“Omar. La policia nos están disparando.”
The police are shooting at us.
The words came to Omar García Velazquez down the telephone line. While several of his classmates had headed into Iguala to attend a government protest, Omar had remained in the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in Guerrero, southern Mexico. Now his friends were being attacked. It was Sept. 26, 2014, a date which would become synonymous with the human rights crisis that has afflicted Mexico over the past decade.
Even within the context of the violence that has left over 120,000 dead and tens of thousands disappeared since 2006, the forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students represents a watershed moment, not merely for the manner in which 43 young men were abducted by security forces, but for the widely-held suspicion of governmental involvement. Mexican authorities have been accused of a campaign of disinformation and of attempting to discredit those who challenge the establishment narrative. Endemic chaos and corruption at all levels has given Mexico the unofficial title of the “narco-state.”
In the 16 months since Ayotzinapa, Omar has emerged as a spokesperson for the truth and justice campaign. Having gone into Iguala following that fateful telephone call, he carried some of his injured friends to the hospital, then spent the rest of the night hiding from prowling security forces. He is one of the few survivors of Sept. 26, when it was revealed in its totality that within the narco-state there are no limitations. Much to the dismay of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Ayotzinapa has catalysed a popular human rights movement in Mexico and beyond. Each new atrocity - and there are many - evokes the now established cry of defiance: “it was the state.”
It is a bitterly cold January afternoon when I met 26-year-old Omar in London’s Russell Square, far removed from the temperate warmth of Guerrero. Yet this contrast exemplifies how Ayotzinapa has energized activists and solidarity movements across the world, with Omar currently embarked on a tour of various European countries to ensure the missing 43 students remain at the forefront of political consciousness. He has been brought over by local activist groups London Mexico Solidarity and Justice Mexico Now. The swell of grassroots mobilization, however, has not been reflected at diplomatic levels, with foreign governments either oblivious or indifferent to the violence and repression plaguing Mexico. This is particularly true of Britain, where the Cameron administration - eager for a slice of Latin America’s second largest economy - designated 2015 as the official Dual Year of Mexico and the U.K.
Like other European countries, the U.K. contributes to more Mexicans being disappeared, murdered, displaced, obligated to emigrate to other countries.
Omar’s view echoes those activists who in 2015 staged protests against the Dual Year at the Mexican Embassy and the British Museum. “I don’t believe it is only a case of the United Kingdom legitimizing Mexican authority,” he said, “but also of complicity in the situation in Mexico. Like other European countries, the U.K. contributes to more Mexicans being disappeared, murdered, displaced, obligated to emigrate to other countries. The UK prioritizes commercial relations over respect for human rights.”
In the face of diplomatic apathy, if not willful negligence, it is international solidarity that has helped turn Ayotzinapa into a global movement. The conditions that allow such atrocities to occur are replicated all over the world thanks to an economic model devoted to unregulated capitalism and the military-industrial complex. It therefore falls to collective action to assume the challenges our governments ignore.
“Ayotzinapa has extended and is still relevant today,” said Omar. “Public opinion is important because new phenomena emerge throughout the movement.”
One such example concerns the September 2015 report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights which refuted official claims that the students’ corpses had been incinerated. “There is a strong campaign within Mexico to discredit the independent experts of the Inter-American Commission,” said Omar. “It’s very important that in other countries people know what is happening within the country.”
Those outside Mexico can also play an active role in pressuring the authorities there. “Many people organize fundraising events to support the families,” said Omar. “They protest, go to the consulates, perform theater, music. People are doing so much to keep the issue and the solidarity alive. The solidarity network is a form of coordination and exchange of experiences, how those in Paris or London support Ayotzinapa.”
Despite widespread support, however, there is little sign of resolution in Mexico. What is the current feeling among the families of the 43?
“It’s one of total uncertainty,” said Omar. “The Mexican authorities have not responded. The families have had no access. We’ve seen it become a political tool for many people, but in the end the families still don’t know where their children are, and that’s what is important for us and what keeps the movement alive. It unites us.”
And yet, when the Mexican government puts its mind to something, it achieves its objectives. Witness the recent media frenzy around the recapture of cartel boss and ‘World’s Most Wanted Man’, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. For Omar, the furore further indicts the Mexican authorities in the Ayotzinapa case.
The conditions that allow such atrocities to occur are replicated all over the world thanks to an economic model devoted to unregulated capitalism and the military-industrial complex.
“They’ve recaptured El Chapo, and it’s ‘mission complete.’ They can find him by spending millions and using all their resources, but they can’t do it to find 43 young people” he said. “If they were the children of those with political or economic power, they’d use all their resources to find them, but they see us as campesinos. In their logic, we’re unproductive. We have no value. That’s our perception of the state’s position towards us.”
This contempt manifests in a culture of victim-blaming. “We’ve met families from every state in the country who have suffered kidnappings, murders, forced disappearances,” said Omar. “There are thousands in Mexico. When they go to the authorities, the first thing the police ask is, ‘what was your son involved in?’. It’s good for them that there are disappearances, murders, narco-trafficking, as this creates fear in the people. They are afraid to organise, to demand the return of a relative alive. It’s part of the politics of terror.”
Unsurprisingly, for one who has experienced great trauma, Omar often reflects on his disappeared friends. “When I start to think about why they did this to my classmates, I reach the conclusion they wanted to teach us a lesson,” he said. “If you criticize the political system, this is what happens. But they didn’t silence us.” His softly-spoken voice resonates with defiance, and I realize this young man from southern Mexico has unwittingly become one of the most important human rights campaigners in the world today.
So where does the movement go from here?
“My hope is the same as in the beginning: to find them alive. To find out what happened, where they took them, who took them. That those responsible are punished,” said Omar. “We also hope people are aware that what is happening in Mexico also happens in other countries. It’s important that people open their eyes to what’s happening. What we suffer is a consequence of decisions taken by governments. Ayotzinapa is about forced disappearances but there are also other problems. Climate change, for example.”
Omar has several other engagements for his whistle-stop visit, including a meeting with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. So it almost comes as a shock when he tells me that he has to finish his studies once back in Mexico. However, he is keenly aware of his duty to his missing friends, to keep repeating their names until they are found.
“Obviously we’re not indispensable, we have to get our degrees. But our commitment is to support from wherever we are and however we can,” said Omar. “Ayotzinapa lives, as do our classmates, and we want to find them. If they talk of the dead, we want to see the bodies and bury them.”
Nick MacWilliam is an independent journalist and co-editor of Alborada Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @NickMacWilliam