Almost a decade after 43 Mexican students were disappeared in Ayotzinapa, the loss still reverberates internationally, and the fight for justice continues.

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[Story by Mariana Navarrete; photos by Jeremy Word — lead photo: Cristina Bautista Salvador, whose son Benjamín Ascencio Bautista was one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students who was forcibly disappeared in Mexico in September of 2014, speaksin a Peace Summit forum hosted at Acción Latina on Oct. 26. More than eight years after the students were forcibly disappeared, the families continue to fight for answers and justice. Photo: Jeremy Word]

“I have my son very present within me and it hurts my soul every time I remember everything,” said Cristina Bautista Salvador, her voice breaking. Her son, Benjamín Ascencio Bautista, one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students who was forcefully disappeared in Mexico in September of 2014, a macro criminality case that still hasn’t been solved. “Eight years and one month without knowing where he is.”

But as Cristina’s quest for justice continues, so does the fight to keep Benjamín’s name in the public eye. 

Cristina was recently featured in #AfterAyotzinapa (#DespuésdeAyotzinapa), a Reveal podcast of the Reveal: Center for Investigative Reporting. The podcast, reported by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes Kate Doyle, details their findings of the 2014 case of the 43 disappeared students, exposing state-sanctioned violence and impunity in Mexico. 

That podcast series helped launch the Human Rights without Borders Peace Summit — organized by Global Exchange — and featured panels in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, one of which took place at Acción Latina on Oct. 26. The specific event at Acción Latina — organized in conjunction with the San Francisco National Lawyers’ Guild Chapter and the Caminante Cultural Foundation — discussed the current investigation and how the fight for justice continues.

The Disappeared 43 

On Sept. 26 of 2014, students from the rural teachers’ college, Raúl Isidro Burgos, located in the town of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, commandeered five buses to travel to Mexico City’s Tlatelolco massacre remembrance demonstrations. The final destination of one of the buses was supposed to be Chicago, and not Mexico City, as planned by the students. 

Buses in Guerrero were later found to have been actively transporting heroin from Guerrero to Chicago, explained the National Security Archive at a press conference last April, held by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

While already on the buses, the students were fired upon and forcibly disappeared. Local and federal police, military, marines from the Mexican Navy, and the organized crime cartel Guerreros Unidos, were all involved in the forceful disappearance of the 43 students, according to the #AfterAyotzinapa series, the GIEI report, and the Mexican government’s Truth Commission.

Benjamin is one of the 43 students. His mother Cristina, and two sisters, Mayrani and Laura Ascencio Bautista, spoke at the forum on Oct. 26. 

A portrait of Benjamín Ascencio Bautista hangs inside of Acción Latina ahead of the Peace Summit forum on Oct. 26. Benjamín was one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students who was forcibly disappeared in Mexico in September of 2014. The portrait reads “I’ll move mountains to find you.” Photo: Jeremy Word

Co-Founder of Caminante Cultural Foundation, Francisco Herrera, started the forum by directing the audience to the patio. Those in attendance faced an altar, which had a pathway drawn with cempasúchil petals and small candles on the floor.

As Herrera played the song “Caminando,” executive director of the National Lawyers’ Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, Camilo Perez Bustillo, welcomed everyone, and introduced us to Benjamin Ascencio Salvador, before reading aloud the full names of the missing 43. The altar had the photos of the three students who were killed that day in 2014 — Daniel Solís Gallardo, Julio César Ramírez Nava, and Julio César Mondragón Fontes. 

National Lawyers’ Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter Executive Director, Camilo Perez Bustillo, helped organize the Peace Summit. 

Omar Gomez Trejo, the former Chief Special Prosecutor of the case, was standing in front of Herrera, singing along. Before being assigned to the Ayotzinapa case in 2019 by the current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexican authorities were actively targeting him, after the second GIEI report was published in 2016. The report found the previous government’s findings — under then-president Enrique Peña Nieto — to be inconclusive and “fabricated.” 

When it was time for Benjamin’s name to be read, the paper was passed to Cristina and with a fist, she repeated “Presentación con vida!” (Return him alive!)

Back in the room, Díaz-Cortés began the forum. 

“Today, we really wanted to center this event around Benjamin,” Díaz-Cortés said as she faced Cristina and held Laura’s hand.

Cristina emphasized that all of the parents of the missing students are deeply grateful for the people who write books, recite poetry, and create songs and documentaries. All of it helps the movement and lets the families of the disappeared know they are not alone.

“As long as God gives me life, I will continue to fight,” Cristina said. “My son’s only crime was to be a student from the region of Ayotzinapa.”

In August of this year, the lead prosecutor of the government’s Truth and Justice Commission, Alejandro Encinas, revealed a new report with a lack of fact-checked evidence, which stated that 43 students are not alive anymore. Encinas later told the New York Times that “there is an important percentage, very important, that is all invalidated.”

Laura was the next panelist to speak about her brother Benjamin. She was his older sister, who was particularly close to him since she took a major role in his childhood while their mom Cristina was back and forth working in the U.S.

Laura Bautista (right) attends a Peace Summit forum hosted at Acción Latina on Oct. 26, where the macro-criminal case of the disappeared 43 Ayotzinapa students was discussed. Laura’s brother, Benjamín Ascencio Bautista, was one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students who was forcibly disappeared in Mexico in September of 2014. Photo: Jeremy Word

“We both liked to dance,” Laura said. “When we were teenagers, we started listening to Daddy Yankee and made up dance moves.” 

But besides dancing to “Lo Que Pasó, Pasó” or “Gasolina,” Laura remembers that Benjamin started to like Michael Jackson and learned the moonwalk. She encouraged him to step out of his comfort zone and not follow machismo-like behaviors.

“He had always been kind, respectful, and tender. He was never disrespectful, he was all love,” Laura said.

Laura explained that Benjamin’s passion for education emerged when he realized there were more isolated, marginalized villages in Guerrero, “forgotten” by the Mexican government.

“He told me he wanted to be part of the teachers that go to those communities and lift them up, those who tell the kids to study,” Laura remembered.

Laura’s protest about her brother’s forced disappearance is simple: he never did anything wrong, but in fact, he did a lot of great things.

After Laura finished, Gomez Trejo continued by commenting that when working with the GIEI and when he was appointed Chief Special Prosecutor for the case, the families of the 43 students told him they trusted him.

“They would repeat to me and my team to always speak the truth to them and look into their eyes,” Gomez-Trejo said.

When appointed as special prosecutor, Gomez-Trejo explained he had to take drastic measures to ensure an adequate investigation was taking place, bringing new people, breaking the silence of witnesses, and building new relationships.

“One of the key lines of investigation in the case was the connection in terms of drug trafficking of Iguala and Chicago; it was necessary to reestablish a relationship with the U.S Department of Justice,” Gomez-Trejo said.

Doyle emphasized that the United States has a seminal role in the story, and it took years for them to support the investigation. 

“The Ayotzinapa students were not only the victims of this sort of macro criminality that has seized in Guererro and a lot of Mexico but also of the militarized war on drugs that the U.S has promoted and supported,” Doyle said.

The investigation the Drug Enforcement Administration launched in Chicago against the Guerreros Unidos crime syndicate was initiated in 2013 and it went on through December 2014, where they issued eight indictments against eight members of the cartel. Doyle claimed it was not until eight years later that they finally shared the information they had about this key critical gang, which kidnapped Benjamin and 42 other boys in Iguala.

“I think this is a dimension of the case that belongs in our discussion of why Americans should care about it,” Doyle said.

Before Gomez-Trejo resigned from his Chief Prosecutor role in September, the investigation got very close to the Mexican military. Recently, 21 of the 83 arrest warrants, which were mostly issued to military officers and soldiers, were dropped. 

With Gomez-Trejo no longer leading the investigation, Cristina said the investigation is going through a very difficult phase, and the arrest warrants were withdrawn because of pressure from Mexico’s Attorney General, Alejandro Gertz Manero. 

“We are very grateful for the international community because they have been with us for eight years and one month, but we want to ask you not to give up and continue to support us in this fight for justice because they took them alive and we want them back alive,” Cristina said.

Arnoldo García from the Chiapas Support Committee proceeded with what Cristina said, calling the audience to take action.

“I was raised by my grandmother, who taught me that when someone shares a story with you, you have a new responsibility,” García said.

García commented that the Chiapas Support Committee holds an action on the 26th of every month. This past September 26, they showed up at the Consulate of Mexico and the consul mocked them.

“We need you to show up at the consulate on the 26th of November and if you can’t come, use your social media, talk to your friends, call the consulate, do something and say, today is the 26th, today is Ayotzinapa,” Garcia said.

The closing words were by Global Exchange Co-Executive Director, Marco Castillo, who insisted that Ayotzinapa is a collective issue of Mexico, the U.S., and all countries across the region. 

“The guns are produced in this country, the drugs are ending up in this country, and in the middle, communities and families are getting caught,” said Castillo.

This forum at Acción Latina was part of others that took place in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and will continue in Tepoztlán, Tijuana, and Mexico City with partner NGOs and grassroots organizations from Mexico and the U.S. On Feb 23-24, 2023, the final conference for the Peace Summit will take place both in person and virtually in Mexico City to discuss how binational collaboration can aid in overcoming the challenges of human rights violations, immigration, inequality, drug, and gun trafficking.