Little more than a year ago, this was an unremarkable place. A rural school tucked away in a green corner of Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero.
But today, a walk through the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos in Ayotzinapa is enough to understand the state of play when it comes to human rights in Mexico.
Forth-three orange chairs stand perfectly aligned in a corner of the shabby open-air basketball court at the centre of a dozen run-down buildings where around 500 young men eat, study and sleep. A picture sits on each one of the chairs, decorated by poignant letters, orange flowers and gifts. They tell a tragic story.
“Not anybody can go through what we have gone through,” Mario, a first year student at Ayotzinapa, tells me.
Mario is referring to the brutal arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance by police of 43 of the school’s students on 26 September 2014 in the nearby city of Iguala. Six people, including three of students are known to have been killed. The young men were trying to commandeer buses to travel to a protest in Mexico City and have never been seen since then.
The 20 year old walks around the basketball court nervously, shoulders hunched, flicking his mobile phone back and forth, glancing at the horizon and smiling nervously as he carefully chooses the words to express the horror.
Not anybody can go through what we have gone throughMario, Ayotzinapa student.
He enrolled at the school two months after the events of 26 September. After “Ayotzinapa” became short for disappearances in Mexico.
Mario stops at two of the pictures. Saúl Bruno García and Leonel Castro Abarca, two second-year students, who used to be his high school friends. They had convinced Mario to join the school.
But after the two were forcibly disappeared, the decision to make the three-hour journey from his home town to settle here was not an easy one. Mario’s mother was scared, and she was not the only one. Some students have not returned to class since the tragedy, too afraid.
“When I learned that Saul and Leonel were missing, I could not believe it. Just a day earlier I was exchanging messages with them. My mother was scared after what happened but I told her ‘if you don’t take a chance, you don’t win,’ so I came here,” Mario said.
My mother was scared after what happened but I told her ‘if you don’t take a chance, you don’t win,’ so I came hereMario,
For young men like Mario, born to rural families with very few economic resources, a school like Ayotzinapa, provides not only education but three meals a day and a place to sleep. It is the only chance of a higher education and a chance in life.
The school is part of an ambitious educational project set up in the 1920’s, arising from the Mexican Revolution, which sought to provide young men of marginalized rural backgrounds with specialized education. The idea being to combine academic subjects with practical knowledge on how to take care of the land, and encourage social activism.
But since then, successive conservative Mexican governments saw these schools as factories of trouble and relentlessly targeted them.
In 2011, two students died after a particularly brutal attack by federal and local police against students staging a protest in a road near Ayotzinapa . Since then, budgets have been slashed. So far that out of the 26 schools that were originally opened across the country, only 17 barely survive.
Problems are plain to see.
Crumbling overcrowded buildings, shattered windows, shoddy bathrooms and dormitories that host more people that they should, are a testament to the government’s apparent crusade against the “normalistas”.
Local campaigners say the recent disappearance of the 43 students has been a cruel attempt to stop their vocal activism, to send a message that there’s no room for them in today’s Mexico.
“We never received a lot of support from the government but now we receive even less. It is as if we are a rock in the government’s shoe. We are working to get more resources to study properly, with dignity. All I want is to be a teacher, to teach and to help my family,” Mario says.
However, instead of deterring the students, the problems seem to energize them, make them more determined to fight back, to ensure the school stays open and that their tragedy is not lost to time, like so many others in Mexico.
Like no other human rights tragedy in recent years, the Ayotzinapa disappearances struck a chord in Mexico — a country where thousands have disappeared in the last decade and mass graves are discovered so frequently they barely make front-page news .
Perhaps it was the fact that those targeted were hoping to become the teachers who educate those no one wants to. Maybe the anger is a reaction to the government’s shambolic response and the lack of effective investigation; both heavily criticized by international organizations like Amnesty International and a group of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
The fact is that Mexico has changed forever since that September.
Nearly 500 young men go about their business in Ayotzinapa, where tragedy meets normality every day.
They cross the basketball court and stop by the orange chairs. Some think it could have been their faces on those pictures. They stop, take a glance and walk on. They walk on to their classrooms, to the large dining room, to pick up flowers, to take part in meetings to discuss what is really happening in the Mexico no one wants to see.
“The worse is seeing the parents when they visit. We see them sitting in the chairs their children used to use. I see them talking to the pictures, telling them that they will never stop looking for them. It was not the first time the government attacked us but it was the hardest one. But we will not stop until we find the 43, until the government tells us where they are,” said Mario.
The unshakable courage of the students and families in Ayotzinapa are testing the indifference of the Mexican government to the core. The mood has changed in this country and there is now, at least, hope that the steely facade of the authorities may yet crack.
A version of this story was published in The Guardian