Why Were the Students Targets of Violence?

Ayotzinapa was founded in 1926, and since 1935, its students have all belonged to the left-wing Mexican Federation of Rural Students (FECSM). The FECSM groups together all the Rural Teachers College student bodies and is the oldest student organization in Mexico.  Murals on school buildings at Ayotzinapa depict renowned revolutionary figures like Che Guevara and ’70s-era guerrilla leaders Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, both Ayotzinapa graduates. Several murals memorialize two students who were killed by police in 2011 during a protest demanding an increase in the school’s enrollment and meal budgets.  


One of the most common “activities,” as the students call their organizing actions, is commandeering buses. Traveling to observe teachers in rural areas is an essential part of the curricula, but the school has never owned enough vehicles or had a budget to rent or acquire them.  The students have long secured transportation by heading to nearby bus stations or setting up highway blockades, boarding a stopped bus, and informing its driver and passengers that the vehicle would be used for “the educational purposes of the Ayotzinapa Teachers College.”  


Government officials decry the students’ actions as outright robbery. The students insist they are not thieves and that they always “reach an agreement” with the bus companies and drivers that includes payment. The bus drivers don’t abandon the vehicles; sometimes they camp out at the college, with meals provided, for weeks and occasionally months. 


The tactic of commandeering buses to be used in protests is not unique to Ayotzinapa, but what distinguishes the tactic here is that by 2014 it had become integrated into the basic functioning of the school. 


Independent investigators proposed as the possible motive for the attacks that one of the buses the students commandeered in Iguala that night was being used to transport heroin to the U.S. border, and from there on to Chicago.

In September, 2023, the New York Times reported that 23,000 text messages between Guerreros Unidos drug cartel members, local police, and members of the military that the newspaper had obtained indicate that the cartel members thought the students were members of a rival drug gang. Independent journalists and international investigators vehemently disagree with this assertion. They cite extensive evidence that the cartel members, local police, and the military had tracked the students’ every move since leaving Ayotzinapa. The perpetrators knew who they were tracking, capturing, torturing, and, ultimately, murdering.