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Relatives of 43 Missing Mexican Students Rally in Richmond

April 5, 2015

Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, an organizer of Caravana 43, speaks to students at VCU.

Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, an organizer of Caravana 43, speaks to students at VCU.

Relatives of 43 Missing Mexican Students Rally in Richmond

By Janeal Downs, Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira and Craig Zirpolo
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Christian Alfonso Rodriguez Telumbre loved teaching folk dances and wanted to be an agronomist. A student at a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, Telumbre planned work with underserved communities after he graduated.

But Telumbre is one of 43 students who disappeared last September after an encounter with police in the nearby city of Iguala. For more than six months, Telumbre has been presumed dead by the Mexican government, but his family still holds out hope for his safe return.

“If my son can hear me, I want him to know his father is very proud,” said Telumbre’s father, Clemente Rodriguez Moreno. “I’m waiting for him in Ayotzinapa with my arms open.”

Relatives of the 43 missing students rallied in Richmond this weekend, seeking justice for their loved ones and urging the United States to cut off foreign aid to corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials in Mexico.

“We’re here to tell the world that in Mexico, democracy does not exist,” said Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, whose son Angel Neri de la Cruz narrowly escape the police in Iguala. “The Mexican government is afraid of the youth that is organized because people that are educated will be free.”

Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 students at Virginia Commonwealth University on Friday, Anayeli de la Cruz, Clemente Rodriguez Moreno and Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval disagreed with government and police accounts of the Sept. 26 attack on students in Iguala, located about two and a half hours from Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa.

Relatives say the students were gathering for a protest against what they perceived as discriminatory hiring practices by the government against rural teachers when police intercepted their bus convoy, opened fire and killed six. Afterward, police, aided by Guerreros Unidos, a drug cartel, and the Mexican Army, kidnapped 43 of the students, the relatives maintain.

Mexican officials present a different account. They say a corrupt mayor and local police were involved – but not the army. According to this account, the missing students were killed by drug traffickers in Cocula, near Iguala. Officials said they found the remains of one of the 43 missing students – 19-year-old Alexander Mora Venancio – in a river near Cocula.

“The evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river,” Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said at a news conference in January.

He said 80 people had been arrested in the case, including Ayotzinapa mayor José Luis Abarca Velázquez; his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa; and 44 police officers from Cocula and Iguala.

Authorities captured a key suspect, Felipe Rodriguez Salgado, who says he helped dispose of the students’ bodies. Government officials cite 39 additional confessions relating to the case, as well as evidence of a fire hot enough to incinerate the bodies at the alleged scene.

But in Richmond, relatives said the government’s evidence is insufficient to prove that the missing students are dead. They point to contradictory evidence presented by forensic anthropologists and the lack of DNA evidence of the other missing students.

“It’s already been six months, and we still have no proof that what the authorities are saying is true,” said Anayeli de la Cruz, whose brother, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, is one of the missing students. “I’m here because I want my brother to come back … and we are not going to stop fighting until we find the truth.”

Beyond seeking justice for the 43 missing students, the relatives spoke more broadly about the role of U.S. foreign aid, which they say corrupt government officials in Mexico use to intimidate citizens and quash peaceful protests.

In 2007, the U.S. government implemented the Mérida Initiative, a $2.3 billion aid program to help Mexico fight drug cartels. A precondition of the funding requires a yearly assessment of the Mexican government’s progress on human rights by the U.S. State Department. Congress can withhold up to 15 percent of the funding based on the assessment, which it did in 2010 and 2012.

The State Department’s latest report cites credible allegations of serious abuses by the Mexican government but also notes progress in prosecuting military officials and police for torture and other human rights abuses.

Despite pressure from relatives of the missing students and international human rights groups, President Barack Obama has avoided publicly criticizing Mexican officials in the case.

“Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico,” Obama said after meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the White House in January.

The group visiting Richmond is one of three participating in Caravana 43, a social justice project bringing family members of missing Ayotzinapa students to demonstrate in more than 45 cities across the U.S., including Richmond and Blacksburg. The project is funded by donations, with members housed by volunteers in each city.

Over the weekend, Caravana 43 members spoke at VCU and the University of Richmond, marched from the Virginia Capitol to the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond and attended a rally at Branch Baptist Church.

Political science professor Jason Arnold worked with student activists and the university to organize the event at VCU.

“I’m so gratified to see that there is this much interest in something that in a lot of ways is remote from students’ experience,” Arnold said. “It’s such a shocking story when you first hear about it, and it’s even more shocking when you learn more.”

Relatives of the missing students say they will continue to fight to bring home their loved ones and speak out against corruption and organized crime. On Sunday, the caravan left Richmond and traveled to Washington, D.C. The project will culminate in what organizers hope will be a mass protest on April 26 in New York City.

“It’s difficult for us to be here in lands that are very far from our own, with different cultures,” said Rodriguez Moreno, who has gone days without sleep over worries about his son.

“But I hope that I have been able to plant a seed in all of you. Hopefully that seed will grow and flourish, and something will remain that you continue to fight.”