Writers and PEN members all over the world have been supporting the struggle of the parents of the disappeared Mexican students to discover the truth about their children. On 30 
November, on my way to the Feria Internacional del Libro [FIL], I attended a press conference in Mexico City.  Speakers included relatives of the 6 students shot and 43 abducted at gunpoint on 26 September by the local police and handed over to Guerreros Unidos ‘Warriors United’ – a major narco-trafficking gang.  The outcry over the students’ subsequent disappearance was exacerbated by reports of a smouldering fire laced with tyres, presumably to disguise the smell of burning flesh and obstruct future analysis.

The students came from Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico. Enrolled in a teachers’ training college, some were so impecunious that they arrived barefoot and with only a sheet of cardboard to sleep on. One, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, was described by his father as ‘slim, willowy, with slanted eyes that gave him the nickname “Coreano”, he has to walk 4km to the highway to catch the bus, then 4 km back to train as a teacher in his village of Omeapa.’ They were almost all from indigenous farming families; several wanted to teach in their own languages.

One week later came the news no-one wanted to hear. General mistrust of the notoriously foot-dragging national forensics division had led to assistance from the respected Argentine Forensic Anthropological  Team and the University of Innsbruck, which analysed ash from the smouldering pyre. On 6 December they provided DNA identification of several students and released the name of the first: Alexander Mora Venancia, 19, from the village of El Pericón [‘The Big Parrakeet’].  At the press conference Mora’s father stated: ‘Nobody could dissuade him from wanting to be a teacher. He just loves teaching. At first he helped in the fields, but he always had the desire to study and to pass on what he learnt. I demand that the authorities do their job properly, and don’t simply cover up for those responsible for the massacre committed by the mayor of Iguala. Those young men were taken alive, alive I want them returned to us’.

A vain hope against hope, but also a challenge to an indifferent government to account for itself. In this the families are supported, not only by regular mass demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens, but by the international community.

The former mayor of Guerrero Angel Aguirre’s brother-in-law is leader of the Guerreros Unidos narco-trafficking gang, to whom the abducted students were delivered. Aguirre and his wife fled to Mexico City, where they were found – but not arrested or questioned. Small wonder: the citizens of Guerrero have little faith either in Aguirre’s replacement or in the federal police force. ‘They threw out the local thugs and imposed others from Mexico. They have substituted the bad with the worse,’ says journalist Magali Tercero.

Meanwhile President Peña Nieto has scandals of his own to preoccupy him: his wife Angelica is implicated in the purchase of a $11m second home, claiming it was bought with severance money from a TV soap. Allegations of corruption extend to her co-purchaser, awarded not only numerous governmental property development contracts but also the sole  concession to supply a new cross-country bullet train, with major Chinese investment.

Mexico also has other currency earners to consider. Reports of mass graves, reeking with the smell of burning flesh, and of police and military answering to criminal gangs are not good for a tourism industry. The sense that in Mexico today – including in the beach resort of Acapulco, which is in Guerrero – one might be stepping on an undisclosed graveyard is hardly a tourist attraction. The flights I took to and from Mexico City were two-thirds empty. And agricultural production in the land that boasts 56 varieties of corn and chillies has here given way to poppies, making Mexico the world’s largest heroin producer after Afghanistan.

No surprise that at the December Feria Internacional del Libro – the largest Hispanic book fair in the world and the biggest in its 18-year history – the 43 were everywhere with us.

One of the few living authors from the 1960s boom, Elena Poniatowska, famous for writing Tlatelolco on the student massacre of 1968, repeated her commemoration of that event by explicitly linking it to the present, bringing each disappeared student to life with the name, age and a description of the character of each. She also deplored the fact that President Peňa Nieto had dared to appropriate the chant of Yo soy Ayotzinapa (I am Ayotzinapa) after doing nothing to bring the guilty to justice. Everyone in the crammed hall sang it then at full volume.

Authors of the standing of Juan Villoro, Jorge Volpi and Ana Garc’ia Berguera opened their sessions with a countdown of the 43 students. ‘As writers we are all deeply wounded by what took place at Ayotzinapa,’ said Ana García Berguera and read from David Huerta’s epic poem, Ayotzinapa – circulated throughout the FIL, according to PEN, in many languages – including the line ‘our hearts are ousted from their place at our centre’ and the lines:

Whoever reads this must also know

That despite everything

The dead have not departed

Nor have they disappeared.

Panels with speakers such as Darío Ramírez, of Article 19, and journalists Lydia Cacho and Carmen Aristegui were overflowed into video-linked public spaces. International authors including Claudio Magris (Italy); Bernardo Atxaga (Basque Country); Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua) and Andrés Neuman (Argentina) spoke out there and are, we assume, speaking out in their home countries too.

At every event, students emblazoned with the number 43 spoke out in solidarity, and badges of support were distributed. Flash mobs appeared of young people fleeing through the crowded halls before suddenly ‘dropping down dead’ on the floor while the chant went up counting down from 43. The organisers boldly encouraged ongoing discussion, and the local media – which includes local Mexican PEN members and activists – provided wide coverage.

In Mexico, PEN made clear the common cause between students, teachers, writers and readers – every one of us. Mexican PEN director – and author – Aline Davidoff highlighted the fact that of all the writers who speak out, journalists are bound to be first in the firing line. That is, unless they bow to intimidation and self-censorship. She commented that: ‘Here in Mexico we have a state of impunity where government and organised crime meet.’

Of course, writers and journalists overlap, and here is what Juan Villoro, both writer and journalist, published in the Spanish daily El País on 30th October 2014, five weeks after the students’ abduction: ’43 future teachers have disappeared. The size of this tragedy comes down to a single phrase, one that opposes impunity, disgrace and injustice. The Mexico of guns and arms is afraid of those who teach others how to read.’

The students’ families want nothing more than the return of their loved ones. Alive and – at worst, or – with a full account of what has happened to them. They also believe that only international pressure, particularly with the support of organisations such as PEN, can force the government to properly investigate their disappearance. In the words of Raúl Isidro Burgos: ‘We beg for international support so that this crisis does not remain ours alone. What we now suffer on a daily basis has to become the responsibility of the government, which to date has taken no responsibility at all.’

(Image Brett Gundlock / Getty Images)