World

Parents of 43 disappeared keep vigil at Mexican college that was supposed to be their hope

  • In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, a man looks up at a mural inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college in Tixtla, Mexico. Two weeks after 43 students disappeared in a clash with police in southern rural Mexico, dozens of parents have gathered at the teacher’s college also known as Ayotzinapa, that was supposed to be their sons’ escape from life as subsistence farmers. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

    In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, a man looks up at a mural inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college in Tixtla, Mexico. Two weeks after 43 students disappeared in a clash with police in southern rural Mexico, dozens of parents have gathered at the teacher’s college also known as Ayotzinapa, that was supposed to be their sons’ escape from life as subsistence farmers. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, relatives of missing students attend a press conference as they wait for news inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college also known as Ayotzinapa, in Tixtla, Mexico. The students and their families come mostly from the remote mountains of southern Guerrero state, where they live in poverty under the thumb of corrupt governments, drug traffickers or armed vigilantes, lawless groups that have sprung up to fight the region’s lawlessness. That 43 young men went missing at the hands of the state has drawn calls from around the world for justice, including the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States, where Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said all of Latin America is grieving. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

    In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, relatives of missing students attend a press conference as they wait for news inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college also known as Ayotzinapa, in Tixtla, Mexico. The students and their families come mostly from the remote mountains of southern Guerrero state, where they live in poverty under the thumb of corrupt governments, drug traffickers or armed vigilantes, lawless groups that have sprung up to fight the region’s lawlessness. That 43 young men went missing at the hands of the state has drawn calls from around the world for justice, including the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States, where Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said all of Latin America is grieving. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, a mural with messages that read in Spanish; "Those who die for life, cannot be called dead," from left, "I do not fear state repression, I fear the silence of the people," and "Justice," inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college, also known as Ayotzinapa, in Tixtla, Mexico. Prosecutors attribute the Sept. 26 disappearances of 43 students from the rural college, to police. The case has outraged Mexicans even in a country where abuse of authority is common in remote areas. Some of the detained led authorities last weekend to mass graves holding 28 bodies that some fear are the students. Their identities are still unknown.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

    In this Oct. 6, 2014 photo, a mural with messages that read in Spanish; "Those who die for life, cannot be called dead," from left, "I do not fear state repression, I fear the silence of the people," and "Justice," inside the Raul Isidro Burgos rural teacher's college, also known as Ayotzinapa, in Tixtla, Mexico. Prosecutors attribute the Sept. 26 disappearances of 43 students from the rural college, to police. The case has outraged Mexicans even in a country where abuse of authority is common in remote areas. Some of the detained led authorities last weekend to mass graves holding 28 bodies that some fear are the students. Their identities are still unknown. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)  (The Associated Press)

Two weeks after 43 students disappeared in a clash with police in rural southern Mexico, dozens of anxious parents have gathered at a teachers' college that was supposed to be their sons' escape from life as subsistence farmers.

Wearing donated clothing, they wait for any word on the fate of their children, eating simple meals of rice, beans and tortillas and holding prayer sessions in a makeshift shelter on the school's covered courtyard.

"They took him away alive, and that's the way I want him back," said Macedonia Torres Romero, whose son Jose Luis is among the disappeared.

But it seems ever more unlikely as time passes.

Prosecutors attribute the Sept. 26 disappearances to police, who also killed six and wounded at least 25 in separate attacks. The case has outraged Mexicans even in a country where abuse of authority is common in remote areas. Some of the detained led authorities last weekend to mass graves holding 28 bodies that some fear belong to the students. Their identities are still unknown.

That 43 young men went missing at the hands of the state has drawn calls from around the world for justice, including the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States, where Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said all of Latin America is grieving.

Four more police officers have been arrested in the case, bringing the total to 26, state prosecutor Inaky Blanco announced Thursday. He also said he is asking the state congress to strip Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca of the political immunity elected officials have under Mexican law. Abarca, who authorities say is on the run, may face charges as well for not intervening to stop the attacks.

The teachers' college students and their families come mostly from the remote mountains of the southern state of Guerrero, where they live in poverty under the thumb of corrupt governments, drug traffickers or armed vigilantes, lawless groups that have sprung up to fight the region's lawlessness.

Torres, a widow raising six children, sells peanuts at a stand in the town of Amilcingo in neighboring Morelos state. For a while Jose Luis worked odd jobs in the fields to bring in extra money. But it wasn't enough to make ends meet.

"He said 'Mom, I'm going to study, to try to get ahead. Don't you see, now that my dad's dead I have to do something,'" Torres recalled.

Graduates of the Rural Teachers' College Raul Isidro Burgos, in the Ayotzinapa neighborhood of Tixtla, and others in the normal school system are guaranteed teaching jobs that pay just $500 a month at schools often reachable only on foot.

Ayotzinapa graduate Rogelio Guerrero Lopez now teaches in an impoverished three-room school in the mountains, four hours up dirt roads. Two weeks ago the teachers couldn't leave the school because a drug gang had blocked the road. He was afraid to name which one. Farm families in the area grow marijuana and opium poppies "to get a little money."

Despite the pervasive poverty and violence, Guerrero Lopez has convinced some local kids to attend Ayotzinapa. The college is free, and students are eager to work.

But they also become part of the fray. They are indoctrinated in leftist politics and justify their hijacking, stealing and civil disruptions in the name of spreading empowerment to Mexico's most impoverished, exploited citizens.

The face of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara stares down from the side of a building emblazoned with the slogan "I will return, and I will be millions." Other murals feature the likes of Marx, Lenin and Engels.

The teachers' colleges began radicalizing in the 1960s, said Jorge Javier Romero, an education expert at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City. Noted rural teacher and guerrilla leader Lucio Cabanas, who died in a shootout with Mexican troops in 1974, came out of Ayotzinapa.

Students are expected to go out on risky fundraising "activities" that range from passing the hat in town to taking over a highway tollbooth and letting motorists drive through in return for a "donation." It sometimes entails hijacking buses or food delivery trucks or blocking highways, and can lead to clashes with police.

On Sept. 26, Jose Luis joined in one of the "activities," which apparently involved passing a tin can in the city of Iguala. He told his mother beforehand that he was afraid. So was she: "I told him, things can happen out there."

That was their last conversation.

Officials say municipal police opened fire on buses the students had hijacked to return to campus. Six people died, and dozens of students were taken away by police. One suspect told authorities they were turned over to a drug gang that killed at least 17 of them at a clandestine mass grave, where 28 burned and dismembered corpses were unearthed last weekend.

Back at Ayotzinapa, students kept to their daily routines this week following the grim discovery. Everyone pitched in to sweep out the patio, wash down its flagstones with buckets of water, air out bedding and scrub clothing in communal concrete basins.

The bustle contrasted with the silent sadness of the courtyard, where parents try to hang on to hope.

"I'm staying here until I find out about my son," Torres said, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm not leaving here till then."

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Associated Press Writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed from Mexico City.