Washington, DC, January 21, 2022 – John Gibler is a journalist, author, and activist who writes eloquently and prolifically about Mexico. His collection of testimonies from Ayotzinapa students who survived the tragedy of September 26, 2014 – which he published as a book, I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks Against the Students of Ayotzinapa (City Lights, 2017) – became and remains the most definitive account of those terrible events from the young men who lived through them.
In Episode 1 of the podcast, John describes being home in Mexico City when he reads about the missing students and decides to pack a bag and go to the teacher training school to investigate. John gave Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and me access to his recordings of students from those early days after the attacks, and once we got permission from the two men featured in the podcast – Nico and Lalo – we were able to include their voices.
On January 19, John and I met on Zoom to talk about his experience reporting on the case in those early days, and his analysis of how government authorities and organized crime colluded to produce one of Mexico’s most shocking human rights atrocities. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Doyle: Tell me about your decision to go to Guerrero after hearing about the attacks.
Gibler: I really had no idea of writing a book or writing a certain kind of article. I went there thinking, what happened? And because there was so much confusion in the media, there was so much disinformation on behalf of authorities, and the scale of events was so overwhelming, there hadn't been yet just a simple reconstruction of events, a journalistic reconstruction. So my initial objective was, ok, let's just document the events of that night. Let's just find out what happened.
Doyle: How did you handle interviewing these young people so soon after they had suffered so much trauma?
Gibler: Well, first off, before the attacks against the students, I'd been working on reporting projects that involved interviewing people who were either witnesses to or direct survivors of profoundly traumatic acts of State violence. I had been trying to find ways to carry out interviews that are as caring as possible, as little-violent as possible, and to listen to both information and storytelling from the people directly involved. So asking questions that elicit narratives and not interrupting – so they have the time and space to take it wherever and however they want it. And then coming back and filling in details.
[With the Ayotzinapa students,] of course I asked permission to record before beginning the interviews. I also asked the students what names they wanted to use; they all chose pseudonyms of different grades of obscurity. I would set [my tape recorder down] and then take as detailed notes as I could in a notebook simultaneously, as a kind of physical exercise of listening. What I would try to do was literally write down every word they said – which is impossible. But the effort would force me to listen incredibly actively and also use the notebook as a tool to not interrupt. Because I can make arrows and stars and little notes to myself about things I want to come back to. It's just a personal style with me, but I really do not like to interrupt people in general, and I do not like to interrupt people who've been traumatized as I'm asking them to retell me their trauma. It’s like one small act of reporter care.
Doyle: You were one of a handful of journalists who threw themselves into the Ayotzinapa case from day one. I’m thinking of Marcela Turati, Sergio Ocampo, and Pepe Jiménez, among others. What can you tell us about the role of the press in those early days?
Gibler: Of course, the local press in Guerrero responded immediately to the events, I mean in real time. You mentioned Sergio Ocampo. He and a number of colleagues got news that the attacks were happening as they were unfolding. It was 10 or 11 o'clock that Friday night and they immediately organized a small caravan of reporters to drive to Iguala, risking their lives, and start reporting. They arrived in the city sometime around 1:30 that morning – so while the military was still on the streets and there were still roadblocks everywhere. Their testimony is incredibly important to documenting what the city looked like at that hour as they were driving into it, which was a city completely under police and military control, right? Not a city terrorized by a gang invasion. No, a city completely dominated by all institutional uniformed security forces, police and military.
Doyle: Give us an example of what reporters were able to document that contradicted the official narrative about what happened.
Gibler: Marcela [Turati] was the first person to hear from the municipal trash workers [in Cocula] that when they drove out to the trash dump sometime between noon and 1 o'clock on Saturday, September 27, 2014, the road conditions were bad because it had rained all night. They waited that long so the sun would dry up the muddy road, and they dumped the trash into an empty Cocula trash dump at one o'clock and drove away. So that's the first thing because, according to the government, at one o'clock, a bunch of blood-crazed cannibals are incinerating 43 human bodies.
Doyle: In one enormous bonfire.
Gibler: In one bonfire, right? All right. And then, once Marcela published her first account, federal prosecutors went out and basically kidnapped the municipal trash workers, took them to Mexico City, made them sign pages that they could not read and put their thumbprints on them and then set them home with a not very veiled threat to not talk about anything ever again.
Doyle: Have you or other journalists working on the case been threatened?
Gibler: I never received direct threats. I received, you know, email espionage attempts to put [Israeli spyware] Pegasus on my phone. It was a supposed email from the Mexican IRS, you know, with these PDF links.
But I feel like the situation itself is so threatening… Oftentimes, it's not really maybe cost effective for the government to do old school “threats” anymore. I’m reminded of something Javier Valdez told me when I interviewed him back in 2010 and I asked him if he'd ever been threatened and he said, You know, they don't have to threaten you directly here. The whole, overarching context is a life and death threat. You know that you can be killed and nothing is going to happen.
[Javier Valdez was a renowned journalist from Sinaloa who was assassinated on May 15, 2017.]
Doyle: There’s a question that hangs over this case for anyone coming to it for the first time. How can 43 young people be snatched away in a public place, in front of dozens of witnesses, and years later the case isn’t solved and the boys aren’t found?
Gibler: I think two things, initially. One, that the institutions tasked with investigating quote “crimes” unquote of this nature, are the institutions carrying them out. Not a corrupt police officer or a corrupt local mayor – no. The local police, the state police, the federal police, the Mexican army, all working together, all using radio communication and using cell phone technology and using their official vehicles, wearing their official uniforms, acting in utter impunity.
This might sound counterintuitive, but the idea of corruption is actually a concept used to obscure the fact that the police and military institutions themselves directly participate in the transnational drug trafficking industry. If you believe, “Oh there's corruption,” you know, the power of money, so inevitably some cop or some colonel is going to get bought off... That doesn't explain what happens. The institutions directly participate in every level of the transnational narcotics industry and all its spin-off side industries, like local extortion and kidnapping.
So how can you create this invisibility? The first part of the answer is: because the entire power of the State is being deployed to disappear, is why they're so successful at doing it. The people tasked with investigating an atrocity are the people carrying out the atrocity. So that's the kind of first level.
The second level is there's so much disinformation that is steeped into popular culture about the narco world and drug gangs and the nature of drug land violence. And the mythological version is the cartels are so powerful they can, you know, buy anyone and they can overpower the State and they have better guns than the army. And so they can get away with incredible things.
Doyle: And the army can't stop them.
Gibler: And the army can't stop them. Which is part of the discourse! It’s why [people always say], “Oh, so we need to give the army more money and we need to give the State more money and we need more U.S. assistance and we need more U.S. training and we need more U.S. guns,” right? And yet every time you fuel the drug war, every time the U.S. or the Mexican government injects more cash into fighting the so-called drug war, the drug business itself expands. Because those drug warriors – the army, the police, the state security forces – are directly involved in the everyday operations of the industry itself. They are the cartels.
The key to the events is that the people who actually stopped the students and drove off with them and participated in securing the town and protecting the perpetrators, were the police from three different municipalities, the state police, federal police and the Mexican Armed Forces. They all worked together that night.
“After Ayotzinapa” is the result of a two-year collaboration between the National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reported and co-produced by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, the three-part serial reveals the story of what happened in the months and years following the forced disappearance of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014. Part Two: Cover-Up, airs on January 22. It details the botched initial investigation and exposure of government obstruction. Part Three: All Souls, airing on January 29, addresses the efforts being made by a new government to overcome the cover-up and truly advance the cause of truth and justice for the missing 43 students. There are three ways to listen: on your podcast app of choice: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher; on Reveal’s website, and on radio stations around the United States.