Mexico City – Nicanora García looked tired as she shoveled a bit of dirt in front of the monument in the middle of the Paseo de la Reforma, the main boulevard in the center of Mexico City. The heat was already starting to rise, and hundreds of cars passing by her belched out the city’s usual contaminants.
But to her, planting flowers here is cathartic.
The monument consists of metal plates in the shape of a large plus sign and the number 43, painted red and surrounded by a small flower bed. Groups of volunteers keep the ground around it tidy.
“We actually don’t call this a monument,” García explained to Fox News Latino. “It’s an anti-monument. It’s not supposed to be here. We’d rather it didn’t exist. It’s a reminder that 43 people are missing.”
García’s son Saúl Bruno is one of the 43 students from Raúl Isidro Burgos teachers’ college – better known as Ayotzinapa – who disappeared on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, in the southern city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.
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The students were attacked by policemen as they were looking to occupy buses to take them to a protest march.
Instead, they were greeted by gunfire that killed six of them, as municipal policemen stormed the buses, detained the youths and handed the survivors over to a local drug gang, according to several state and federal agencies that have looked into the case. They were never seen or heard of again.
The last two years have been incredibly trying for the families of the victims, García and others told FNL as they traveled to Mexico City to attend a series of protests commemorating the second anniversary of the disappearance.
“We are very tired, we’re running from one event to another,” Melitón Ortega, uncle of one of the students, Mauricio Ortega Valerio, told FNL.
To the families of the 43 students, beyond the crushing weight of not knowing what happened to their sons, brothers, cousins and friends, their grief has become an cause célèbre for many who oppose Peña Nieto, using the families’ slogan, “Alive they took them, alive we want them back” as a rallying call.
“The parents and families of the disappeared have been together for two years now, and we’ve been going through different phases of resistance and protest”, Ortega told FNL. “It’s been hard, not just because of not knowing where they are. There’s also the sadness, the pain of seeing how we have been lied to by the Mexican government.”
The grieving parents have become omnipresent in marches against corruption, violence and Peña Nieto’s administration.
The Ayotzinapa case marks one of the darkest episodes in Peña Nieto’s time in office.
To many critics, the 43 students symbolize not only the pervasive and perverse relationship that often exists between authorities and organized crime on the local and state level, it also painfully continues to lay bare the apparent inability or unwillingness of the federal government to solve the case and bring the culprits to justice.
According to the federal investigation, the students were attacked and abducted by municipal policemen on the orders of Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, who, along with his wife, has been accused of ties to organized crime.
The youths were handed over to members of local drug trafficking gang, Guerreros Unidos, who are supposed to have murdered them and incinerated their bodies on a massive pyre at the garbage dump of the nearby town of Cocula.
Former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam called the official version of the events the “historical truth,” but few investigations in recent Mexican history have been as harshly criticized as the Ayotzinapa one.
Human rights groups have accused authorities of torturing suspects and witnesses. Tomás Zerón, head of the Federal Agency of Investigations, stepped down earlier this month after being accused of manipulating evidence.
An independent group of Argentinian forensic anthropologists earlier this year raised credible doubts about whether the students’ bodies were actually incinerated on Cocula’s garbage dump.
A multi-disciplinary group from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) complained that they had not received sufficient access to the military outpost in Iguala to clarify whether or not Mexican soldiers were involved in the tragedy.
“To refuse to allow an investigation of what happened with the batallion in Iguala is indefensible,” Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former executive secretary of the IAHCR, told Proceso magazine in a recent interview.
The two year commemoration of the Iguala tragedy is a time for the families of the students in which they receive a lot of support from people and organizations around the country, but also one which sharply reminds them of the fact that for the families the investigation is stalled at an unsatisfying conclusion.
“Our lives have changed forever,” Nicanora García told FNL. “It has become very hard, very ugly for us.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen