw beneath us, right beneath us, a bus and a whole lot of police trucks with their mounted machine guns in front of the bus.” This was the fifth bus. The students on it are among the missing.

Seeing the blockade, the driver of Rojas’s bus tried to turn around when police came speeding up and forced him to halt. The students abandoned the bus and began to walk in the opposite direction. Behind them, they heard the police shouting, “Get the fuck out of here or you will be dead!” Pursued by the police, the 14 escaped into a nearby field. In the ensuing three hours, they tried to reach the three buses on Álvarez Street but were prevented by the police, who shot at them and chased them up a hillside, where they hid until morning. Gunmen hunted down the bus carrying the soccer team on the highway to Chilpancingo and killed the driver, a 14-year-old player, and a woman riding in a taxi passing by, and wounded at least nine others.

By 11:30 p.m., the police left the scene of the first attack, after collecting gun shells and wiping blood off the street. The students slowly came out of hiding. They posted lookouts and placed rocks and articles of trash around the gun shells and bloodstains left behind in an effort to protect the crime scene. The inside of the third bus, from which police had taken all the students, was covered in blood. Soon, two vans of students arrived from Ayotzinapa — they had received distress calls during the first moments of the attack — and, bit by bit, a few journalists and residents began to appear.

Near midnight, the journalists, having photographed the bullet holes in the buses and the casings on the street, requested an interview with the Ayotzinapa student committee president who had come in one of the vans. The video cameras and audio recorders had been rolling for about four minutes when bursts of automatic gunfire rang out. “The students we were interviewing gave their names, and we started to hear shots,” one of the journalists told me. “They were machine-gun bursts. We started hearing the whizzing of the bullets and the sounds of windows breaking. So we ran toward the buses.” The reporter left his audio recorder on as he ran. One can hear the volley of gunshots and screams. Two students, Daniel Solís Gallardo and Julio César Ramírez Nava, fell dead in the street.

Coyuco Barrientos, a first-year student, was one of the few who had a look at the gunmen. He said there were three, dressed in black fatigues, wearing face masks, and shooting assault rifles from their waists. “The first killer,” Barrientos told me, “began shooting in the air. Then he started shooting at us. I turned back and could see the sparks from the bullets hitting the pavement. They looked like Christmas firecrackers, and all the sparks were moving toward us. In that instant, we all ran. Then two others appeared and shot at us. These were nonstop machine-gun bursts.” Most of the students were able to take refuge in nearby houses a few blocks away, where the residents turned off the lights and ushered them into backrooms.

Juan Pérez, a first-year who had been shot through the flesh of his knee during the first attack, was running down the street when a classmate next to him fell. He had been shot in the mouth. Several students helped Pérez carry the wounded student. A woman shouted from a second-story window that they could hide in her house, but they pleaded for directions to a hospital. Down the street, she said, they would find a small, private clinic. They banged on the door and windows, and two women let them in. Nearly 25 students and residents rushed in behind. The women lied, saying the clinic was an X-ray laboratory not a hospital. They pleaded with the women to call an ambulance.

After 20 minutes, the students heard a knock on the door. Outside were soldiers from the 27th Infantry Battalion in full uniform and battle gear. When the students opened the door, the soldiers, with their guns raised, shouted for everyone to get on the floor. “They took our phones and photographed us,” Yair told me. “Their comandante said that we didn’t have any reason to be there, that we were seeking our own deaths. We started to tell him that we were students from the teachers college. But he said, no, that for him, we were all just criminals.” Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m., the director of the clinic arrived, but he refused to care for the injured students. He and the soldiers expelled the students out onto the street. Within a few blocks, a family provided haven, while a small group of students found a taxi to take their wounded schoolmate to a hospital.

Sometime around 1:30 a.m., after passing through a police roadblock on the highway, the first group of reporters from Chilpancingo arrived at the intersection of Periférico Norte and Juan N. Álvarez. They found the bodies of the two dead students, facedown in the street, buses and cars riddled with bullets, and masked soldiers standing on the edge of the scene.

The next morning, students made their way to the state prosecutor’s office in Iguala. They identified 22 police officers who attacked them, talked to human-rights workers, and made a list of the missing. It was then they learned that the students whom the police had forced off the buses never arrived at jail. When they called their cell phones, no one answered. Initially, as many as 57 students were unaccounted for, but then they heard from the 14 students who had escaped to the outskirts of the city.

Around 7 a.m., a photograph began to circulate on social-media sites. The last time anyone had seen Julio César Mondragón Fontes, a first-year student from Mexico City — a rarity at Ayotzinapa — was around midnight on Álvarez. He had been talking to Juan Ramírez, another first-year student, and was frightened. “He said that he would go home the next day,” Ramírez told me, “because he didn’t want to risk his life. He said that he was thinking about his wife and his child, that they were the most important things to him.” Moments later, the three masked gunmen opened fire. In the photograph, Mondragón Fontes’s red shirt was pulled up around his chest, exposing dark bruises ringing his torso. His face and ears had been cut off. His eyes gouged out. His friends identified him by the gray scarf around his neck.

When the reports from Iguala first surfaced, Mexico was supposed to be in the grip of its Moment. Two years into his six-year term, President Enrique Peña Nieto had overseen sweeping education and energy reforms and the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s most wanted man. The images of mayhem that defined the previous administration of Felipe Calderón no longer dominated the dailies. Time magazine put Peña Nieto on the cover of its February 2014 issue with the headline “Saving Mexico.” The mid-September news of an army massacre in Tlatlaya led to the arrest of implicated soldiers, something that would not have occurred under Calderón. From a distance, it might have appeared that Mexico was finally emerging from one of its darkest periods.

Over the past eight years, during the so-called “drug war,” some 100,000 Mexicans have been killed and at least 20,000 have been disappeared (human-rights organizations believe the number is higher). These estimates do not include the tens of thousands of Central and South American migrants murdered and disappeared in Mexico during the same period. The roll call of massacres has become numbingly familiar. In September 2008, 24 bodies were found dumped near a park outside of Mexico City; ten were decapitated. In January 2010, gunmen broke into a house party and killed 15 high school and college students in Ciudad Juárez. In August 2010, 72 Central and South American migrants were found slain in a barn in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. None of these massacres led to national protests. The mobilizations following the 2011 murder of seven people in the state of Morelos, one of whom was the son of a respected Catholic poet, voiced the nation’s pain but lost momentum after attempts to negotiate with the federal government foundered.

The official logic of the drug war in Mexico has enabled many to accept as normal murder, massacre, disappearances, torture, and a political apparatus that not only allows these crimes to go unpunished but, in far too many cases, sanctions them. In a 2014 report, Amnesty International found that the use of torture by the Mexican military and police was widespread and routine. Indeed, the very concept of corruption in Mexico has become outmoded: In most of the country, the state forces and “narcos” are fully integrated, and none of the major political parties is exempt. Mexicans have a phrase: “The drop that spilled the glass.” It’s their version of “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” For many, Iguala was the drop that spilled the glass. It obliterated the government’s insistence that in the drug war, a clear distinction exists between good guys and bad, between law and lawlessness.

On September 27, state police arrested the 22 Iguala police officers whom the students had identified. On September 30, Mayor Abarca, his wife, and the police chief went into hiding. President Peña Nieto canceled a previously scheduled trip to Guerrero, citing unfavorable weather conditions but also giving the impression that the killings and disappearances were not his concern. He told a reporter that the “state government must assume its own responsibility to face what’s happening.” The search efforts during the first week involved state police driving groups of parents around Iguala, occasionally stopping to suggest that they knock on a door and ask if their children were hiding there.

Then, on October 4, the state prosecutor announced the discovery of four mass graves in the hills outside of Iguala. An initial excavation revealed an unknown number of charred human remains. The method that led state police to the hidden gravesite was apparently torture. “They squeezed one of those guys,” an officer told me, “and he sang.” The following day, the state prosecutor declared that a man in custody had confessed that he and other drug gang members had murdered, burned, and buried the students in the graves. By this point, the federal government had taken over the investigation, enacting its power to assume jurisdiction over cases involving organized crime, a tacit acknowledgment by the administration that the political fallout could no longer be ignored.

After the announcement about the mass graves, the newly formed parents committee held a press conference at Ayotzinapa and called on the government to change its search. Scores of anguished men and women sat in rows behind three family members they had selected to speak on their behalf. “We know the government and its police took the students and they know where they are,” Manuel Martínez, one of the representatives, told me. “The only thing that will stop our protests is our sons returning home alive.” The parents announced that an independent team of Argentine forensic anthropologists would represent them in the government’s investigation.

Over the next weeks, the parents undertook a series of fierce protests. They and students blocked federal highways, marched through cities, smashed the windows of and set fire to the Guerrero state congress and the governor’s offices. When DNA analyses confirmed that the remains found in the mass graves were not those of the students, the protests spread to cities across the country. On October 23, Governor Aguirre announced his resignation. Six days later, the parents met with President Peña Nieto and told him that if he was incapable of finding their children alive, he should follow Aguirre’s example.

By November, Iguala had become the worst crisis of Peña Nieto’s tenure. From the beginning, the administration had underestimated the depth of anger that Iguala had tapped and found itself, often erratically, trying to control events. On November 4, federal authorities arrested Mayor Abarca and his wife in Mexico City. (The police chief remains a fugitive.) Then, on November 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam held a press conference, announcing that the government had video-taped confessions from three men purported to be members of Guerreros Unidos.

According to Murillo Karam, on the night of the attacks, police delivered the students to a drug gang who drove them to a trash dump outside of Cocula, a small town a few miles from Iguala. When the three men arrived at the open-pit dump, they discovered that 15 of the students were already dead or unconscious. The men interrogated the rest, asking why the students had come to Iguala. “They said that they had come for Abarca’s wife,” one of the men claimed. The men proceeded to kill the students, pitch their bodies into the dump, and set the bodies on fire, using wood, tires, gas, and diesel to fuel the flames.

After 15 hours, only bone fragments and ash were left. The men gathered the remains in plastic trash bags and emptied all but two into the nearby San Juan River. The other two bags, they said, they threw in unopened. Murillo Karam explained that federal investigators had recovered the two bags and the tiny pieces of bone inside, which would be sent to the University of Innsbruck’s respected DNA laboratory in Austria. Fifty-eight minutes into the press conference, after leading reporters through the confessions, Murillo Karam cut short a reporter’s question by saying, “Ya me cansé” (I’m tired), and soon left.

If the purpose of the press conference was to wrap up the case and to undercut the protests, it had the opposite effect. Murillo Karam’s words soon went viral, becoming the object of social-media mockery. Within hours, Twitter users were flagging #YaMeCansé. Popular responses included: “If you’re tired, leave,” “I’m tired of fear,” and “I’m tired of politicians.”

Murillo Karam’s account raised more questions than it answered. How could three men subdue 43 young activists? How could they burn 43 bodies in the rain? Why were there no traces in the dump of the steel fibers from the tires the killers claimed to use in the fire? Why would the killers carefully dump six bags of human ash into the river but toss in two unopened? How could the students have told the men that their protest was aimed at the mayor’s wife when that had never been part of the action that night? More troubling, why had the government not presented the video-taped confessions of the 22 police officers identified by students as their attackers? Why had the government not released transcripts from police radios and cell phones, including Abarca’s and Pineda’s phones, that evening?

To many observers, the government’s story seemed too neat. Murillo Karam’s version focused so tightly on the three suspected gang members that Abarca, Pineda, and the police force blurred into the background. The contradictions and anomalies in the official account fed well-grounded fears that the federal government was more interested in a cover-up than a rigorous investigation.

Such an investigation would look into numerous reports of how the Iguala police force itself constituted an organized crime gang. According to one local journalist, the municipal police “is a façade. They are not municipal police. They are narcos with police uniforms, weapons, and guns. They are called ‘the belligerents’ (los bélicos). They are police inside the police.” According to a local official, los bélicos “are under the command of Pineda’s brother. They are police with squad cars and everything, but they patrol masked at night grabbing people on the street and giving them an hour to come up with $1,000 or else.” An investigation would examine how Iguala had become a “narco municipality,” in the words of Mario Patrón, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center. An investigation would ask how such a narco municipality has been allowed to operate with an army base in town.

The day after the press conference, the parents watched from across the street as Ayotzinapa students threw rocks at the Guerrero state congress’s remaining windows and drove trucks up onto the entryway steps and set the vehicles on fire. Soon after, parents and students embarked in three caravans, traveling across the country to call for support. On November 20, the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the caravans convened in Mexico City and led tens of thousands of people into the Zócalo, the city’s main square and the symbolic heart of the nation.

In the days both leading up to and following the march, everywhere one turned Ayotzinapa was there: on newspaper front pages and magazine covers, on radio talk shows, in overheard conversations, in graffiti and stencil art. In the hip Roma neighborhood, there was an untended altar of candles and poster-board signs demanding justice for the 43. In the working-class Obrera neighborhood, there was a large, white wall with 5-foot-tall red-block letters declaring: “Ayotzinapa: Fue el Estado” (Ayotzinapa: It was the State). The sports tabloid Record ran a blacked-out front page with the headline: “#INDIGNATION: Mexico has had enough; Mexico is in mourning.” Figures as diverse as Pope Francis, Mexican soccer star Chicharito, and the Grammy-winning band Calle 13 made statements supporting the families and students. Early one Sunday, some 700 runners organized an impromptu race down the length of Reforma Avenue, all of them wearing the number 043.

On December 6, the Austrian lab confirmed that the identity of one of the bone fragments was a 19-year-old student named Alexander Mora Venancio, one of the missing 43. In a press conference, Murillo Karam summed up the government’s investigation, saying they had arrested 80 suspects including Abarca, Pineda, and more than 40 metropolitan police. “This scientific proof,” he said, “confirms that the remains found at one of the scenes coincide with the evidence in the investigation and with the testimonies of the detained, in the sense that in said location and manner a group of people were deprived of life.”

Murillo Karam’s words confirmed many observers’ worst fears: The government was doing everything it could to close the case. The Argentine forensic team that had been working alongside the government quickly distanced itself from Murillo Karam’s account. “At the moment,” it said in a December 7 press release, “there is not enough scientific certainty or physical evidence to claim that the remains recovered from the San Juan River by authorities … correspond to those removed from the Cocula trash dump in the manner indicated by the accused.”

Which meant that 11 weeks after the attacks, the parents possessed little more information about their sons than what they had been told in the days immediately after the disappearances. This is what they knew. This is what we know. The police, aided by gunmen, killed three people, wounded more than 20, and disappeared 43. Three masked gunmen in civilian clothes returned to the scene of one of the attacks and killed two students and wounded others. Someone murdered and mutilated Julio César Mondragón Fontes. Someone murdered and burned Alexander Mora Venancio. The army forcibly removed wounded students from a private hospital but otherwise did not intercede. Everything else about what happened to the students after the police took them is either rumor, speculation, or based on dubious confessions.

In response to Murillo Karam’s statement, the parents warned of more protests. Many of them learned the news during a march in Mexico City and announced it while standing before Monumento a la Revolución, the towering edifice to the Mexican Revolution. Felipe de la Cruz, one of the fathers, told the crowd: “We will not sit down and cry. We will continue in our struggle to bring back alive the 42.” By then this demand — this heartbreaking and irreproachable demand — had come to speak not only for the disappeared sons of Ayotzinapa but also for the profound yearning to bring Mexico itself back from all the horror.

John Gibler has been based in Mexico since 2006. He is the author of To Die in Mexico and Tzompaxtle: La fuga de un guerrillero.

Clay Rodery is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

Owen Freeman is an illustrator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked with editorial, advertising, and film clients.