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Mexico Burns as Outrage over Student Disappearances Sparks Protests Against State-Backed Violence

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Protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero have set fire to the local legislature as outrage spreads over the disappearance of 43 students. The students from Ayotzinapa teacher’s college have been missing for nearly seven weeks after they were ambushed by police. Unrest has intensified since Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced Friday that suspects in the case have admitted to killing the students and incinerating their bodies at a trash dump. More than 70 people have been arrested in the case, including the mayor of Iguala, who is accused of ordering the police attack. Across Mexico, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests, while groups of demonstrators have laid siege to government buildings, burned cars and blocked highways. The parents of the missing students, meanwhile, have announced they will be traveling across parts of Mexico in three caravans to demand their loved ones’ return. We are joined from Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, by John Gibler, an author and independent journalist. “I don’t think it’s possible anymore to talk about corruption,” Gibler says. “What we have is two sectors of an industry that have fully merged — the police and the organized crime gangs themselves.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today in Mexico, where protesters in the southern state of Guerrero have set fire to government buildings, including the state legislature, as outrage spreads over the disappearance of 43 students. The students from Ayotzinapa teachers college have been missing for nearly seven weeks, after they were ambushed by police. The initial series of attacks killed six people, one of whom was found with the skin of his face peeled off.

Unrest has intensified since Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced Friday that suspects in the case have admitted to killing the students and incinerating their bodies at a trash dump, leading investigators to remains. He says the mayor of Iguala ordered the attack by police, who then turned the students over to a local drug gang.

AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests, while groups of demonstrators have laid siege to government buildings, burned cars, blocked highways across Mexico. On Wednesday, students blocked access to an airport in the state of Michoacán and took over highways in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

In Guerrero, multiple mass graves containing dozens of bodies have been uncovered by authorities searching for the students. But a team of Argentine forensic experts has said none of the remains they’ve examined so far match the students. The most recent set of remains, found in trash bags, which authorities say were burned at a garbage dump, have yet to be analyzed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The parents of the missing students, meanwhile, distrust the authorities’ account and continue to hold out hope their loved ones are alive. On Wednesday, the families announced they will be traveling across parts of the country in three caravans to demand their loved ones’ return. Felipe de la Cruz, the father of a missing student and a spokesperson for the families, announced the caravan.

FELIPE DE LA CRUZ: [translated] We demand punishment for the material and intellectual assassins and the appearance of our 43 boys alive. More than 45 days have passed, and we don’t know anything about them. Yesterday, our Argentinian friends gave us some hope, a little bit of fresh air, when they informed us that of the 30 bodies that they took from the clandestine graves, that were buried by the police, not one corresponds to the students of Ayotzinapa. This gives us the security that our children are alive, because they took them alive, and we want them alive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The students’ disappearance is among the worst human rights crises to hit the country since the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, but it is not an isolated incident. At least eight Mexican soldiers have been detained for an alleged massacre of 22 people in the rural southern state of Mexico. While the army claimed the victims were suspected gang members who died in a firefight, it appears they had actually surrendered. Last month, three American siblings were found dead in the northern border state of Tamaulipas after witnesses saw them taken away by a local police unit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for the latest on the 43 missing students from the rural teachers college and the roots of the violence in Mexico, we go to Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by John Gibler, author, independent journalist, who was been interviewing the survivors of the police attack. He’s the author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt and, more recently, To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War.

John, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out what’s happening where you are in Guerrero?

JOHN GIBLER: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having me on. I’m here in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state. And as you’ve outlined so far, there has been a massive upsurge in protests since the attorney—federal attorney general’s announcement of their version of the events, their theory about the students were murdered and their remains burned at a trash dump in Cocula. As you heard the representative of the parents say, they do not accept that version.

On Sunday, after Murillo Karam made that announcement, I attended a highway blockade here in Chilpancingo on the highway, federal highway, to Acapulco, where one of the mothers of a young disappeared student said to me, quote, “These are theatrics that the government is mounting to distract us. But we, even though we are humble and poor people, are people with minds capable of understanding what’s going on. They took our students alive, and we want them alive.” Constantly, at every stage of the protests, in which here, at least in Guerrero state, the parents themselves participate, as well as the classmates of the 43 disappeared students, there’s the reiteration of the demand: The students were taken alive by police, and it’s the government’s responsibility to return them alive.

Protests have included marches, highway blockades, the destruction—the property destruction of windows and equipment, and setting cars on fire outside of government buildings. One concrete example, when they’ve attacked the government palace in Chilpancingo, across the highway there’s a very large federal auditorium administered by the state government, which is entirely built of glass. They’ve never thrown a single rock at that theater auditorium across the street. They make the seat of government their target.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: John Gibler, also, you’ve said that there’s reason to doubt the government’s account of what occurred. What have you learned from people on the ground there about what happened that night to these students?

JOHN GIBLER: Well, first off, in terms of what happened deep into the night to the 43 disappeared students, the government is basing their—all of their theories and their actions on the confessions of people they’ve detained. But this now, the version that the students were burned in Cocula, is the third round of supposedly trustworthy confessions made by people who have been detained. We should recall that initially, on October 4, there was the discovery of mass graves in the outskirts of Iguala city. And first the state government prosecutors and then later federal prosecutors said that they had direct participant testimony describing how they had taken the students there, murdered them, dug mass graves and burned them with diesel in these graves. It turns out that now the Argentine forensic anthropology specialists have confirmed that 24 of the 30 remains found there have been confirmed not to be the students who are missing. So here we have, you know, now a pattern of the government saying, “We have these credible witnesses in custody, they’ve described to us what they did,” but then two weeks later the scenario they described turns out not to be true. So the statement that they have been murdered and their bodied found in plastic bags in a river outside a trash dump in Cocula, I think should be met with suspicion.

I traveled to Cocula the other day and was unable to find any kind of witness testimony, people in the surrounding area who could describe either having seen unusual smoke or an unusual amount of traffic on the very desolate, isolated dirt road that heads out to that trash dump. Also, it should be recalled that on the evening of the 26th to the morning of the 27th of September, when the events occurred, it was raining consistently in Iguala and Cocula. I’ve recovered numerous testimonies of people, both surviving students from that night as well as journalists who arrived from Chilpancingo and local journalists in Iguala, who described the rains that night, which has also been confirmed by consulting Mexican meteorological institutions, which makes it somehow hard to—or harder to believe that 43 human beings were murdered and their bodies completely obliterated through a massive fire using diesel and tires, expired tires, considering it was raining all night.

AMY GOODMAN: John, we’re going to break, then come back to this discussion and hear from a first-year student from the teachers college who survived the initial police attack. But it’s just astounding what you’re describing. It reminds me of the early '60s, when Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, you know, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, their bodies were discovered in Mississippi—they were killed by the Klan—and how when they were looking for their bodies over those weeks in that fateful summer, they kept turning up the bodies of others, African Americans who had been killed that no one had known about before, when you talk about this search for the bodies and this endless discovery of mass graves. We're talking to John Gibler, author and independent journalist based in Mexico. He’s actually in Guerrero right now. We’ll be back with him in a moment.

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Are Mexico’s Missing Students the Victims of U.S.-Backed Drug War?

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