Originally published in El País, 30 October 2014. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes.
On 17 October, a group gathered outside the interior ministry in Mexico City to hold a vigil over the body of Margarita Santizo Bucareli. They were honouring the last wish of the deceased woman who had searched to no avail for her disappeared son. The scene was an allegory for a country where politics threatens to turn into a series of funeral rites.
Mexico’s spiral of violence reached new levels on 26 September with the assassination of six young men and women and the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College in the province of Guerrero. That day, I happened to be in the same province, in the Guerrero Autonomous University to give a conference on the Mexican communist writer, José Revueltas. My host was a professor who, in his youth, had belonged to Lucio Cabañas’ guerilla group. ‘Lucio Cabañas saved my life,’ he said with a strange mixture of admiration and sadness: ‘He ordered me back down the mountain before they killed the people living there: “You don’t look like a campesino (‘peasant’),” he told me. “If they find you here, they’re not going to believe you’re here to grow vegetables; you have to keep up the fight where you’re most useful: in the classroom.”‘
The guerrilla’s order meant the end of a young man’s dream; at the same time it meant that the life of one social activist was spared.
The great paradox of the state of Guerrero is that teaching there is a high-risk profession. Cabañas himself became a primary school teacher. He soon learnt that it was impossible to educate a child who did not have food to eat. Together with another teacher, Genaro Vázquez, he headed a movement to improve the lives of his pupils; they came up against official closed-mindedness and so needed to radicalise their line of action.
The promotion of literary culture has remained a challenge in an area that settles its differences with bullets. In the seventies, two-thirds of Guerrero’s population were illiterate. The Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College was founded with a view to improving this figure, but it wasn’t impervious to the state’s bigger problems: social inequality, the control of the caciques (‘overlords’), governmental corruption at local level, repressive measures as the sole solution to civil unrest, police impunity, and the growing intrusion of drug trafficking. The rest of the country is not immune to these evils. What makes Guerrero stand out is its long history of popular movements that challenge these disgraces.
In the book México armado – essential reading for anyone attempting to understand this conflict – Laura Castellanos explores this transition from professor to guerilla. Genaro Vázquez founded an Asociación Cívica (‘Civic Association’), which was repudiated by the authorities. Lucio Cabañas set up the Partido de los pobres (Poor People’s Party), but it failed to have any impact on local politics. The government offered its leaders money and political positions (in Guerrero, the two things tend to be synonymous). The leaders rejected this ‘negotiated’ get-out and opted instead for heading up into the mountain.
The fierce repression of the guerrillas was known as The Dirty War – a redundant euphemism. After Cabañas’ death there were 173 ‘disappearances’. In México armado, Castellanos tells the story of the airbase in Pie de la Cuesta, in Acapulco, where planes would take off to then dump dissidents into the ocean, the same ruthless method that would be used in Chile and Argentina.
We were talking about José Revueltas and Lucio Cabañas when we heard that six young people had been killed in the town of Iguala. The news was made worse by the knowledge that the horror was not new; on the contrary, and as we had been hearing that day, it had a long history. The violence in Guerrero has been systematically fuelled by military and paramilitary group-organised massacres. Luis Hernández Navarro, author of a crucial book on this problem (Hermanos en armas), points out that every one of the region’s insurrections have occurred after massacres (the one in Iguala in 1962 resulted in the Genaro Vázquez uprising; the one in Atoyac in 1967 was followed by Lucio Cabañas’; and the Aguas Blancas massacre in 1995 preceded the rise of the Popular Revolutionary Army).
What will the upshot of the 2014 massacre be? Drug trafficking has gained power in Guerrero thanks to the continual, alternating presence of the cartels La Familia, Nueva Generación, the Beltrán Leyva and Guerreros Unidos. But this isn’t the main reason for the region’s decline. Carnival and apocalypse cohabit this bipolar area. The tourist hotspot that is Acapulco and the riches of the caciques exist in stark relief to the extreme poverty that affects the majority of the population. The shocking inequality accounts for the general sense of disgruntlement and offers one explanation for why many people cannot find a better fate than to farm marijuana or kill for fees.
In the search for the disappeared teacher trainees, other mass graves have been uncovered, containing more dead. Between 2005 and today, no less than 38 tombs of this kind have appeared.
For half a century, a poor but politicised population has condemned their authorities’ continued abuses. The Ayotzinapa College is a nerve centre of the dispute. Let’s not forget that in the seventies, one of its activists was a certain Lucio Cabañas.
On 26 September, there were four separate shootings and one target: the young. With the backing of organised criminals, the local mayor spread terror among the trainee teachers, threatening them as they gathered in peaceful protest to remember the victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Once the repressive mechanism was unleashed, they proceeded to open fire against a coach carrying a football team on their way home from a match. Their crime? Being young. Which is to say, potential rebels.
‘There is a tension between reading and political action,’ writes the Argentinian philosopher and novelist Ricardo Piglia. Interpreting the world can naturally lead to the desire to transform it. Occasionally, writing, and orthography itself, is a political gesture that defies a barbaric order: ‘To read is to stand up to a hostile life,’ suggests Piglia in The Last Reader.
Che Guevara spent his last night before being killed in an old, run-down schoolhouse. Already wounded, he sat contemplating a sentence written on the blackboard and said to the teacher: ‘It’s missing the accent.’ The sentence was ‘Yo sé leer’: ‘I can read.’ Knowing he was defeated, the guerrilla leader looked to another means of correcting reality.
Years ago, a group of teachers railed in by the government decided to take up arms in Guerrero. Lucio Cabañas chose to save one of his men and send him back to the classroom, to teaching – an instrument of war in a lawless country.
Forty-three future teachers have disappeared. The size of this tragedy comes down to single phrase, one that opposes impunity, disgrace and injustice: ‘Yo sé leer.’ The Mexico of guns and arms is afraid of those who teach others how to read.
Mexico is missing the accent. The time will come to correct this.