Jesus Cadena heard the church bell ring and knew that it meant someone was in need. Nochixtlan, his small town with a largely Indigenous Mixtec population, lies at the crossroads of major highways between Mexico City and Oaxaca City, and had just been taken over by police. In the week prior, teachers had installed a road blockade at these crossroads in opposition to neoliberal education reforms that they believe limit their labor rights, fail to recognize cultural and economic diversity, and open the doors to privatization.
Jesus ran immediately to the church from where the bells were sounding and came face to face with a crisis center in the middle of a bloody battle. He jumped into an ambulance and sped off to help injured people at the front lines where federal and state police had opened fire on an unarmed population. Then one of those bullets caught him in the stomach and his 19 years on this earth came to an end.
Education reform is being imposed at bloodshed in Mexico and Jesus is one of its most recent victims. He, along with campesino Silvano Sosa who left 5 children behind, local pharmacist Anselmo Cruz, and nine more, according to the teachers union CNTE, were killed at these barricades on June 19. Many of them had not previously participated in the protests and had just come out to help in a critical moment. Days later a community radio broadcaster and anarco-punk activist Salvador Gil Olmos was found beaten to death presumably by police in the Mixteca city of Huajuapan, just 60 miles from Nochixtlan.
In the days after the massacre, the streets filled with mass funerals for the latest victims of a government's war on its own people, where assault weapons seem to have preceded the use of dialogue. Teachers have been protesting the education reform for three years and the government says its repeal is non-negotiable.
In the center of Nochixtlan, next to the burnt out municipal hall engulfed by the flames of the town’s collective outrage, the market is coming to life and the vendors are frying up nopales, potatoes and chile seasoned meat. A helicopter flies low above the market, it's white and unmarked. All vendors jeer at the hovering aircraft and one says the spanish equivalent of "shit is going to hit the fan again." The helicopter makes the rounds, dipping down close to the houses where families are still huddled around mourning their dead.
As the Zapatistas stated in a recent communique:
“It is as if the resistance has awoken a collective sense of urgency in the face of the coming tragedy. It is as if every swing of a police baton, every canister of tear gas, every rubber bullet, and every arrest warrant were eloquent slogans: ‘today I attack her, him; tomorrow I’m coming for you.’”
The Mexican government with the support of various media outlets, which serve as its mouthpiece, emphasized that those who died in Nochixtlan were not teachers. If they weren't teachers did it make it easier for the government to claim that they were outside instigators who had forced the police to open fire, because they had fired first? Or does it allow them to further discredit the teacher movement, attempting to show that their own barricades aren't made up of teachers, and continue to convince the population that teachers at large are in favor of the education reform? Regardless of the motive, the outcome is further delegitimization of the teachers' movement and those who support of it as well as a criminalization of the victims.
Within less than a week of the massacre, the parents of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa visited Nochixtlan, as their endless search for their children and justice, is now bound up with the profound grief parents in Nochixtlan. Ayotzinapa, which means place of turtles in Nahuatl, has gained a new definition with the word representing the collusion between organized crime and government. Nochixtlan, which means place of nopal worms in Mixteco, will now become synonymous with education reform imposed at bloodshed.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who just arrived in Canada earlier this week for the "Three Amigos Summit," was greeted by dozens screaming "murderer." Protest acts like this have become routine for his international visits. In a press conference with Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, Peña Nieto was asked about his recent crackdown on teachers and he responded that the demonstrations go beyond fighting for a cause and are "causing problems to the communit[ies] that they belong to.” He then stated that the teachers should use the “mechanisms” of the “rule of law” to fight for their cause.
While Trudeau did mention his concern about human rights, the image that was projected to the world was the two state leaders jogging happily alongside each other. Rocco Trigueros, with the group of Mexicans in Vancouver protesting Peña Nieto's visit, told the local Metro News that if "the human rights abuses continue, Canada should stop its commercial relationship with Mexico to make the government reconsider its policies."
How is it that Mexico is able to save face, when there is a constant crisis of human rights violations with tens of thousands disappeared and more than a hundred thousand people murdered? A new Amnesty International report just came out documenting police's role in sexually torturing women they detain.
It's important to note that when the news of the Nochixtlan massacre first made headlines, the governments said their troops were unarmed, and when international agencies showed photos to call their bluff, they responded that the photos were false. Then when media outlets published the photo's metadata, the government finally ceded saying that yes their officers were armed, but only those who arrived at the very end, which also is sharp contrast to residents testimonies that first guns were fired early in the morning.
Nochixtlan is now another town's name added to the list of mass killings by Mexican state forces where the government claims they were in an ambush situation, and prays that it won't be investigated. These include, Apatzingan, Michoacán, where 16 people were murdered by federal police on January 6, 2015; Tanhuato, Michoacán, where 42 were killed on May 22nd, 2015 on a ranch; and Tlatlaya, Mexico State, where 22 were killed by the Army on June 30, 2014. While numerous journalistic investigations have debunked the ambush myths in these massacres, those responsible for pulling the triggers and ordering the operations remain free.
Jesus' mother, Patricia Sanchez, says that while she will fight for justice for her son, she has no reason to believe that anyone will actually be held responsible. But even if they are, "they will never bring my son back to me." She may not know the names Apatzingan, Tanhuato and Tlatlaya, but does know that impunity reigns.
As long as the international community, such as the governments of the United States and Canada, provide political cover to Mexico, the possibility that human rights will cease to be sacrificed at the altar of neoliberal reforms, and for justice to dismantle institutionalized impunity, remains unlikely.
In the meantime, more people will be murdered or disappeared by the state.
Andalusia Knoll is a freelance journalist in Mexico who recently travelled to Nochixtlan to report on the recent massacre. You can follow her on twitter @andalalucha.