When news spread of forty-three students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa disappearing in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014, protests erupted throughout the country and the world. From the United States to Europe, people gathered outside Mexican embassies to demand that the students be returned to their parents, and that the Mexican government be held accountable for what had happened.
The Iguala mayor, his wife, and the chief of police all went into hiding shortly after the 26th and there was talk in the international media that President Peña Nieto was not the man to reform Mexico in business’s image, as his picture on the front cover of Time magazine had suggested. Mexico was openly being called a failed state and, as mass demonstrations led by students and Ayotzinapa parents continued to close universities in Mexico City, many speculated that the president might have to take action or step down.
Four years later, very few people have had to answer for the forty-three disappeared students, the six murdered, and the one student still in a coma. The state is still very much intact. The disappeared have not been
returned to their parents, nor has any forensic evidence of all forty-three bodies been found. There are still more questions than answers for the parents who continue to demand their children be brought back alive: “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (They were taken alive, we want them returned alive).
While people all over the world remember that forty-three students were disappeared, the story of what happened that night varies. Many news articles explained that the mayor’s wife was having an event that night, so she asked the police to remove the students so that they wouldn’t make any trouble. Some account for the events by blaming narcos that have far too much influence over the police in that area. The narratives that are used to explain that night reduce the blame to a few corrupt politicians or the general narco violence of Mexico.
This is but one of the reasons why John Gibler’s book is of vital importance. By spending nine months interviewing the majority of the people there during the attacks on September 26th, he is able to recreate the events of that night and its aftermath, which shows the complexity behind the other key slogan of the movement: Fue el Estado (It was the state).
By writing an oral history, the book is comprised solely of quotes from those who were in Iguala on the 26th or were directly involved, such as classmates and parents. Gibler’s presence is only felt through his masterful organizing of the interviews to provide the reader first with an understanding of why students—largely the children of campesinos—choose to travel far distances to attend a poorly-funded public rural teachers’ college where—although tuition, room and board are provided free of cost—life is physically demanding and lacking in basic amenities.
Rather than divide the interviews by individuals, Gibler has chosen to organize excerpts of interviews by topic or event. Reading how several students grew up and why they chose to study in Ayotzinapa creates a deeper understanding of what the school is and the purpose it serves in offering a different future to a largely poor, agricultural population.
Gibler takes us through the events of the evening, giving each eyewitness a chance to add their voice. In this way the reader is placed “on the scene,” experiencing the confusion, terror, fear, anger, and loss along with the students and others who were attacked. It is then up to the reader to put all of the pieces together. At one point, several students share their recollections, thoughts, and actions at the moment when a classmate is shot in the face. The result is a harrowing understanding of how students, who believed themselves to be immune from danger because they were students, were attacked by many levels of the state, including the municipal and federal police, the military, and, later, the governor and prosecutor, all the way up to the president, all of whom were involved in inaction, cover-ups, and misinformation.
In the book’s afterword, Gibler takes us through the investigations that followed. We learn from the international agencies that were involved in the forensic analyses that so far they have not been able to corroborate the government’s official story that the forty-three students were taken to a landfill and burned there. Gibler’s writing is full of respect for the students and parents of Ayotzinapa; he notes how inspiring he finds their relentless struggle to see their loved ones again.
Missing from this book is how the attack on Ayotzinapa students was not the first attack on rural teachers’ colleges in Mexico but is part of general trend to privatize public education, which has led to an ongoing campaign by the federal and local governments to close several of these colleges through force, fear, and, ultimately dwindling matriculation, as well as openly attacking teachers’ strikes in places like Oaxaca and Chiapas. While Gibler does mention that two Ayotzinapa students were killed by police in 2012, he does not place these attacks in the broader context that includes ongoing police raids at the Mactumatza rural teachers’ college in Chiapas as well as the raids and attacks at the Mexe rural teachers’ college in Hidalgo that ultimately led to its closing.
The forty-three disappeared students were not the first people to be disappeared in Mexico, nor will they be the last. The parents’ adopted the slogan “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” that originated during the 1970s when disappearances were common in Mexico and throughout Latin America. In fact, the army killed two of Mexico’s best-known guerrilla fighters: teachers who graduated from Ayotzinapa in the 1970s. Gibler’s book ensures that the attack on these students and bystanders, and the lives lost that night, will not be covered up or forgotten. He provides space for us to hear the voices of the students and parents, those without money or power, for their stories to be told so that there will continue to be a living memory of what happened, that the struggle of the Ayotzinapa students and parents will live on, and that the rest of us will know, “Fue el estado.”