During an emotional meeting at Samford University last week, parents of Mexican students reportedly killed by gang members after a clash with police last fall appealed for support in their efforts to find justice.
The event, which took place March 25 at Samford’s A.H. Reid Chapel to a nearly packed house, was in support of Caravana43, the group formed after police in Iguala, Mexico, attacked students from a teacher’s college, leading to the deaths and disappearances of nearly 50 people. Out of the 50 students, 43 are specifically listed as missing.
On Sept. 26, 2014, more than 100 students traveled to Iguala in the state Guerrero from Ayotzinapa’s Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School, one of 16 teacher-training schools that originated in the Mexican Revolution, according to an article written by McClatchy News Service reporter Tim Johnson.
“The college calls itself a cradle of revolutionaries, and students indeed occasionally take to the streets, even hijacking buses and vandalizing buildings,” Johnson wrote. “It was from this shaded campus that 43 students departed on Sept. 26 and never returned, disappearing after witnesses saw them clash with police in the city of Iguala, about a two-hour drive to the north.”
The main part of the Samford event involved two parents of missing students addressing the crowd through an interpreter. At times breaking down in tears, they said their children had gone out to fundraise for their education. After fundraising, the parents explained, the students were attending protests in Iguala and hoping to travel to Mexico City. They were instead intercepted by the Iguala police and eventually handed off to the drug-trafficking organization called Guerreros Unidos, the parents said.
Reports from the press and Mexican law enforcement officials say that the students were apprehended then handed over to the Guerreros Unidos, whose members killed the students.
A story from Bloomberg News in January reports:
Mexican prosecutors said new evidence proves that 43 college students who went missing in September from Iguala were killed by a drug gang, as the government seeks to defuse a protest movement that has questioned officials’ version.
Local police took the students hostage and handed them over to members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, who killed them and burned their bodies, Tomas Zeron de Lucio, head of the attorney general’s criminal investigations unit, said at a Mexico City news conference. Evidence collected in the case is “conclusive” and includes the confession of an alleged hit man arrested Jan. 15 as well as forensic samples, Attorney General Jesus Murillo said.
“The students were kidnapped, killed, incinerated and thrown into the river,” Murillo told reporters. … Gang member Felipe Rodriguez admitted he ordered the murders and his alleged accomplices have also confessed to killing the students, believing the group included operatives from a rival gang called Los Rojos, Murillo said. Rodriguez was arrested this month after trying to flee to the U.S., he said.
Another story from the Independent, indicated that Murillo (referred to as Murillo Karam) showed video footage of gang members confessing to how they killed the students and disposed of the bodies which have not been recovered.
“The high level of degradation caused by the fire in the remains make it very difficult to extract the DNA that will allow an identification,” Murillo Karam, said at a news conference as reported on the Independent website.
On the night the students were captured police also killed several other people mistakenly believed to be affiliated with the group from the college.
“Prosecutors have since uncovered ties between organized crime and the local police and city government of Iguala,” wrote Gail Sullivan of the Washington Post.
More than 40 of Iguala’s municipal police officers were arrested in the case along with numerous gang members. The chief of police, sought in the case by authorities, remains a fugitive. The town’s mayor and his wife also fled, but were captured in October.
An article in the U.S. edition of the Guardian points to links specifically between María de los Angeles Pineda, the mayor’s wife, and the Guerros Unidos: Attorney General Jesús Murillo said there was clear evidence that José Luis Abarca, the mayor of the southern city of Iguala, ordered local police to target the students because he feared they would disrupt a speech by his wife.
The case has led to protests throughout Mexico and unfavorable international attention.
Caravana43 stopped in Birmingham on its journey across the country in three separate groupings. Carlos Alemán, assistant professor and director of the Latin American Studies Scholars Program at Samford, said that Birmingham “was a natural selection in a lot of ways, considering that we just celebrated 50 years since Selma.”
“This is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” Alemán said. “So anyone interested in international civil rights — or international human rights — I think can look to Birmingham as somewhere you can go and receive a good audience and people are receptive to what you’re talking about.”
Alemán added that the “Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a natural place to receive them, as is Samford for people who are interested in a Christian, moral, social justice orientation.”
The speakers from Caravana43 said that they want to raise awareness in the U.S., to connect with activists here and build a stronger bond between the U.S. and Mexico. They are working with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations during their travels in the United States.
The meeting was held after a candlelight vigil outside Reid Chapel where organizers and attendees spoke about their grief over the missing students. By the time the group moved inside, it had swollen to a considerable size: enough to fill the entire chapel except the balcony.
Fred Shepherd, chair and professor of Samford’s department of political science, made a short speech to begin the event, highlighting the need to keep the Mexican government from “sweeping [the students’ disappearance under the rug.”
Shepherd also drew attention to the so-called “War on Drugs” started by the U.S. government and to the “brutal global drug trade that has ravaged the Mexican economic and political and social fabric, and whose roots are in the demand for drugs from people in the cities, suburbs and small towns of Europe and the United States.”
“According to a high-level federal official familiar with the case, Guerreros Unidos are one of a handful of small trafficking organizations operating in the state focused on controlling opium paste stockpiles made from poppies grown in the surrounding mountains,” The Guardian said. “The official said they sell the paste to larger trafficking organizations supplying the US market, particularly the Sinaloa cartel.
“Mexican production of opium poppies has grown dramatically in response to the decriminalization of marijuana in some U.S. states that is giving consumers access to higher quality legal cannabis, the official said.”
Mexico, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, is a “major drug-producing and transit nation.”
The CIA World Factbook says that Mexico is, among other things, the world’s second largest opium poppy cultivator, a source of heroin, a major heroin supplier, the largest foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamine to the U.S. market, the transshipment country for 95 percent of all cocaine bound to the U.S. from South America, and a producer and distributor of ecstasy.
“Major drug syndicates control the majority of drug trafficking throughout the country,” the CIA said.
Mexico also operates the largest independent illicit crop eradication program in the world according to the CIA.
Caravana43, Shepherd said, is part of “a new grassroots globalization that is nothing less than a transnational campaign to secure human rights in nations where governments are either hostile to, or apathetic toward, citizen claims for justice.”
The event ended with members of the crowd lined up to hug and comfort the mother who had spoken. A collection was taken at the exit of the chapel. Caravana43 will continue on their trip through 40 cities in the United States. Their next stops are in Atlanta, Blacksburg, Va., and Durham, N.C.