HUFFINGTON POST
09/26/2016 09:19 am ET

This Is What The Search For Mexico’s Missing 43 Students Looks Like

Sept. 26 marks the two-year anniversary of the students' disappearance.
The family of missing student Julio César López Patolzin celebrates his 25th birthday on Jan. 29, 2015. His aun
Emily Pederson
The family of missing student Julio César López Patolzin celebrates his 25th birthday on Jan. 29, 2015. His aunt and niece hold each other as a group of musicians play his favorite songs. 

When the news broke that Mexican police had attacked a group of students from a teachers college and abducted 43 of them on Sept. 26, 2014, photojournalist Emily Pederson was living in the southern Mexican city of Chiapas.

Though she was 300 miles away from Iguala, where the students were attacked, the case resonated with her. She kept seeing images of the students’ faces plastered on city walls as their disappearance became a symbol of impunity and drug war-fueled violence in Mexico.

“I witnessed the ramifications, even on people who were totally unconnected to the case,” Pederson told The WorldPost. “So eventually, I went to the school where they studied in Guerrero. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find there.”

The fact that this has been [the students’] fate is so representative of the whole trajectory of Mexican history up to this point. Photographer Emily Pederson

What she found was a social movement centered around the families of the missing. Pederson spent the next two months with them, following them to meetings, traveling with them in a caravan to California and “just doing a lot of listening.”

Monday will mark the second year since the Ayotzinapa Normal School students were abducted. Their disappearance has become the highest-profile human rights case in a country where the government has a long history of “accusing innocent people to protect guilty ones,” in the words of investigative journalist Anabel Hernández.

One image Pederson views as emblematic of that legacy is a shot depicting three of the Ayotzinapa students above a poster of people disappeared during Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1960s through 1980s.  

“A lot people really felt that connection,” Pederson said. “It was really felt as the latest in the long succession of not only a terrible drug war crime and tragedy, but a very highly charged political crime… The fact that this has been [the students’] fate is so representative of the whole trajectory of Mexican history up to this point.”

Drawings of Julio César Ramírez, Daniel Solís and Julio César Mondragón, the three Ayotzin
Emily Pederson
Drawings of Julio César Ramírez, Daniel Solís and Julio César Mondragón, the three Ayotzinapa students who were murdered during the Iguala attacks, on a poster at the Ayotzinapa Normal School on March 15, 2015. Below them, a poster shows images of Mexicans who disappeared during the "dirty war," a period of intense state repression, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions between the 1960s and the 1980s. 

The emergence of a social movement with international reach is one of the few positive developments in the Ayotzinapa case over the last two years.

The Enrique Peña Nieto administration continues to cling to a thoroughly discredited account of what happened the night the students were attacked. Prosecutors have arrested more than 100 people in connection with the case, but convicted none. Dozens of the key witnesses upon whom the government based its claims were tortured, casting doubt on the reliability of their statements and likely making them inadmissible in a courtroom.

Independent journalists, a team of forensic specialists and two hefty reports by a group of experts fielded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights all conclude that physical evidence contradicts the government’s version of events.

Ahead of Mexico’s annual Independence Day celebration on Sept. 16, thousands of people marched in the streets demanding Peña Nieto’s ouster. His government’s mishandling of the country’s most prominent human rights case is one of the key issues that sent public faith in his presidency tumbling.

Below are some of Pederson’s photos from her time with the families of the missing students. She is also working on a short film called “They Took Them Alive,” scheduled for release within the next two weeks. The film’s title is a nod to a chant yelled by family members and their supporters at demonstrations: “They took them alive, and alive we want them back.”

  • Posters of the 43 missing students cover the base of a statue in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, on March 5, 2015.
    Emily Pederson
    Posters of the 43 missing students cover the base of a statue in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, on March 5, 2015.
  • A citizen search organized by families of the missing students in the hills outside Iguala, Guerrero, on Jan. 16, 2015.
    Emily Pederson
    A citizen search organized by families of the missing students in the hills outside Iguala, Guerrero, on Jan. 16, 2015.
  • Site of the attacks in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. Crosses on the ground mark where two Ayotzinapa students were shot. Pare
    Emily Pederson
    Site of the attacks in the city of Iguala, Guerrero. Crosses on the ground mark where two Ayotzinapa students were shot. Parents of the missing students have posted phone numbers to call "if you know anything about our sons." Feb. 13, 2015.
  • Epifanio Álvarez Carbajal and Blanca Luz Nava Vélez, parents of missing Ayotzinapa student Jorge Álvarez
    Emily Pederson
    Epifanio Álvarez Carbajal and Blanca Luz Nava Vélez, parents of missing Ayotzinapa student Jorge Álvarez Nava, rest on the bus during a week of marching and organizing in Mexico City on Jan. 24, 2015.
  • Students comfort mothers of the 43 missing students at a rally at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City on Ja
    Emily Pederson
    Students comfort mothers of the 43 missing students at a rally at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City on Jan. 23, 2015.
  • The number "43" lights up a family's rooftop in Tixtla, Guerrero, on Feb. 1, 2015. Tixtla is home to the Ayotzinapa Normal Sc
    Emily Pederson
    The number "43" lights up a family's rooftop in Tixtla, Guerrero, on Feb. 1, 2015. Tixtla is home to the Ayotzinapa Normal School and 14 of its missing students.
  • Student survivors of the Iguala attacks and disappearances sit in the auditorium of the Ayotzinapa Normal School on March 16,
    Emily Pederson
    Student survivors of the Iguala attacks and disappearances sit in the auditorium of the Ayotzinapa Normal School on March 16, 2015.
  • A banner with the faces of the 43 missing students hangs in Tixtla, Guerrero, on Feb. 6, 2014. It reads, "Tixtla and El Fort&
    Emily Pederson
    A banner with the faces of the 43 missing students hangs in Tixtla, Guerrero, on Feb. 6, 2014. It reads, "Tixtla and El Fortín support the families of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students. They took them alive, we want them alive!"
  • Romana, mother of missing student José Ángel Campos Cantor, at home in Tixtla, Guerrero, on March 2, 2015.
    Emily Pederson
    Romana, mother of missing student José Ángel Campos Cantor, at home in Tixtla, Guerrero, on March 2, 2015.
  • A relative holds Gaby, the baby daughter of missing student José Ángel Campos Cantor, on March 18, 2015. H
    Emily Pederson
    A relative holds Gaby, the baby daughter of missing student José Ángel Campos Cantor, on March 18, 2015. His portrait hangs on the wall behind her. His other daughter, America, is 8 years old. 
  • Felipe de La Cruz, a spokesman for the families of the 43 missing students, speaks at a protest in Mexico City on the five-mo
    Emily Pederson
    Felipe de La Cruz, a spokesman for the families of the 43 missing students, speaks at a protest in Mexico City on the five-month anniversary of their disappearance on Feb. 26, 2015.
  • Bus stop at the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Grafitti on the structure reads, "Our protest is not violent, it is a political res
    Emily Pederson
    Bus stop at the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Grafitti on the structure reads, "Our protest is not violent, it is a political response to the poverty, exploitation and violence generated by the government."
  • Antonio Tizapa, New York City resident and father of missing student Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, records a protest
    Emily Pederson
    Antonio Tizapa, New York City resident and father of missing student Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, records a protest video in Times Square on Feb. 7, 2016.
  • Joint forum with members of the Ayotzinapa 43 movement and the Black Lives Matter movement at St. Mark's Church in Queens, Ne
    Emily Pederson
    Joint forum with members of the Ayotzinapa 43 movement and the Black Lives Matter movement at St. Mark's Church in Queens, New York, on April 25, 2015.
  • Riot police intercept relatives and classmates of the 43 missing students to stop them from staging a radical protest in Chil
    Emily Pederson
    Riot police intercept relatives and classmates of the 43 missing students to stop them from staging a radical protest in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, on June 3, 2015. The protesters were calling for a boycott of state elections.
  • Confrontation between Ayotzinapa students and riot police after a failed negotiation on June 3, 2015.
    Emily Pederson
    Confrontation between Ayotzinapa students and riot police after a failed negotiation on June 3, 2015.
  • Funeral of Antonio Vivar Díaz, a student teacher and local leader in the movement for the 43 missing students. Vivar D
    Emily Pederson
    Funeral of Antonio Vivar Díaz, a student teacher and local leader in the movement for the 43 missing students. Vivar Díaz was shot by a policeman during a confrontation on state election day in Tlapa, Guerrero.
  • "He fought for you," the family of Antonio Vivar Díaz greeted a commission of relatives and classmates of the missing
    Emily Pederson
    "He fought for you," the family of Antonio Vivar Díaz greeted a commission of relatives and classmates of the missing students at Vivar Díaz's wake in Tlapa, Guerrero, on June 8, 2015.
  • Blanca Luz Nava Vélez, mother of missing student Jorge Álvarez Nava, at St. Peter's Church in New York City on
    Emily Pederson
    Blanca Luz Nava Vélez, mother of missing student Jorge Álvarez Nava, at St. Peter's Church in New York City on on Sept. 25, 2015. She was one of five mothers of the disappeared who came to the United States in hopes of meeting Pope Francis during his papal visit, but they were unable to see him privately.
  • Bernabé Abraján, father of missing student Adan Abraján de La Bruz, at a meeting with the Guerrero Attor
    Emily Pederson
    Bernabé Abraján, father of missing student Adan Abraján de La Bruz, at a meeting with the Guerrero Attorney General on March 9, 2016. The meeting was about video surveillance footage from the night of the students' disappearance that may have been lost.
  • Missing persons posters of the 43 students on the wall of a bank in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, o
    Emily Pederson
    Missing persons posters of the 43 students on the wall of a bank in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, on Nov. 10, 2014.
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