Mexican Days of the Dead


Leaving by Philip Edmondson

“The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and it never will be. It exacts a toll on our own self, our families, our friends, and especially our children”. (Serpico)

“Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something”. (Pancho Villa)

“Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves”. (Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2008)

“Enough ! I’m tired”. (Mexican Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, November 7, 2014)

Normally Mexico’s November 2nd, Day of the Dead holiday is a light hearted festival but this year is different. Following the September 26th disappearance of 43 student teachers in Iguala, commemoration of the Dia de Muertos became a somber display of political outrage, sparking near-constant demonstrations with tens of thousands taking to the streets, protests on social-media, with testimonies, videos and tweets as well as firebombing government buildings. As Princeton Ph.D. candidate Humberto Beck explained, “That communion between the living and the dead, the basis of the ritual, is no longer possible. Our disappeared are people between life and death. We cannot celebrate them if we don’t know that they are dead”. (David Noriega,, November 2014).

The mass disappearance of the 43 students marked the largest political and public security crisis for the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, a strong U.S. ally, who took office in December 2012. While the unsolved incident in Iguala drew both worldwide attention and international condemnation, the president’s extended trip to China and Australia during the crisis did little to inspire confidence in his leadership. The issue of the missing students pursued him to Australia where Mexican communities organized demonstrations in Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

As organized crime continues to dominate both local and regional politics, critics charged the president and his administration with negligence as well as a policy of breath-taking indifference.(Jo Tuckman, UK, November 16, 2014).

Officials cancelled the November 20th National festivities to commemorate the 1910 Mexican Revolution, since the nation, still in mourning, was in no mood for celebration.

Social traumas and other overwhelming life events tend to occur around the anniversary of previous traumas, and this missing student tragedy was no exception. More information about this well documented phenomenon is available in my Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals (2012). It is now known that student activists commandeered three buses in Iguala, a town located 180 km (112 miles) from Mexico City and a few hours’ drive from their school, a local organization sympathetic to their causes. Arranging transport was part of their plans to seek funds for travel on to their nation’s capital. The teacher trainees had hoped to participate in an anniversary march to commemorate the student massacres that occurred on October 2, 1968 in Tlatelolco; in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas whose architecture reflects three periods of Mexican history: Pre-Colombian, Spanish Colonial and the independent “mestizo” nation.

Also known as The Night of Tlatelolco, (from a book title by Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska), violence erupted just 10 days prior to the celebration of the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Nearly 10,000 high school and university students had gathered to protest political suppression in an event which terminated in a storm of bullets, fired by military and government security-forces. Hundreds were killed and wounded while protesters who survived the fusillade were seized by police and dragged away to unknown fates. No sooner had the smoke cleared and dust settled than a government cover-up began with many questions still unanswered. Nevertheless, the issue of “desaparecidos” persisted well into the 1970’s during which there were at least 2,000 documented cases of those who simply vanished after challenging government officials. (, October, 24, 2008). History has often shown that denial, lies and cover-ups set the stage for unresolved traumas to continue to replicate; especially with events that involve murder.

In October, 1968, what began as a peaceful human-rights protest, soon became symbolic of something akin to the state sponsored slaughter at China’s Tiananmen Square or the anti-war student massacre by government troops at Kent State University in Ohio. The massacre at Tlatelolco now stands as a temporal marker of a time and place where a pact between government and the people began to unravel, and Mexico’s extended political crisis continued to worsen; and now manifests in this latest iteration of missing and massacred students.

Under constant public pressure and with the aid of arrested suspects and anonymous informers, authorities have determined that the student’s plans to travel from the southern state of Guerrero to Mexico City for the Tlatelolco anniversary march, were interrupted by Iguala municipal police in the outskirts of the city of 140,000. On September 26th, 2014, at around 9 PM, a violent ambush transpired on three buses; a convoy of young people viciously attacked by uniformed law-enforcement. After shooting six students and wounding 25 others, the remaining 43 were “disappeared”. Students who survived the attack said that while the Mexican army were in the vicinity and aware of the attack, they did nothing to intervene, which implies a chain of complicities and cover-ups that goes from municipal on up to federal levels. (Ruben Martinez,, November 15, 2014).

During my recent visit to Mexico, colleagues suggested that it may be that, unknown to the students, at least one of the buses that they commandeered was secretly loaded with cocaine for transport. When it was noticed that the cocaine was missing, the mayor’s office was notified, which also alerted the cartel who suspected that the students intended to make off with their profits. The operation to ambush the buses was allegedly carried out on the orders of Mayor Jose Luis Albarca Velazquez on behalf of his wife Maria, who was reportedly concerned that these young activists were planning to disrupt a public relations event intended to support her campaign to succeed her husband as mayor. Albarca reportedly ordered the cartel-connected police to “teach them a lesson”.

“Lady Iguala” as she is called by locals, Maria de los Angeles Pineda has very close family ties as both daughter and sister to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel also connected to the Los Guerreros Unidos criminal group. All of Maria’s immediate family members, including five siblings, are either dead or in prison due to organized crime. Members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel who confessed to killing the teacher trainees, claim that it was Pineda who ordered the abduction. To them she is believed to be both founder of the cartel and “Jefa de los Jefes” or “Boss of the Bosses” and principal director of their criminal activities, who wears the false halo of legality. Also known as “Mexico’s First Lady of Murder”, Pineda was reportedly well known in Iguala and the surrounding regions as difficult, hard, “beautiful and utterly evil”. It is said that she “loved the fact that people were afraid of her”, maybe also her own husband. (Alasdair Baverstock,, November 12, 2014).

Rumor has it that at least 15 mayors in the state of Guerrero are members of organized crime syndicates. Mexico is thought to have over 80 cartels reflecting a radical de-centralization of national power, as well as a profusion of smaller gangs within the terrifying Mexican underworld involved with kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets. (Patrick Corcoran,, 12/20/2012).

Throughout Latin America, criminal cartels are often familia. All of Albarca’s appointees to sensitive government positions are relatives of his wife; and his cousin Felipe Flores Velazquez served as chief of security. Mexican media dubbed Albarca and his wife an “Imperial Couple” in response to their opulent, high living, heavy handed, self-entitled running of Iguala as their own private elite, narco-fiefdom. Shortly after the kidnapping incident the two fled undercover to Mexico City and were subsequently arrested some weeks later while hiding out together with their dogs, in an abandoned, dilapidated hovel deep within a rough section of the city. (Marian Blasberg and Jens Glusing,, November 20, 2014).

The chief of police for the city of Iguala remains a fugitive and outraged protesters reduced City Hall to a fire ravaged shell of a structure. While there have been rumors of over hundreds of mass gravesites, beyond the known figure of 23 pits within the hillsides surrounding Iguala, none have produced any material relevant to the students. This mass disappearance is not an isolated incident and this issue reaches far beyond Iguala. Recent data from national police sources shows some 243,000 bodies were found in clandestine grave sites in the years between 2006 and 2013.

To date, over 76 individuals, including 22 police, were arrested in connection with the September 26th incident. By mid-November, the absolute worst fears of many were potentially confirmed as authorities disclosed that cartel hit-men and local police related to the Iguala ambush confessed to kidnapping the 43 students, then transporting them some 30 minutes by cattle truck to a landfill in nearby Cocula. According to this story, they were packed in so tightly that several of these young people had reportedly suffocated en route, and the rest, who had survived interrogations, were shot. With information likely obtained from well-placed bribes and brutal torture, it seems that dismembered victims were stacked like cordwood and set aflame on a bonfire that lasted some 15 hours, continuously fed with diesel fuel, plastics and other toxic debris.

As the ashes cooled, professional contract-killers are claimed to have gathered charred remnants of bone and teeth to thoroughly pulverize, in order to prevent genetic identification, then swept whatever was left up and black plastic trash bags and dumped any remains into the Rio San Juan. While authorities have retrieved some of these trash bags, they acknowledge that any definitive retrieval of DNA will be extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, one of the rubbish bags had apparently remained sealed and the few fragments retrieved have been sent to a highly specialized laboratory at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. (AFP,, November 10, 2014). This, so far, has remained the official government story and the missing have been declared dead. As long as there is no conclusive forensic evidence; for unresolved mourners, the missing 43 remain officially “undead”. (Charlotte Maria Saenz,, November 14, 2014)

The nation state that is now Mexico has always been violent territory from Pre-Colombian times until the present. And, if there is such an entity as “spirit of place” I could imagine that any genius loci within this troubled locale might be of a less than peaceful nature. The historic city of Iguala, where the students were abducted, is located within the heart of the “Warrior State” of Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico, which has been known as a violent and ungovernable territory since colonial times. Aztec domination of local tribes was replaced by the Spanish; and 16th century Acapulco became a major center for their lucrative Pacific slave-trade. During the 19th and 20th centuries Guerrero was also referred to as “El Mexico Bronco” (untamed Mexico) and a principal theater for a series of local, national and international wars. In present times, it is important to understand that this is a territory wherein 97% of all crimes remain unsolved. Why? Victims are too intimated to report to a legal system they don’t trust, and state sponsored violence has become the norm.

While Acapulco and other famed Pacific-coastal resorts bring tourist wealth to this region, which is also rich in resources such as gold; some 70% of Guerrero’s residents live in abject poverty. This current crisis is due, in part, to the fact that Guerrero has long been a center for marijuana production and produces 98% of Mexico’s heroin yielding poppies. Iguala is situated 120 miles southwest of Mexico City, in a valley that links different parts of the state. Its location is of strategic value to drug traffickers because it lies between the capital and the lowland Terra Caliente coastal region, a notorious haven for methamphetamine labs. (Nick Miroff,, October 6, 2014). Any coalition of state, and local authorities, in cahoots with cartel interests would likely consider unruly and activist students to be bad for business. The students and their school have been portrayed as criminals with support from a regional news outlet that sells editorial judgments to the highest bidder. On the day after the students disappeared, the local newspaper blared an eight column headline in the Diario de Guerrero: “Finally order is restored…The action of state and military forces to prevent vandals from stealing buses is applauded by the public”. (, October 10, 2014).

All of the wounded, dead and missing students, between ages 19 and 23, were enrolled at the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa in Tixla, which has a long history of contentious and outright hostile relations with the local, state and federal governments. The 2013 educational reform initiative proposed by President Pena Nieto had targeted this school for elimination. While this initiative did not pass, Ayotzinapa has come under attack by paramilitary groups that operate under the protection of the army. (Ted Lewis,, October 10, 2014).

Ayotzinapa is one of 16 rural teacher-training schools that emerged from the Mexican Revolution nearly a century ago. This all-male facility established in 1926, with a student body of 520, offers largely free education to rural and indigenous youth, with a goal of training teachers to raise the standards of living and literacy by living amongst the rural poor. In recent years this dilapidated institution has been known for a Spartan lifestyle and as a bastion of leftist politics. Campus murals are painted with slogans and images of Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Mexican rebel leader Emiliano Zapata. Students learn self-reliance along with a deep distrust of government and the conviction that corrupt politicians intend to steal away their resources through privatization. Federal rural teachers colleges are also boarding schools; where students receive meals, scholarship and some 3 to 7 dollars a day. The curriculum requires that they be divided into communities of work units. First year youths, who sleep on floors without mattresses, tend crops, livestock and poultry raised to supplement the meager supplies provided by the government.

Although the quality of their faculty has been called into serious question, such teachers colleges are one of the few avenues that impoverished rural youth have, to prepare for a career that could lift them to a new level of opportunity. Ayotzinapa students have an established track-record for assisting their communities. These young men were the first to respond during the 2013 hurricane that flooded the city of Tixla where thousands were rendered homeless. It was alleged that government assistance was slow to arrive, even after some days, because official focus was upon Acapulco. These and other resentments continue to fester and occasionally boil over as the fate of the missing has not been confirmed. Desperate, grieving parents, family members and other loved ones who don’t trust the government, don’t trust the cremation story either. While close up images of blackened teeth sifted from leftover ashes along with bits of charred bone, have been broadcast throughout the country, residents in Cocula report that it rained all night at the time of the supposed funeral pyre. For now, many gather, and wait, some for a miracle and others for a least some measure of forensic closure.

Meanwhile, the North American Republic Estados Unidos Mexicanos remains a nation abused and abandoned by corrupt officials, continually plagued by bloodshed and fear. (Natasha Hakimi,, November 10, 2014).

With Mexico in agony and collapsing under the weight of rampant corruption, environmental degradation and endemic poverty; America looks away while issuing a travel-advisory suggesting that our citizens avoid all non-essential travel to this very dangerous territory. The U.S. has remained largely indifferent to the suffering of our southern neighbor; with which we share a 2,000 mile border, as well as profound economic and cultural ties, especially here in the southwestern states, which were formerly Mexican . Among the many reasons for our indifference is the fact that we are deeply implicated in the so called “War on Drugs”. America demands drugs, and supplies guns for the ongoing bloodbaths; and our own immigration and customs enforcement are heavily implicated in this deeply rooted bi-national affair. (Ruben Matinez,, November 15, 2015).

Consider, if you will, the 3 billion dollars transferred to the Mexican army from U.S. tax payers, through the Merida Initiative, supposedly to fight drugs. While the State Department claims the Merida Plan is an unprecedented partnership between the United states and Mexico to fight organized crime and associated violence, as Mexicans well know, this agreement has only fueled both crime and violence. In reality, American citizens are giving drug lords money to fight drugs. (Sonia Kolhatkar,, November 20, 2014).

There has also been widespread speculation and specific allegations that our CIA is heavily involved with drug trafficking and Mexican organized crime syndicates, for geo-political purposes. The now infamous Fast and Furious scandal, involving former Attorney General Eric Holder, saw the federal Government providing thousands of high powered weapons to Mexican cartels. (Alex Newman,, July 28, 2012).

While this is indeed a bleak picture, Mexican American journalist Alfredo Corchado, author of Midnight in Mexico (2014), finds reason for optimism. While acknowledging the continued conflicts in Mexico, he remains hopeful. “Think about where Mexico has been in the last 20 years; and yeah, this is a very dark and difficult time…but it’s also a much more plural and open society”. According to Corchado, the fact that the media is publically reporting the role of the government in Guerrero is emblematic of the changes occurring in Mexico overall. “Is this a country that has changed? No. But it is a country that is changing”. (, November 12, 2014).

While this may be true, only time will tell. Meanwhile, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has intimated, on a number of occasions, the War on Drugs is not likely to end, because too many people are making too much money, in too many high places.

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