Did you see these 43 empty chairs set up on the Main Green today? Did you walk by them without figuring out what they were for? It’s fine, you probably aren’t alone in that. But these chairs, an exhibit titled “We are the 43 still missing,” were there as an homage to the 43 students at a Mexican teachers college that disappeared this September after an encounter with local police. The students were on their way to a protest when they were arrested — after a gunfight in which 10 other students died — handed over to a cartel called the United Warriors, and presumably murdered. Each chair on the Main Green today had a portrait of one of the missing students on it. Their disappearance has sparked outrage both in Mexico and around the world.
Last night, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted a teach-in on the tragedy in Iguala, the town in which the Normal University of Ayotzinapa is located. The Center’s director, Richard Snyder, moderated the panel, which consisted of four women: Janice Gallagher, Paula Martínez ’17, Atenea Rosado-Viurques, and Camila Ruiz ’18.
Before any of the panelists spoke to a packed Kassar Foxboro auditorium, however, Snyder showed a 5 minute video titled “Mexico: The Wound of the World” to provide some context. Since the beginning of the use of the military against drug cartels in 2006, levels of violence have exploded. The country’s poorest states, including Guerrero, where these students were from, have faced disproportionate amounts this violence.
Rosado-Viurques, a graduate student at Columbia, spoke first. According to her, that students training to be teachers — and students of this teachers’ college specifically — were the victims of such horrible violence is not surprising. Teachers and educational institutions have been caught in the crossfire of the drug war repeatedly: “Being a teacher is not a safe profession in Mexico,” she said.
And yet educators’ needs have not received specific attention from the government. The students at the Normal University in Ayotzinapa in particular are part of a longstanding tradition of activism from this college that sits five hours outside of Mexico City.
Following her were the two undergraduates, Ruiz and Martinez. Ruiz covered the relationship between the Mexican government and the student movement more generally. In a country in which 50% of total income goes to the richest 20%, students, particularly those from poorer states like Guerrero, are easy targets for the police. To her, “it was the state of Mexico that orchestrated this tragedy.” The mayor of the town of Iguala and his wife fled to Mexico City after the disappearance.
Martinez followed Ruiz, cutting through impressive amounts of theoretical analysis on whether one could consider this tragedy “a state crime.” The European Parliament has said it does not qualify as one, but Amnesty International disagrees. Martinez and Ruiz are also the authors of an insightful Brown Political Review article titled “Ayotzinapa: Exposing the Fallacy of the ‘Mexican Moment‘” that goes into further depth on the issue.
Janice Gallagher, a post-doctoral fellow at the Watson Institute, was the panel’s final speaker. She was quick to point out that the massive protests that have followed the Ayotzinapa disappearances are not unprecedented. Continued international pressure, however, will be essential to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
One of the most interesting parts of the teach-in came when Gallagher explained how exactly the United States played a role in what was happening in Iguala. The violence of the drug war would not exist without sky-high demand for these drugs from Americans. Up to 60% of profits from the illicit drug trade comes from the United States. Consumption of, for example, marijuana, is therefore “a political act.” Think before you light up, Brunonia; you probably don’t know where that bud came from.
It’s important to note that most of the missing students are between 17 and 23 years old. They, like many Brown students, wanted to make a difference in the world. It’s not a stretch to say that, were our places switched, it could have been 43 of us.
If you want to get involved, multiple speakers also advised contacting your local Mexican embassy or consulate to let them know you are concerned about what has happened in Iguala and are watching how the government responds. In addition, there will be a live talk with student activists Friday at 6:00 p.m. in Salomon if you want to learn more. The response to this tragedy is still developing, so stay informed and keep an eye on what is happening in Mexico.