MEXICO CITY — Two years after 43 Mexican college students disappeared during a night of violence committed, in part, by security forces, the mystery of their fate remains unsolved.
An international panel of legal and human rights experts who spent a year studying the case questioned the Mexican government’s ability and willingness to get to the bottom of it.
Since the experts’ departure in April, the government has broadened its investigation to include a wider range of possible suspects. In addition, the attorney general’s top investigator resignedamid an internal affairs inquiry into his handling of the case.
Still, there is a prevailing feeling here and abroad that the Mexican government alone cannot be left to figure out who was behind the violence in Iguala in Guerrero State on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, and what happened to the students, most of them freshmen. Many observers are now pinning their hopes for justice on the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which will deploy a team to shadow the investigation.
The parents of the disappeared and the dead, most of them working class, have maintained their relentless lobby for answers. Accompanying them throughout have been the dozens of students who lived through the night but will forever reckon with its scars. Here are three of them.
Edgar Andrés Vargas
Last Thursday, Mr. Andrés underwent a sixth surgery to repair his face. During the attacks in Iguala, he was struck by a bullet that pulverized his upper teeth and shattered his upper jaw. He does not know how many more operations he will have to endure.
At the time of the attacks, Mr. Andrés was a third-year student at the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, a teachers college in Ayotzinapa. He was among a group of students who responded to distress calls from freshmen who had come under fire by the municipal police in Iguala, a nearby city. The younger students had gone to Iguala to commandeer buses to go to a demonstration in Mexico City, a longstanding practice at the college.
Mr. Andrés and his peers arrived after the 43 students had disappeared. While they examined the scene, gunmen fired, hitting Mr. Andrés. Despite his wounds, he was ignored by military personnel and even by the medical staff at a local clinic.
When he finally got a ride to a municipal hospital, two hours after he was shot, doctors there told him that had he been delayed five minutes, he would have died.
Mr. Andrés, 21, has been receiving medical care in Mexico City, which has been disruptive for his entire family. His mother gave up her job running a convenience store to move to the capital to care for him, and his younger siblings relocated, too. His father stayed behind in their hometown, San Francisco del Mar, in the state of Oaxaca, to continue working as the director of a primary school and, on weekends, as a farmer.
The government has covered the cost of medical care and lent the family an apartment. Still, the family has run through its savings to cover the higher cost of living in the capital and to supplement the loss of Mr. Andres’s mother’s income.
Mr. Andrés spends much of his time in the apartment. When he goes out to see a movie or take a walk, he wears a surgical mask — partly because he is embarrassed by his disfiguration. “I fear that people are going to discriminate against me for this,” he said.
The college allowed Mr. Andrés to finish his studies this year by working remotely, and he graduated with his class. He still hopes to work as a primary school teacher, but he has added another professional goal: to become a lawyer.
“After everything that happened, I think the legal system is messed up,” he said. “Who’s going to protect the people?”
Manuel Vázquez Arellano
Mr. Vázquez knew loss from an early age. He grew up in Tlacotepec, a small mountain village in Guerrero State known for opium poppy harvests and violence. He had 12 siblings, five of whom died in childhood from curable diseases.
As a child, Mr. Vázquez worked in the fields, harvesting the poppies and bleeding them of their sap, the key raw material for heroin. When he was 7, he saw assassins fire on a party, killing one person and wounding several others. Years later, one of his brothers was killed in a dispute that, he suspects, had to do with a gang rivalry.
His escape from that life, he thought, was through the teachers college. He became a member of the student committee and immersed himself in the college’s culture of political activism.
On the night of the attacks in Iguala, Mr. Vázquez was among the upperclassmen who rushed to the aid of the younger students and came under fire by unidentified attackers.
Mr. Vázquez, now 28, managed to escape unharmed. In the ensuing weeks and months, as the missing 43 came to symbolize the depth of government corruption and incompetence, Mr. Vázquez emerged as a leading spokesman in the campaign for justice.
He toured Mexico, exhorting people to take to the streets in protest and criticizing the government’s handling of the investigation. He eventually took his campaign abroad, to the United States and Europe, raising awareness of the case and lobbying politicians and activists to pressure the Mexican government.
The work gave him a sense of purpose and helped to ward off survivor’s guilt.
Mr. Vázquez enrolled this year in law school in Mexico City and aspires to become a judge to fight Mexico’s relentless corruption.
When he was younger, Mr. Vázquez frequently had nightmares in which he watched himself being killed — such was the climate of violence in which he was raised. Dreams of his own death still color his sleep, but now, he says, he sees himself dying for a cause — “with a purpose and a reason.”
Aldo Gutiérrez Solano
Mr. Gutiérrez has been in a coma since a bullet pierced his brain during the night of violence. He had been riding in one of the stolen buses when it came under fire by the police.
His doctors and family measure his progress, such as it is, in involuntary sounds and micromovements. His eyelids open occasionally. He yawns. His muscles spasm. The doctors say his survival this long is stunning, yet they believe his chances of recovery from the coma are very slim.
His parents and 13 siblings, all of whom live in Guerrero, have organized a rotation to ensure that at least one of them is at his hospital bedside at all times. They have rented a small room nearby, where they rest and bathe between shifts.
The commitment has put a tremendous strain on the family. One of his brothers said that he has spent so much time away from home that his own family is suffering.
“I haven’t been able to take my kids to the park on a Saturday for two years,” said the brother, Leonel, 37, who works as a taxi driver in Tutepec, a small town in Guerrero. The trip by bus from his home to the hospital takes six hours.
But the family has made a pact to provide Aldo Gutiérrez with the best care possible.
Mr. Gutiérrez, 21, never really wanted to become a teacher, his brother said. The school, where he was a first-year student, was simply a way out of poverty. His real dream was to become an officer in the Mexican marines.
“The suffering is too big,” Leonel said. “We still don’t understand: Why did this happen to us? How is our government capable of shooting its own citizens?”