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At the barricades of another protest in MexicoAndalusia Knoll

Protesters in Mexico vow to fight on for missing students

‘If the police took away my compañeros while they were alive, why the heck are those people looking for them dead?’

"I, Valeria Gallo, want to know where Benjamín Ascencio Bautista is," reads the text on an embroidered portrait of a young Mexican man. This image was the first to go viral as part of Illustrators with Ayotzinapa, a graphic campaign dedicated to visualizing the 43 disappeared student protesters from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college in Guerrero, Mexico.

"Creating portraits of the students helps us recognize them as human beings, not just statistics that increase everyday, with the more than 20,000 people that there are in our country," says Gallo, who launched the campaign as a simple tumblr with a few illustrations on 24 October. Within 12 hours of the page going live, over 100 people had posted their own images. The project now hosts close to 400 illustrations commemorating the missing students, capturing the indignation of the Mexican people after their country's latest explosion of violence.

The students were last seen after picking up buses in Iguala, Guerrero. Municipal police opened fire on them and took dozens into custody. Six people were killed in the attack, including three students. Since then, no one has heard from 43 of the students. Neither their families nor the government know if they are alive or dead.

This harrowing uncertainty has provoked tens of thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets in weekly protests, vigils and road blockades to demand that the government find the missing students. Over the past decade, Mexico has seen a spike in violent crimes and forced disappearances with drug cartels battling for turf. According to the protesters, political corruption has spread through municipal authorities and the government has failed to address the crisis. 

The majority of the searches have taken place in hillsides where several mass graves have been discovered. Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam declared on 7 November that it is likely that the bags of ashes discovered on a riverbank in Cocula, Guerrero are the remains of the disappeared students. This declaration was based on testimonies that the government procured from detained suspects. Guerrero-based human rights centre Tlachinollan believes that these were false confessions obtained through torture. 

Ernesto Cano, an Ayotzinapa student who survived the attack, does not believe the testimonies either. "If the municipal police took away my compañeros (classmates) while they were alive, why the heck are those people looking for them dead?" he asks. 

For Tlachinollan, defending these students in no easy task. Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer from Tlachinollan, previously received death threats and was forced into exile when he defended students after police killed two of their classmates during a protest on 12 December, 2011.

International organizations have also played a key role in keeping the pressure up on the government to continue to search for the students. Human Rights Watch called this Mexico’s worst crisis since the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. Amnesty International has declared that the Ayotzinapa case reveals the complete negligence of the government. President Enrique Peña-Nieto, previously hailed by the global press as a great reformer, has dropped 23 points on Forbes' list of the most influential people in the world, while recent polls showed his approval rating dropping to 47 percent.

Civil society has also stepped up to the plate to demand justice for the disappeared students. 43 members of various organizations in Mexico City united for the 43X43 march, in which protesters walked from Iguala to Mexico City. "The future of our children is in our hands,” says organizer Carlos Eduardo Pérez Ventura. "We call on all citizens to do their part and participate." The students and families of the missing students have so far organised three marches to traverse the country and generate support for the cause. Across the country, people have taken over tollbooths to pass out information about the missing boys and raise donations to help fund the movement.

The attorney general’s announcement has also provoked more militant responses. The day following his press conference, students from the Ayotzinapa school burned 20 commercial and government vehicles in front of the Municipal Palace in Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo. In Mexico City protestors set fire to the doors of the National Palace while chanting "the government assassinates students". 

Teachers and students at all education levels across Mexico have participated in numerous school strikes. "We have always known that bad things are happening but out of fear we don’t say anything because maybe your neighbor is the one responsible, and if you say something you might wake up dead the following day," says elementary school teacher Veronica Ibarra during a Ayotzinapa solidarity rally in Tixtla, Guerrero. Four of her neighbors are among the disappeared students, as the school is located on the outskirts of Tixtla. "The government has reached a tipping point, we must come together because in unity there is strength." 

Over two decades ago, police opened fire in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero on a group of campesinos (farmers), killing 17 of them – yet there was little international outcry. Ibarra attributes the current solidarity with the Ayotzinapa students to the power of social networks. The hashtag #TodosSomosAyotzinapa ("we are all Ayotzinapa") has gone viral. Tens of thousands of people have turned out to marches held in every major Mexican city. Solidarity actions have been held at Mexican consulates across Europe, Latin America, the United States and even Asia.

Along with hashtags like #NosFalta43 ("We are missing 43") and #EPNBringThemBack, the slogan has jumped out of the cybersphere and can be seen adorning taxi cabs, subway stations, schools and businesses throughout the country.

"If we understand this as a crime against humanity then all of humanity has to stand up to it," says Raul Romero, who coordinates @AcopioAyotzi with other Mexico City university students. The Twitter account collects basic provisions for the Ayotzinapa school, which ordinarily operates under a very limited budget – but the government has cut off their food budget since the attacks and closed down the already meagre scholarships for students, most of whom already hail from poor rural communities. Donations of beans, rice and tostadas help fill the gap.

In the meantime, the families and friends of the missing students continue to hold out hope. "We want all of Mexico and the world to know that until there is real proof, our children are still alive,” says Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, the spokesperson for the parents of the missing students.

"We are living a very dangerous moment, where we as Mexicans became used to atrocities like this becoming part of our daily lives," concludes Gallo, who continues to run Illustrators with Ayotzinapa. "I don’t want this to happen to me, nor my son and that is why we take action."