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Festival of Books: Author Anabel Hernandez demands answers for Mexico’s missing 43 students

Festival of Books: Author Anabel Hernandez demands answers for Mexico’s missing 43 students
Journalist and author Anabel Hernández talks about "A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students" at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)

In December 2013, 11 armed men identifying themselves as federal police broke into Anabel Hernández’s house on a day she happened to be out. The Mexican journalist had long faced threats for investigating her government’s ties to drug cartels but decided to finally leave the country, she writes in her book, “A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students.”

She didn’t stay away for long. As a journalism fellow at UC Berkeley, Hernández became fixated on the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students who had been studying at a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, a rural town in southern Mexico.

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These students and their peers had hijacked buses to attend a demonstration in Mexico City. They were intercepted by police, who began shooting at the buses and ultimately abducted 43 of the students. They were never seen again.

Mexican authorities under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto concluded that local police handed the students to a drug cartel that killed them and burned their bodies in a trash dump.

“When I started to read the news and I started to hear this version that the government was giving, I didn’t think it was logical,” Hernández told the The Times following a Spanish-language panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday about her book, which was published in English in 2018. “A small band of criminals takes the decision to attack these students?”

Despite the risk, Hernández returned to Mexico every month for two years to investigate the case. Hernández’s book and reports from international investigators contend that the government conducted a flawed investigation based on testimonies from tortured suspects.

While the government claimed that only local officials were involved in the attack, Hernández writes in her book that federal police knew of the initial assault against the students as it was happening. During the book festival talk, she raised a motive for the massacre: The students had unwittingly hijacked two buses carrying millions of dollars’ worth of heroin. A military operation was ordered to recover the drugs following orders from a mafia leader.

“This case is emblematic because it shows, No. 1, the method of forced disappearance that exists in Mexico,” she said.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in December announced the creation of a truth commission to re-investigate the case. Mexico’s violence continues to increase, with 2019 looking like it may be the most violent in Mexico’s modern history, on track to exceed last year’s 33,369 killings.

Tatiana Estrada, an audience member of Hernández’s L.A. Times En Español stage panel at USC, asked Hernández how the Mexican diaspora should respond to the constant violence.

“What should citizens do?” she asked. “Living here, we also have to participate.”

Hernández reminded her that after the massacre, Mexicans around the world had burst into protest.

“We need to raise our collective voice, saying, ‘Hey, government, we haven’t forgotten the 43 — we want to know what happened, where they are,” she said. “We want the responsible in jail.”

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