Long live the 43: Approaching the tenth anniversary of Ayotzinapa
A door to Mexico's presidential palace is damaged after protesters tried to force their way inside on March 6 [Gustavo Graf/via Al Jazeera]

Ayotzinapa Vive,” reads a wall painted bright red on the corner of one of Mexico City’s most transited avenues. The spirit of Ayotzinapa lives on ten years later, but only because of the victims’ families’ efforts to organize, march, and even knock down the door of the National Palace to demand justice for their loved ones. I took this picture in February when I traveled to Mexico City on behalf of Latin America Working Group (LAWG) to meet with partners on the ground and to attend the People’s Movement for Peace and Justice (PMPJ) conference on a human rights approach to policy-making in Mexico and the United States.

September 26, 2024, will mark the 10th anniversary of Ayotzinapa—an emblematic case in a plague of forced disappearances that has claimed more than 116,000 lives. Ten years ago, 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College were attacked and forcibly disappeared by colluding Mexican police and cartel members. The complexity of the case and outright impunity have attracted wide national and international attention.

L-BBE, mural on school premises in Ayotzinapa, January 9, 2015 (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

In 2018, then-candidate of the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), vowed to find out what happened to the students, and even chanted at a rally in Iguala, Guerrero: “¡Que vivan los 43 jóvenes desaparecidos de la normal de Ayotzinapa! ¡Que viva la justicia!” His campaign promise to find justice for the disappeared students, number 89 of his 100 campaign promises, materialized into the semi-independent Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Case (Comisión para la Verdad y Acceso a la Justicia del caso AyotzinapaCOVAJ).

Initially, the COVAJ made considerable progress in the case. In 2022 it was officially acknowledged that the Ayotzinapa case was state-sponsored and that the military was involved in the students’ brutal disappearance. Additionally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) revealed that there were significant links between the criminal group “Guerreros Unidos” (Warriors United) and the state police at the time of the disappearances. Investigations revealed that the Mexican military played a role in the surveillance before the 43 students were captured, tortured, and executed.  is also known that members of the armed forces later attempted to influence the investigations. Over 130 people linked to the case have been arrested including former Attorney General of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Jesús Murillo Karam, who was arrested for fabricating the “historical truth” of the case and the torture and hand-off for the execution of six students.

Nonetheless, this progress is not enough. Of the 43 students, only the remains of three have been found. The lawyers representing the 43 families are demanding that the military release documents revealed to be associated with the case, which the military has consistently denied existed. AMLO’s original promise to bring justice to the students and their families has stalled beyond the Commission. Instead, the Mexican leader has attacked efforts by civil society organizations, his own former head of investigations for the case, and the victims’ families.

Together with Mexican civil society organizations, such as Centro Prodh, Tlachinollan, and SERAPAZ, the families have demanded a thorough and unbiased investigation for almost ten years. In response, they have been met with increasing resistance from the government and attacks from AMLO in his daily morning press conferences—his mañaneras. For Ayotzinapa and for similar cases, Mexican civil society has stepped in as the insurer of human rights, even as the government has villainized them.

After meeting with our partner organizations and other activists, it became clear that ignoring Ayotzinapa or trying to move past it also means burying the victims’ stories. Our struggles are interlinked, whether that be U.S. arms trafficking, increasing militarization, corruption, and impunity—which ultimately result in the rampaging violence that has taken Mexico hostage. These problems are inextricably linked, pervade most cases of disappearances in Mexico today, and expose the unchecked corruption and impunity occurring in Mexico.

Luis Alvaz, Installation for the Ayotzinapa 43 on the Paseo de la Reforma, July 22, 2023 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

As an emblematic case in Mexico’s crisis of disappearances, Ayotzinapa is not only about the 43 but also the rest of the human rights cases in Mexico. Its non-resolution sets a terrifying precedent in finding justice for the disappeared. It also calls into question the tactics used to investigate and prosecute those who violate human rights. During his time in office, AMLO’s administration militarized various sectors of Mexican society. The Mexican National Guard now has extraordinary military, investigatory, and migratory control duties under the control of the presidency. This creates an extrajudicial way of addressing human rights cases and leaves civil society and the victims’ families completely in the dark.

The U.S. can and should hold the Mexican government accountable. Why should they? The U.S. is vigorously trying to deter mass migration through investments and business partnerships, use of force at the border, and pressuring Latin American countries to dissuade migrants from reaching the U.S. Civil society organizations have long echoed their concerns with forced disappearances, collusion between the state and organized crime, and militarization, all of which uproot lives and force people to leave their communities. If one of the main concerns this electoral year is immigration, the U.S. should redirect funding to actually address the root causes of migration. The Ayotzinapa case and thousands of others instill fear and create deep ruptures within communities that the U.S. has the power to help prevent.

LAWG’s partners pointed to recommendations that the U.S. should implement, with assistance from civil society organizations on both sides of the border.

  • Congress and the State Department must meet more frequently with human rights organizations in Mexico. Organizations should also be included in high-level dialogues between U.S-Mexico stakeholders—especially as they are the first to assist human rights violation cases.
  • To hold the Mexican state accountable, agencies such as USAID should reevaluate funding toward addressing human rights violations. USAID’s five-year plan (2020-2025) will soon expire, which makes it an opportune moment for civil society organizations to join the conversation.
  • With elections in Mexico now concluded, with a new President waiting to assume office, the Biden administration and Congress should elevate the issue of forced disappearances and other human rights violations through public statements.

LAWG is actively advocating to stop the illegal flow of arms to Mexico and address the root causes of migration by educating policymakers and encouraging advocates to call and email their representatives. LAWG is also working in coalition with Global Exchange to promote a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., about the root causes of violence in the U.S. and Mexico, and how Congress can address them. Along with these efforts, we need more eyes on human rights violations in Mexico to hold the state accountable. Most importantly, we must listen to and center the victims, their families, and civil society organizations in our fight for justice.

¡Ayotzinapa vive, que viva la justicia, que vivan los jóvenes 43!

Long live Ayotzinapa! Long live justice! Long live the 43 students!


Tania Del Moral
Tania Del Moral

Tania Del Moral is the Program Assistant and Fundraising Associate for Mexico and Central America at The Latin America Working Group.