More than just about any other reporter, John Gibler has fully committed to telling the story of the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college, and telling it from the perspective of those who survived the attacks on the night of September 26. His approach, based on extensive interviewing, provides not only the best understanding of the chaotic, confused events that night, but also a crucial, human vision of the students who were victimized. His new book, Una historia oral de la infamia, released this year, tells that story. TBI spoke to John this fall about the genesis of that project, his approach to reporting, and the story of the Ayotzinapa students. In John’s telling, one of the most striking aspects of the narrative are the horrible ironies: the students’ persistent attempts to avoid conflict with the police and the fact that on the night of September 26, they were the only actors who behaved as though a legitimate state and a rule of law existed. -ML
You had visited Ayotzinapa in 2012 and knew about the school, but you were not covering Guerrero at the time of the attack. Could you tell us how you became involved with the students and how this reporting came to be?
So it turns out that on the night of September 26, 2014 I was having dinner with two friends in Ciudad Juárez, and we were talking about social movements. One of them made a comment about the unique relationship between the Yo Soy 132 movement and the media, and partly just kind of playing the contrarian I guess, I made the argument that it wasn’t that new and that what might have been new was the class position of Yo Soy 132 and the way that the media they were critiquing paid attention to their critique. And in making that argument I mentioned the case of Ayotzinapa. So the very intense thing is that around 10:30 on the night of September 26, sitting in Ciudad Juárez, I start to tell the story of Ayotzinapa to my two friends, at that very moment the students were being attacked in Iguala. And I had no clue what was happening.
On the morning of the 27th, I wake up, look at the newspaper, and see the headline, and instantly have this complex emotional response. My first reaction was just shock, that this couldn’t be true—the original news was 57 students forcibly disappeared as well as six people killed, and my mind was reeling from that. But then there was also the emotional immediacy of having just told their story and talked about them as an example of social struggle that, because of class bias in the media, had never been taken seriously.
So my gut reaction was to immediately pack a backpack and go. But I had a number of commitments and work obligations, and I questioned myself, saying “what am I doing? Is this just a chase-a-disaster reflex?” And I thought “there are highly capable reporters who are reporting on this,” and in the end I didn’t go that Saturday, and followed the news from a distance.
It wasn’t until October 2 when I was in Mexico City at the annual march commemorating the anniversary of the 1968 student massacre that things started to become clear. Not only did the students not come from Ayotzinapa to participate in the march, as they usually do, but the information about what had happened that night was still very confused, the official stories were incredibly twisted, and there was so little information based on first-hand reporting. And in that context, on October 2, with the 43 still disappeared, where I stood that day watching this huge annual march I didn’t see any awareness. I didn’t see rage, I didn’t see outcry, no one was counting to 43, no one was shouting “we want them back alive,” there was nothing about what had just happened. And that was when all of these things just hit me and I just felt once again that I really have to go. This is what I do. I investigate, I listen to people. These are the skills I have. This is the way I try to participate in social struggles.
It felt doubly important because I could see that the wheels of impunity and forgetting were already being put into gear, and I felt that it was urgent to go and at least document what happened. There was so much confusion and so much deliberate misinformation. Newspaper columnists were contributing to this very purposeful communication of misinformation saying, for example, that some of the students were drug traffickers using the school as a cover and things like that. It was somewhere between speculation and slander. And none of it was based on first-hand sources, based on going and talking to people.
My initial focus on speaking with the student survivors was twofold. First, because I thought it was so clearly and pressingly urgent to document the basic facts of what happened in the street according to the people who lived through it. And second, because the pain that these families were experiencing was so overwhelming to me, so immense, so profound, that I couldn’t imagine what kind of journalistic exercise could not deepen their pain. And so I thought that the best thing I could do at that moment would be to greet them, be with them, and notice people who were exhausted and ask them if they needed something to drink and get them a soda or water. That sort of thing. Just being physically there and not asking for interviews. I did end up interviewing a couple of the parents early on, but that was because they came up to me and wanted to tell their story. And so that was how this project really started, and that’s why I started talking to the students. And as soon as I had spoken with about four of them I realized that the events were both way more complex and completely different than what the media and the official narrative was at that time. And I realized then that it was urgently necessary to speak to every single survivor that I could identify.
The methodology you chose for your book (Una Historia oral de la Infamia) is interesting precisely because you did not attempt to construct an authorial narrative of the events, but rather used those interviews to tell the story. The use of oral history has a long tradition in Latin America, and this sort of testimonial reporting has become a very powerful response to contemporary violence in Mexico. Could you talk about that a bit more?
So I went to Ayotzinapa to start reporting and very early on I wanted to gets something serious and rigorous out because there was all that misinformation. So very quickly I published a magazine article—in December of 2014, which to me felt very early—and it was a little conservative because at that point I had only spoken to one student who had seen the federal police that night. Every student had seen the municipal police, but it wasn’t until later that I could confirm the presence of the federal police based on interviews with multiple other students. So that was published two months after the event or so, but to me it was clear that we still didn’t know everything that happened that night, and of course we still didn’t (and don’t) know what happened to the 43, so I immediately returned to the school and just kept interviewing.
Between January and April of 2015 a whole group of survivors began to return to the school. They had been at home for the previous two months, either because they were completely freaked out themselves or because their parents had come to the school and physically taken them home because they were terrified. And little by little they all said “no, I’ve got to go back to the school and participate in the struggle to find my compañeros.” So as students were returning I was there, constantly asking permission to keep interviewing people. And so for the magazine I had interviewed, I think 14 students, and then I was able to interview another 12 over the course of a couple of months. And I was also constantly going back to Iguala to interview journalists and some of the survivors of the other attacks that night. And I was constantly trying to investigate as well, trying to figure out anything I could about where the students could have possibly been taken. I heard so many different rumors and versions that I could never confirm. I interviewed people from all walks of life, including a number of police and the wives of the police who had been arrested and were in jail. Finally, around June, 2015, I was ready and I wanted to produce something that would share the material that I had gathered, especially with the families, students, and broader movement. And I was trying to figure out how to do that at this particular moment in time. It was months before the first report from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) came out, and there was still all sorts of misinformation floating around in the press, and very quickly I thought that it wasn’t the time for me to write. There was still too much that was unknown, the events were still too charged and raw, and there may come a time for me to narrate and analyze, but this isn’t the time. This is the time to really focus in on the people who are living these events.
Initially I thought of Elena Poniatowska’s book on the Tlatlelolco massacre as a possible model and I was gathering not only interviews with people, including officials, police, and academics, but also clippings, notes from marches, the sort of material she had included in her book. But as I looked at all the materials piled up on my bed, and looked at the stack that was just the transcripts of the survivors, it came to me in a flash that it had to be just that. I realized that it wasn’t the time for all these other perspectives that aren’t directly from the people who lived through that night. I saw that if I could contribute anything at that moment it was that I had talked to a very large number of the survivors and so I just took everything else off the bed and kept that huge stack of transcripts and just started rereading and rereading, highlighting, thinking about parts to include. And then I decided to make it a chronological narrative instead of an oral history where I’d tell each story individually but rather I would interweave all of the different perspectives and experiences moving chronologically. And that’s how I started.
Moving into the story as you heard it, could you tell us a bit about the experience of the students as a group? How did they come to Ayotzinapa? What does the school itself represent to them as an educational opportunity?
It’s very nuanced. In my conversations with them the students never expressed an idea of education in a liberal arts sense, in the sense that a 17- or 18-year-old in the United States would speak of education and college. Here it’s something very, very different. It’s not knowledge for knowledge-sake education. For them, this is really their only chance, period, to go to a school that will put them on a career path. So it’s intensely economically driven. Students think this is the only chance they get to do something that is not working in the fields, joining the military, or migrating, which are the main avenues that are open to them. So Ayotzinapa does represent as an educational opportunity, but in a different way. In all the interviews I did with the students no one ever mentioned a book, a class, or a professor. Never. Not once.
For the students the school has two primary kinds of realities and draws. First there is the social activism, which a lot of the students don’t even know about until they arrive there. They learn it when they get there and very quickly it becomes a dominant part of their experience. Second, there are students who express a real professional goal. The indigenous students who say “I want to be a teacher in my region because in our region there is not a teacher who speaks our language. So I want to teach in our language in our region.” And the indigenous bilingual program has a very particular draw, and represents maybe 15-20% of the student body. And then there are other students, like one who tried to join the Marines but couldn’t get in, or one who tried to go to Acapulco and study tourism but didn’t have enough money. Those other students are young people looking for their way in the world and are coming from a situation of social marginalization and violence that is very intense. Ayotzinapa is one of very few avenues they see to break out and contribute positively to the changing of that social marginalization.
Can you talk a bit about the compañerismo, the esprit de corps among the students?
For the students, the key experience informing their friendships is the semana de prueba, the trial week, which is when applicants who have taken the exams and met the socioeconomic criteria to get into the school stay for a week and have to work at the school. And there are multiple different perspectives on this. From a critical perspective some people see it as a form of outrageous hazing. But then there is the opposite end of the spectrum: there was one student who told me “thank god we all went through the trial week because the night of Iguala I had to use everything we learned” – running, not eating, staying out all night in the rain.
So it’s not without a purpose. One of the key features of that week is to reinforce the idea that Ayotzinapa is a school for people from the countryside, for campesinos, so they take the applicants out to work for free in the fields in the neighboring communities. And the communities love it because they get this week of massive free labor. For the kids who grew up working in the fields, it’s nothing to them, and for the other kids who grew up in small towns or around cities, it’s intensely difficult, physically and mentally, to be out in the fields for hours in the sun, working with machetes. And that is where a lot of applicants give up and go home. And that’s one of the ways they try to get the applicant pools down to the 140 spots that they have available, from the 400 or so total applicants.
It isn’t just working in the fields either. They would scare the daylights out of them, banging on the door at three in the morning, make them dive in the pool then, soaking wet, making them run up a flight of stairs that goes up a hillside to the highway and is five or six stories tall, all of that having gone without dinner. They make them do pushups and make them go into an auditorium and watch political videos and anyone who falls asleep they make go outside and run up and down the stairs again, that kind of stuff. But it is an attempt to have the toughest students stay. And the friendships that are formed that week are really important. The closest friendships are usually based on the dorm rooms they sleep in. They would sleep twelve to a room, no beds, cramped together, and they maybe have a blanket if they brought one, and sometimes students from hotter regions wouldn’t have expected it to be cold, wouldn’t have known that the elevation meant that it would be really cold at night. So they share blankets and food and coming together in that formative, initial moment of hardship creates these really strong bonds.
Let’s turn to the events of the night of September 26 and how the students came to be in Iguala, because it was mostly first year students who were there, students who were not much past their trial week experience. Can you talk about what they were doing that night and what happened to them?
Well, I try to be very clear any time I’m describing the events that I only know what I know because I talked to people who were there. What I share and what I know is simply based on those interviews. In the book there are 40, but I interviewed more than twice that number of people. So what I’m going to relate is the story as it was told to me. [Editor’s note: neither is this intended to be a comprehensive retelling of the events that night, and it has been edited and condensed.]
So the reason they went to Iguala on September 26, is that they had made a commitment as a member of the National Socialist Students Federation to provide around 20 buses for students from Ayotzinapa and the other 16 teachers colleges to travel to Mexico City to participate in the annual October 2 march. So they had made this promise to come up with about 20 buses. Now, “come up with,” here, means commandeer. Those who are critical of the practice call it kidnapping, and sometimes the students themselves even call it kidnapping, but the closest technical description in English is commandeering. They either block highways or go to bus stations and they convince drivers to let them take control of the buses, and they have the drivers take them back to the school and from there to wherever they need to go. And they do this as a part of their regular educational curriculum, since they have no other way to travel around the state to observe classrooms because the school doesn’t have funds or its own transportation. [Editor’s note: this is because the government has cut the school’s funding almost entirely] And it’s complex because they’re never armed, they don’t have guns, they don’t threaten people’s lives, there’s maybe a sense of threat, a threatening manner, in the sense that they wrap t-shirts around their faces and they have rocks… but it’s not violent. And the bus drivers, many of whom I’ve interviewed, have the full spectrum of feelings about it, from those who think the students should be arrested to those who see it as a semi-paid vacation because they get to relax at the school and see their family that lives nearby.
And the bus companies have been dealing with this for years. The practice of commandeering was fully incorporated into the unwritten rules of engagement between the bus companies, the students, and the police. So when the students would go and block a highway or go to a bus station, sometimes if the police could stop them then they would, and that had actually happened in mid-September 2014 when the students tried several times to grab buses in Chilpancingo and had run into state police on the highway and riot police at the bus terminal. And there’s some irony in that, because the students have been portrayed as vandals and thugs and they went toward Iguala and Huitzuco on the night of the 26th precisely because they wanted to avoid a confrontation with the police in Chilpancingo. They didn’t want to fight; they didn’t want to provoke a street fight with the cops in Chilpancingo.
And that’s why on the night of the 26th, around 5:00 in the evening, a day they were supposed to have off—their first day off since the start of the year, when the first year students were supposed to take a long weekend to go home to see their families—the student committee said “nope, you get off starting tomorrow, tonight we’re going to go grab some buses” and they went to Iguala to try to avoid a conflict.
So they leave the school around 5:30 in the evening and travel the outskirts of Iguala, and it takes them a while to get there because of construction, and the two buses they’re in—both Estrella de Oro commercial passenger buses—split up, and one goes to the outskirts of Huitzuco [a nearby town] and another goes to the tollbooth outside Iguala. And they find federal police officers on the other side of the tollbooth who start stopping all commercial buses so that they wouldn’t drive through the booth and reach the students. So they basically said “we got beat again, we won’t be able to grab any buses here.” Notice again, there’s no attempt to provoke a confrontation with the police, they don’t charge the tollbooth or engage the police.
The students who went to Huitzuco, though, do manage to stop a bus that was heading to Iguala and successfully commandeer it. The driver of that bus asks to drop his passengers off before turning over the bus, so nine students get on and travel into Iguala around 8:00 PM. The bus goes into the station, the passengers get off, unload their luggage, and then the bus driver gets off and actually locks the students inside. When the students realize they’re locked inside they call their friends out on the highway in Huitzuco, and then they also call the other group at the tollbooth. When they make the second call, at that point they do tell their compañeros to grab rocks because they might have to fight. So the two buses head into Iguala, park on the street near the bus station, the students run inside, break a couple of windows and get their friends out of the bus. And in the middle of that chaos, the student committee says “we’re here at the station, let’s grab some buses and go back to school.” And they manage to get three.
So at this point they’ve got 5 buses, two out on the street and three in the station. So the students—80 or 90, the students themselves don’t know how many were there—split up into the five buses. The majority of them are first-year students; there are only seven or eight second- and third-year students from the committee. And they head out of the station. Three buses head toward the center of town, and two other buses, several minutes apart, take an alternate route to the periferico, which is the ring road that runs around the city and which would put them on the highway back to school. One bus heads straight out on that route, but the second one does not. The driver is very friendly, very agreeable, saying he has family in Tixtla, which is near Ayotzinapa, but that he needs to get some clothes from his wife, so that bus is stopped for several minutes while the driver waits for someone to deliver something.
The three buses that headed toward the center of town start getting shot at almost immediately. The students think that the police are shooting in the air, and the students do believe that at first the shots were just warning shots into the air. At some point a patrol truck blocks the caravan, students hop out, pelt it with rocks, and the officer driving the truck withdraws and the caravan keeps going. As they pass the central plaza, they’re fired upon again and they notice that police cars are pulling up but stopping to let the buses go by. Fifteen or so blocks farther, they get right to the intersection of the road that would take them onto the highway, and a patrol truck blocks them, and the driver abandons it. So the students get out to try to move the truck, and they’re being shot at, and in the confusion they don’t realize that they are actually pushing on both sides of the truck, so they’re pushing against each other and the truck doesn’t move at all. And in that precise moment a police truck drives up, opens fire, and Aldo Gutiérrez is shot in the head and falls to the street. The students who were trying to push the truck then run back either into the first bus or between the first two buses. A number of students try to go pick up Aldo and are shot at and have to retreat and take refuge. At that point, police are coming up on all the street corners and then the third bus pulls up behind the first two stopped buses.
Now, with the exception of one student who was shot in the arm, all the students who were on that third bus are disappeared. The students hiding in the first bus and between the first two buses, though, while they are constantly shot at, the police never walk straight up to them nor do they try to abduct any of them. The police eventually let an ambulance take Aldo to the hospital, and a bit later a student’s lung collapses and his compañeros plead with the cops to get him help, and they carry him out in the street and the cops drag his body around a corner, ask him what’s happening, and because he can’t speak so he just lifts up his shirt to show his scar, and the cops basically say ‘you should have never come here,’ throw his body in the back of a pickup truck, take him a few blocks, and eventually an ambulance shows up and takes him to a hospital.
So in this first moment you see a totally different logic of operations: the police are just containing the students, really just keeping them pinned down in the city. And the cops send one student to a hospital. So it’s clear that the orders were really chaotic and it seems to me that the cops had probably just been told to keep the students from leaving. And the students on the first two buses are harassed, shot at constantly, but left alone. The police didn’t try to kidnap them, they didn’t try to kill them.
But then the third bus, with the exception of one student, all those students get loaded into municipal police trucks and disappeared. And somewhere around 10:30 that night the police threaten the students from the first two buses, saying “you guys need to get in your buses and leave and act like nothing happened,” and then they withdraw. And the students, thinking that Aldo had been killed and that the other students had been arrested because they had been taken away in police trucks, say “no, this is a crime scene, what you guys did is a crime, and we’re not going to just leave.”
And that was the hideous irony of that night. The only people who acted like a rule of law existed were the students. Because they interpreted the physical space as a crime scene, and they saw the events through the vision of the rule of law. They thought they were victims of a crime, so they decided to stay and protect what they consider to be evidence.
And that is also interesting because it shows that the students still have some faith in the ability of the authorities, faith in the good faith of the authorities to recognize that there was a crime. The students still believe that the state is capable of a legitimate investigation.
Exactly. The police disappeared, shot, mutilated, killed. And when the students who are guarding this crime scene are shot at by gunmen later that night and three people are killed, it was because the officials from the state courthouse which is 1.4 kilometers away didn’t show up, the army, which is exactly 1.6 kilometers away, didn’t show up, the local detectives didn’t show up. Nobody came to investigate.
Simultaneously to those attacks, students also disappeared in the south of the city.
So the other two buses had started to travel out toward the periferico and they’re several minutes apart. The first bus is stopped right in front of the state courthouse, in a place where there is all this surveillance equipment, cameras, livestreamed footage going to the army, to Mexico City, and there were military intelligence officers on the ground—so it’s obvious that there’s no validity to the claim that the government did not know what was going on there. That bus is completely surrounded in front of the courthouse, and all those students are disappeared. [Editors note: these students were also loaded into municipal police trucks.]
The fifth bus, which was an Estrella Roja bus, gets within about 150 meters of the other bus, and then stops, because they’re in cell phone communication with the other buses, and they know their companions are being attacked, so when they see a bus stopped and surrounded by police in front of them, they realize they can’t do anything there so they try to back up, and at that point they’re blocked by a federal police car. The officers get out with their weapons drawn, the bus driver gets off, the fourteen students on board get off, and after yelling back and forth with the officers for a bit eventually some students from the committee just say “alright let’s just walk.”
And at this point they just can’t comprehend what’s going on. It was so far beyond their understanding of the ritual of confrontation, where the worst that was happened was that you would get beat up and thrown in jail overnight. So those fourteen students end up running through Iguala, and are attacked at several points over the course of the night, hunted and attacked, and eventually just hide either in houses or in the woods.
[Editor’s note: One hypothesis, that comes from the GIEI, is that this fifth bus, which was never shot, never damaged, may have had a shipment of either drugs or cash.]
So the geographic scope of the attacks absolutely reveals the existence of telecommunications between the police, the intense coordination over a vast area and time to continue this attack on the students. And that flies in the face of the idea that these students, in t-shirts and sandals, were confused for a drug gang. That claim is just completely ridiculous. There’s no way that these unarmed kids on buses were confused for gangsters who usually ride around in convoys of big trucks carrying AK-47s.
And the Army, which must have been aware of the events, really does nothing. At one point they show up at a private clinic where some students had sought medical help and, as one student is literally bleeding to death, the Army captain proceeds to give them a lecture about what it means to be a good student. And the Army hadn’t even been notified that the students were there—the staff at the clinic had actually called the police. So the Army’s role is complicated. And it’s not until the international reporters from Chilpancingo show up that the Army actually deploys to the street to basically pose for photos.
So as the night progressed, there were several more attacks. At one point a bus carrying at team of youth soccer players was attacked out on the highway, and around midnight the students guarding the first two buses were shot at by gunmen—not wearing any uniforms—and three people were killed.
And nobody starts to realize what had happened until the press starts asking if everyone is accounted for and the students say, “no they took our compañeros” because then they realize that the missing students aren’t in the jail, and that’s when it becomes clear that there had been forced disappearances. And the number of the disappeared is inflated because the 14 students from the fifth bus were still hiding and there were a number of other students who couldn’t be located for a couple of days.
Can we talk about how the activism around the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students became a national and international phenomenon? There had been other massacres, in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, for example. Why did Ayotzinapa become a rallying cry?
I think there are a number of factors that helped the events in Iguala break through the normalcy with which atrocity had been viewed previously. The fact that the attackers were uniformed police, the fact that the victims were members of a school known for social activism, and especially the fact that the government’s response was callous, inept, and absurd from the very beginning. And the government, both state and federal officials maintained that callous, inept, absurd response every time they opened their mouths.
But you’ll recall that the outrage didn’t start on September 27th, or 28th, or 29th. And at the march on October 2, I personally didn’t see anything either. It seems that it wasn’t until when the first mass graves were uncovered on the outskirts of Iguala in early October that people were forced to imagine what might have happened. And I think it was a deliberate decision by the state to uncover those graves. I think they knew the students were not in them and that they were using it as a tactic to buy time and to get people used to the idea that the students had been burned. So when the government begins pulling those semi-charred corpses out of the ground in early October, that’s when Ayotzinapa became international news, that’s when the international press flooded the region, that’s when people started chanting from 1 to 43 at marches. And when the 28 human remains from those graves are confirmed not to have been the students, that’s this kind of moment of explosion of outrage and indignation.
There’s so much of what had happened in Tamaulipas, for example, that had allowed to be invisible. Now, if you lived there, if you lived around San Fernando, there was nothing invisible about it, but the local media was so tightly controlled and the international media was so oblivious or not caring, that what was going on there was allowed a measure of invisibility both nationally and internationally. And that was true even when independent journalists and activists had investigated.
But in Iguala, the gunmen literally showed up and murdered three people in front of the cameras. And since independent and critical reporters showed up so quickly and were able to speak to survivors, things were more visible. And it helped that despite all the confusion there was one central fact that was not confused, which was that the police had attacked the students.
So it was much less invisible, but that didn’t mean there was responsible coverage. The international media kept referring to a clash or a confrontation between the students and police, which made me so irate, because it wasn’t true. I confronted a couple of these correspondents on the street in Chilpancingo and asked one of them why he had referred to it as a clash in his report and he said, “well I wasn’t there and since I wasn’t there…” and so there was this insidious presumption, this willingness to assume that the students had somehow provoked this, when in reality the violence had been entirely one-sided.
Which is interesting, because in some ways the response to Ayotzinapa has been impressive to me because you see cross-class solidarity, you see people making the students’ cause their own, across class and regional lines.
But you have to remember that at first the state did everything they could to keep the students out of an ‘us’, to keep them from being ‘worthy victims’—and the state is still doing that, creating and manufacturing and perpetuating those excuses. The stories about a clash, about how the students had gone to disrupt the mayor’s wife’s speech, all of that. And there wasn’t this automatic cross-class solidarity. The doctor at the clinic said to my face “I hope they do that to all the Ayotzinapa students.” So if there has been a crack in that effort to normalize, justify, and excuse the violence, it is solely the result of the struggle of those students and their families who refused to accept it. It was the result of the families saying “how dare you tell me that my child is to blame for being disappeared,” the result of their refusal to be quiet.
John Gibler is a journalist in Mexico. He is the author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt and To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, as well as Una historia oral de la infamia. This article was conducted on September 9, 2016.
Condensed and edited by Michael Lettieri.