Digital Project

It Was the State

This conversation, which took place between September and November 2016, reflects on the disappearance of forty-three students in the Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014. The crime, which remains unsolved, and the botched investigation that followed, sparked nationwide protests, undermined the credibility of the government, and focused attention on systemic oppression in Mexico. Gibler’s extensive reporting on the disappearance culminated in Una historia oral de la infamia (2016), published by sur+, which was cofounded by Jauregui, an author and translator. Gibler and Jauregui discuss the problem of narrating terrible and opaque crimes that implicate the entire state—which is charged with delivering justice. They also speak about how such episodes, and the mass movements formed in response to them, illuminate the structures that constantly inflict (and attempt to cover up, or normalize) violence on marginalized populations, both in Mexico and the United States. (The images below are taken from surveillance footage that has circulated online and that purportedly reveals details of the disappearances that contradict the government’s account; the one exception is the second image, which is taken from a recording made by one of the students on his phone.)

Gabriela JaureguiWhy don’t we start from the very beginning, since some readers won’t be aware of the details of what happened. Pretty much everyone knows, generally, about the forced disappearance of the forty-three students. But the finer points are precisely what make this so important.

John GiblerThe students attended a rural teachers’ college, a kind of school that doesn’t really exist in the United States. Ayotzinapa is a small, public, four-year university dedicated to training people to teach students in rural areas, mostly in the southern state of Guerrero, one of the most marginalized and economically battered regions. The school is known colloquially for the tiny community in which it is located (the full name is La Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa). The students have a long history of participating in protest movements, socialist student federations, and so on. They also have a history of using tactics that, in their local context, don’t seem outrageous, but from the outside, from abroad, might seem extreme.

JaureguiLike commandeering buses?

GiblerRight. They commandeer buses to go to rural areas of the state and observe classrooms. It’s part of their educational curriculum and experience.

JaureguiThey do this not because it’s fun and crazy but because they don’t have any funds or other means of transport. The school gets very little funding from the state. I think this is key.

GiblerThe students live on campus and they have a meal budget of about two dollars a day. That gives you an idea of the economic support for the school. They have one bus and two vans for more than five hundred students, who constantly travel around the state to do classroom observations. In late September 2014, they were trying to commandeer several buses to drive in a caravan to Mexico City and participate in the annual October 2 march, when thousands of people commemorate the 1968 army massacre of college students in Tlatelolco Plaza weeks before the Olympics. The students had planned to gather buses where they always do, near the state capital of Chilpancingo. They’d been stopped by police several times before without any kind of violent confrontation ensuing. The students would just say, in Spanish, chale, or damn, “We can’t do it today.”

On the morning of September 26, 2014, the police prevented the students from commandeering buses. They went to the bus station in Chilpancingo, but it was filled with riot cops. Later that afternoon, to avoid confrontation, eighty or ninety students drove two buses, which they had commandeered a few weeks earlier and used for classroom observations, in the opposite direction, away from Ayotzinapa, toward the city of Iguala. One bus stopped at the tollbooth before Iguala, and the other turned toward the nearby city of Huitzuco. Federal police pulled up to the other side of the tollbooth and stopped all the approaching buses. Again, the students didn’t attack the police, they just said, “We won’t be able to take any buses here.” At that moment, the students who had gone toward Huitzuco called and said, “Looks like we’ve got a bus, but the driver wants to go to Iguala to drop off his passengers before taking us back to the school.” Nine students boarded that bus and went to Iguala while the rest waited on the outskirts of the city in the two buses that had previously been commandeered.

What happened next was very complex. (I cover the sequence of events in greater detail in this article.) Basically, the students arrived at the bus station and the driver locked them inside the bus. The students called their comrades, who were on the outskirts of the city, for help. Those students piled into the two buses, rushed into the city, busted their friends out of the bus, and grabbed three more buses. Three buses drove through the center of the city and two drove around the outskirts. The three that drove through the center were almost immediately pursued and attacked by municipal police officers, who initially shot in the air. The police tried to blockade the students at several points but the students threw rocks at their trucks and forced them to move out of the way. The students proceeded to the end of the street on which they were traveling, to the corner of Juan N. Álvarez and Periférico, where the police again blocked them. This time the police fired directly at the students. One of the students, Aldo Gutiérrez, was shot in the head and fell to the street.

Then scores of police started to arrive, both from the front and behind, and encircle the two buses. The third bus pulled up a bit later and was completely surrounded. The students in the buses took cover. They shouted at the police: “We’re students,” “We don’t have guns,” “Don’t shoot,” “You’ve already shot one of our classmates!”

Police shot one student on the third bus in the arm. (The officer who shot him later sent him to the hospital in an ambulance.) The rest of the students on the third bus were forced into the back of police trucks and driven away. They’re among the disappeared.

One of the buses that had driven around the city was blocked, ambushed, and surrounded just before leaving town. At around ten o’clock at night, all the students on that bus were taken away by the police. We now know, because of the investigation carried out by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts—known in Spanish for its initials, GIEI—that military intelligence officers in civilian dress were present at the scene and informing their superiors about what was happening.

JaureguiThis happened in close proximity to a military base.

GiblerThere’s a major base in Iguala, which is home to the twenty-seventh battalion. It’s less than one kilometer as the crow flies from the attack at Juan N. Álvarez and Periférico.

JaureguiIf you’ve ever heard gunshots, you know that it’s virtually impossible that the military was not aware that something major was going on.

GiblerAbsolutely impossible. And at no point during the attacks, which lasted for several hours, did soldiers intervene on behalf of the civilians—college kids wearing blue jeans and sandals, armed with a handful of rocks.

JaureguiThe police are armed with machine guns.

Gibler In all honesty, the police in the United States are more heavily militarized than in Mexico. There was conversation that followed the uprising in Ferguson about police officers looking like they were in a war zone, which people found shocking. The critical response was, “Oh, you’re scandalized by the militarization of police, not the everyday terror inflicted by police in black communities?” But in this case we’re talking about a coordinated effort by police from three different municipalities, along with state and federal police, as well as armed men in civilian clothes—all working to attack, kill, and later disappear the students. Some of the police officers were wearing baseball caps and carrying thirty-year-old revolvers, some were wearing bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets, and ski masks and carrying assault rifles. Together, in the course of eight hours, they attacked five buses full of college students, one bus carrying an amateur youth soccer team, and anyone else who happened to be in the way. They killed six people, wounded more than forty, and disappeared forty-three.

JaureguiIf you hear the news, you don’t get these details, and they enable us to understand how this event—which should be impossible—happened. This is what your book does with such great care. The epigraph reads: “How can one write the history of the impossible, or a history of the impossible?” That’s what you set out to do, but it’s not just you writing that history; you’re weaving together the testimonies of all the survivors. How did you decide how to tell this impossible story?

GiblerMichel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist, writes in Silencing the Past (1995) about the conceptual impossibility for Europeans of a successful, political slave rebellion in Haiti. When he asks how to write the history of the impossible, he’s speaking to the structure of racism that makes it impossible for Europeans to view the rebellion in Haiti as a political revolution. What is impossible for Trouillot is a revolution by slaves. In my case, what is impossible is to document a state massacre and mass forced disappearance, because the entire structure of the state is invested in suppressing that knowledge. The very institutions and people charged with investigating are the ones who ordered and/or carried out the atrocity. This is related to Trouillot in the sense that the entire edifice of European racism was also designed to make it impossible to know the truth of the European project of modernity. What is also impossible is for the surviving students to have understood, the morning after the attacks, the scale of what had happened, or for them to understand what continued to happen, and the way in which it involves the entire structure of the state.

As a writer, how do you investigate an atrocity when the people tasked with investigating are the ones who carried it out? I thought the way to do this was to listen deeply to the survivors, as many of them as possible. It wasn’t possible to speak to everyone: Many were profoundly traumatized and afraid to speak.

JaureguiNot even using an alias—not at all?

GiblerNo. Under no circumstances, not even off the record. In the case of the students, only four did not want to talk. And if a survivor doesn’t want to talk, that’s it; I’m not going to try to convince him. Twenty-five surviving students are quoted in the book. I also spoke with a number of journalists in Iguala who arrived on the scene at different points and survived the attacks, as well as a teacher who helped the students and survived. I spoke with some of the adults who were on the bus of the youth soccer team: two of the trainers and the municipal sports official, who were all wounded. I interviewed police officers, the wives of police officers who were arrested and charged with attacking the students. I went to the governor’s press conferences and the attorney general’s press conferences and monitored the daily press.

JaureguiIn a way, you traveled to Chilpancingo and Ayotzinapa and acted as an independent investigator before the independent investigators showed up.

GiblerYes. This book was written in the summer of 2015, to be published on the one-year anniversary in September, which is around the time the GIEI released its first report. The GIEI signed an agreement with the Mexican government in December and arrived in March, at which point I’d been reporting for months. I structured the book as an oral history because I felt that it was urgent and essential to focus on listening as a political act, and to communicate the experiences of the survivors, to pay as close attention as possible to their detailed descriptions of what happened.

Before you can even approach any kind of an answer to the question of why this happened, you must know what happened and how. (You can’t ask whomever did this, because the state is protecting them.) That question, which I think is very urgent, is the emphasis of this book, along with the effort to get a sense of who the victims and survivors are. Their story has been sensationalized and they’ve been criminalized in the media. In the English-language press, most of the initial reports talked about “clashes and confrontations with the police.”

JaureguiI remember this. I remember being outraged.

GiblerWhy can’t you call it an attack? I asked an Al Jazeera English reporter why he used the words “confrontation” and “clash.” First, he said, “Did I?” And then he said, “Oh, well, I wasn’t there that night. I didn’t see it, so I can’t call it an attack.”

JaureguiBut you can call it a “confrontation.”

GiblerExactly. You can presume that the students are culpable; you can’t presume that they aren’t culpable. And, by the way, aren’t you a reporter? Don’t reporters go places and investigate and talk to people so that they can describe the events that took place?

JaureguiEven though they were not there.

GiblerPrecisely because they were not there! Which is why they investigate and talk to people. And one of the political objectives of the first piece I wrote, for California Sunday Magazine, was to make it impossible for English-language reporters to keep using the words “confrontation” and “clash.” Beyond that, I felt that it was important to listen to the students speak of their lives before they began to study at Ayotzinapa, and, in the book, to not begin with the gunshots. I asked many of the students about the famous Trial Week, La semana de prueba, which is a kind of hazing ritual or training exercise, depending on your perspective, that takes place as a part of the admission process, to narrow the pool of applicants. The applicants, who are all men, are taken to volunteer in nearby fields, where they work at clearing brush and weeds from the previous year’s harvest. This is really grueling labor, and you get only a sip of water; but if you grew up working in the fields then it’s nothing new.

One student said, “I’m so glad they did that to us, because it came in handy the night that we were attacked by the police.” For the entire night they had to hide from the armed men who were pursuing them; they ran and stood in the cold rain, wearing only T-shirts, without eating or drinking. The student said, “I’m glad that it wasn’t the first time I had an experience like this.” During Trial Week, the students are woken up at three in the morning and made to jump in the pool, then run up several flights of stairs.

JaureguiHow did you decide which conversations to leave in and which to leave out? I know why you chose to exclude, for instance, conversations with the wife of the cop, or the government official who contradicted himself, but how did you choose?

GiblerIn July 2015, when I decided to write a book, I printed out all of my interview transcripts and organized them alongside notes from mobilizations and marches, newspaper articles, etc. I spread them across every surface of my room. Then I asked what form the story needed. Very quickly, I thought: This isn’t the moment for me to write; I’m going to assemble what’s here. I focused on the pile of transcripts of interviews with the survivors. “This is it,” I thought.

At this point, misinformation was still ubiquitous. People who were intimately involved in the movement that emerged from the disappearances didn’t know where, exactly, the attacks had happened. I thought it was urgent to narrate the experiences of the survivors. So I went through the transcripts with the idea of telling the story chronologically, using a multiplicity of voices, working toward the structure of a fragmented—and inconclusive—novel.

JaureguiIn 2012, the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard produced Leviathan, a documentary about the fishing industry that’s shot with an enormous number of cameras—they cover an entire boat—from many points of view. It’s the kind of film that could have only been made with today’s digital cameras. The beauty and the power of the documentary are in the editing of the material. What I’m trying to say is that the structure of your book is very cinematic: You use multiple points of view to vividly describe a complicated series of events in a way that is extremely powerful, moving, and at times terrifying. That’s the power of art.

At the same time, the structure does justice to the individual and collective experiences of these kids. One picks up where another leaves off; one describes how he woke at four in the morning to work in the fields and another tells you what’s happening in the fields at nine. Accounts overlap, as if to underline an event or description, but they also diverge, in which case experiences happening to different people in different places are tied together. There’s something very deliberate in the weaving of these stories, in the use of novelistic tools to craft a collective testimony.

GiblerThe formal choices really are responses to Trouillot’s question of how to narrate the impossible, and to the trust placed in me by the students who shared their stories. I wanted to build a relationship of honor and respect around sharing stories. I also wanted to imbue the work with the kind of force that comes from knowing that you are reading the words of the people who lived through that night. I didn’t insert a single adjective.

JaureguiThere was a clear line.

GiblerAn absolutely clear line. Nothing imagined. Nothing descriptive. Which doesn’t mean that memory isn’t fragile. The students are constantly acknowledging the fragility of memory: “You know, actually, this moment I don’t really remember. I think this happened. Yeah, this is what I remember happening.” The fragmentation of memory, especially that of a traumatic event, is present in the work.

JaureguiThis makes the reader really feel the sweat, the anguish, the fear—what they can’t see when they’re behind the windows or hiding from gunfire behind the wheels of the bus, what they don’t know. If you had written in the third person, you wouldn’t have achieved this level of embodiment. That’s why the book seems cinematic: You’re with the students, remembering and misremembering and forgetting, deferring to other voices as they fill in the blanks.

GiblerPrecisely. In addition to supplying all the information about the events, I wanted to capture the feeling of accompanying the students, so that writing and reading the book would become an act of political imagination. The reason that the book works, if it does work, is because the students told me their stories, they didn’t just respond to five questions. I was able to listen to their manner of telling their stories, which I tried to respect and share.

JaureguiAs you’ve said, it’s impossible for the students to have imagined, at the time, what was happening to them. One of the achievements of this book is to show how something may be impossible to imagine for an individual but possible for a collective. In the act of collective remembering and narration, the story can be told.

GiblerI hope that what’s made possible is the telling itself, and the construction of memory. Another dimension of the book is the effort to show, in the context of the horror, moments of solidarity and collectivity. We see doctors who refuse medical care, but we also see a nurse who risks her life to provide care. We see residents who close their doors to the students, but we also see residents who open their doors. We see the students worrying about each other and taking steps to keep each other safe or help the wounded—as in the case of Aldo, who was shot in the head, or a student whose nickname is Pulmón (“The Lung”), whose lung collapsed during the attack.

JaureguiThere’s a recurrent phrase: “No one’s going to be left behind.” The collective nature of the effort is reflected in your book. I underlined a sentence from one of the students, Carlos Martinez: “Sometimes it would seem that the experiences that one has here are more negative than positive, or more bad than good, but it’s all the contrary.” To me this is one of the most powerful moments in the book. He’s talking about the first weeks of school, all the work, getting up very early, and so on, but he’s also talking about his experiences more generally, in relation to the attacks and all that’s followed. How does this twenty-one-year-old maintain hope?

GiblerAfter hearing these students talk about where they came from, why they decided to go to the teachers’ college, and their first experiences at the school, I got a sense of the value of collectivity for them. This usually starts at home, in small, rural towns or communities. But collectivity takes on a very particular form at the school. The values of keeping an eye out for each other and sharing become evident on that night of the attacks, in the most horrid of contexts. After the attacks, many students responded not by saying “I need help,” or “I need to feel safe,” but by saying, “We need to find our classmates.” The response is collective, social.

Indeed, in those first months, the students and the families of the disappeared spent pretty much every waking moment engaged in political actions to pressure the government to investigate and to find and return the forty-three students. They also went to look for the missing by themselves, without government assistance. Even to this day they’re searching. Their spirit of collectivity and struggle persists even in the most brutal context. They’re dedicated to not giving up, to not surrendering to the normalization of horror.

JaureguiThey’re also dedicated to combatting the concerted efforts by the government to sweep this matter under the rug—to say, “OK, let’s get over this.”

GiblerThis is precisely because the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is the one saying let’s get over it, and he is the state, he’s in charge of the cover-up. What is being covered up is a particular structure that extends violence from the past into the present and future. The Mexican writer Verónica Gerber, in her novel Conjunto Vacío (2015), writes that disappearance is a wound that starts small and grows greater in time; this makes it different from the murder of a loved one, which leaves a devastating wound that may eventually begin to heal or scar. To me, if the state is doing everything possible to prevent the truth from being known, then the state is forcibly disappearing the students right now. The actions are not distinct. There’s a phase of forced disappearance that’s material and that involves abducting bodies; there’s a phase that’s legal, administrative, and that consists in producing false testimonies, torturing witnesses, perpetuating lies, so that the students are not found.

JaureguiThe disappearance is doubled. Or the initial act is made to disappear, which involves fabrication and the silencing of the families of the students. The abductions are covered up again and again, until the disappearance becomes invisible. The cruelty and horror of that is tremendous.

GiblerBut in a sense, the state has failed to make the disappearance invisible. The material disappearance and the legal, administrative disappearance that followed have actually revealed a structure meant to inflict daily horrors on citizens, which the government had labored to conceal. Something similar is happening in the United States in the era of Black Lives Matter. Black survivors of violence and families of victims of murder perpetrated by the state, as well as black witnesses who are filming and publishing documentation of the violence, are mobilizing together. This is making it impossible for the state, society, and white people to maintain the invisibility of the structure that, beginning with slavery, has inflicted daily terrors on black communities, however the structure has been reconfigured.

I think Michael Brown’s murder and the disregard with which the state responded had an impact in the US that is similar to that of the Ayotzinapa disappearances in Mexico, in terms of revealing everyday forms of state terror. It’s important to emphasize that the murders of Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and so many others are not exceptional events. The disappearance of the forty-three students is not an exceptional event. Rather, it is an event that, because of its unique characteristics, and because of the subsequent mobilization of people who are most severely impacted by the violence (and hundreds of thousands more), reveals the very quotidian nature of state violence.

JaureguiPerhaps it’s no coincidence that you chose the quote about the Haitian uprising. What is happening in Mexico and the US has to do with structures put in place by colonialism centuries ago: slavery and, with it, the birth of modern capitalism. Despite all the efforts to render the contemporary manifestations of those structures invisible, they finally become visible in and through African American communities in the US and rural communities in the most marginalized states in Mexico. What happens in these communities is, as you’ve said, the rule and not the exception.

GiblerI think it’s easy for some, particularly white people, in the US to roll their eyes when we talk about capitalism, colonialism, and slavery. The impulse to roll one’s eyes is indicative of the widespread resistance to addressing how the defining features of American society were structured by the worst atrocities of human history: the transatlantic slave trade, the genocide of indigenous peoples. Those foundational, structural episodes are not only present but are constantly being tweaked and redesigned in order to maintain the current organization of politics and economics. So, yes: colonialism, capitalism, slavery. Not individual freedom, democracy, and liberty. Those have never been foundational.

If there is anything like solidarity or hope in the world today, it comes from the people who are doing everything they can to make visible the maintenance and reconfiguration of those structures and the atrocities that birthed them. And fight against them. And make those atrocities impossible in the future.

Can we make it impossible in the future to reconfigure and perpetuate racism and state oppression? Can we do that through movements like the one begun by the families and students of Ayotzinapa, and by families across Mexico who have formed organizations to look for the disappeared—which, according to official statistics, number more than 27,000 in the past ten years. (Another official statistic indicates that only 12 to 15 percent of crimes are reported—do the math.) Can we do that through the new generation of organizations forming in the US, many of them linked through Black Lives Matter, which in August published a platform of demands and political proposals? To me it is these movements, these instances of people coming together in the spirit of collectivity and struggle, that might make it impossible to render these forms of horror invisible—and thus, finally, to uproot and stop them.