With four days to go until the New York City Marathon, Antonio Tizapa keeps his training regimen simple: He gets home after 5 p.m., eats a light pasta dinner at his apartment in south Brooklyn, changes clothes, and steps out for a run as the street lights are coming on.
So close to a race, he is careful not to overexert himself. No hills, flat ground only. A thirty-minute trot south on 18th Avenue to Gravesend Bay, and half an hour back.
Tizapa has the lean build and low resting heart rate of a long-distance runner. He wears a dark hoodie to stay warm, draping a white cotton shirt over it, sleeveless, like a basketball jersey. On the front of the shirt is a headshot of a solemn young man, above it the words “My son is your son, and your son is my son.”
Tizapa’s son, Jorge Antonio, disappeared in Mexico on the night of September 26, 2014. He was one of 43 young men, freshmen from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, who were forced off intercity buses and “disappeared” in Guerrero state. Numerous witnesses say the men who took the students away that night were police.
Anger and powerlessness are two themes that recur often in Tizapa’s account of the thirteen months since the day his son disappeared. The two emotions, grating on each other, were what brought him to print the shirt: anger at the audacity of the crime and the alternating ineptitude and corruption of the government investigating it. Powerlessness for the nearly 3,000 miles and international border that separate the atrocity in Mexico from his adopted home in Brooklyn.
With the blessing of his wife, Tizapa has lived on his own in Brooklyn for fourteen years, sending part of the income he saves from his job as a plumber to his wife and three children in Tixtla, a town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur. His son chose to enroll in Ayotzinapa for its reputation as a last vestige of the last full-fledged Mexican revolution. Ayotzinapa was founded in 1926 to address the challenge of primary school education for children living in impoverished farming communities.
Watch Tizapa tell his story below. Continue reading after the video:
The school’s student body has earned a reputation for political activism in a part of Mexico where the government, penetrated by organized crime, has neither the patience nor the capacity to relate to idealistic youth who engage in direct action. In 2011, Mexican federal police shot and killed two student demonstrators from Ayotzinapa who had set up a roadblock on a federal highway to pressure for improvements and funding to their school.
Though Tizapa had not seen his son in the flesh since the boy was five years old, he managed to speak with him a few times a week online. Tizapa remembers that when he mentioned the marathon for the first time, his son was in disbelief. “He said it made him tired to think about it.” Tizapa was undeterred.
“It’s like anything. If you’re a lawyer, and you want your son to be a lawyer, you can’t force him. He has to come to it on his own.”
The unexplained disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students has sparked increasingly large and acrimonious protests across Mexico. In December, with the holidays approaching, President Enrique Peña Nieto publicly urged the Mexican people to accept the students’ deaths and move on.
In January the Mexican government declared that the 43 boys were officially dead, killed by a local drug cartel in a case of mistaken identity. In the official version, the killers incinerated their victims’ bodies at a trash dump and disposed of the ashes in a river. The implication was that their remains might never be found.
Through DNA testing, authorities were able to identify two separate bone fragments as belonging to two of the 43 students, Alexander Mora, age nineteen, and Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz, twenty. But in both cases, independent experts assigned to the case at the behest of the victims’ families said the chain of evidence was broken.
In September, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a 560-page report on the Ayotzinapa case that refuted key findings of the official investigation. The commission compiled the report at the invitation of the Mexican government and with the backing of the Organization of American States. Its panel of five international legal and forensic experts reviewed the 54,000 pages in the case file, finding the trash dump fire to be “scientifically impossible” and rebutting the government’s claims that neither the Mexican army nor federal police were active on the night of the massacre.
On October 20, in response to mounting international pressure, the Mexican government announced it would resume the search for the 43 students. The attorney general reassigned the case from the organized crime division to that of human rights and pledged to coordinate with experts from the Inter-American Commission, which remains in Mexico. The Mexican interior secretary also set up a select legislative committee.
To a person, Tizapa and the rest of the victims’ parents refused to accept the government’s findings without proof. Tizapa’s wife, Hilda Legideño, accused the government investigators of acting in the interest of political expediency. “They tried diverting the attention away, to shift the blame onto organized crime. Unfortunately, the Mexican government and organized crime [in Mexico] are one and the same.”
During the most tumultuous months of the crisis in Mexico, Tizapa was in training for the marathon. He ran in a series of 5- and 10K races in Brooklyn and on Staten Island. He got his pace down to a swift six-minute mile. He found in the smaller races a convivial atmosphere. After the finish line there were hamburgers, hot dogs, soft drinks, games for the kids. He got to know some of the other runners and their sports clubs. They were people like him, construction workers and restaurant cooks from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And they always asked him about the meaning of his shirt.
He gave away his extra shirts, and when he ran out, they made their own.
In May, Tizapa finished a half-marathon in Brooklyn in 1:26:33 — a fast enough time, for his age group, to qualify him automatically for the marathon. By then, a dozen or so of his fellow runners were running in shirts like his — “I run for Ayotzinapa”; “I support Ayotzinapa”; “NYC–El Salvador in Support of Ayotzinapa”; “NYC and Puebla in Support of Ayotzinapa.”
He expects some ten of his fellow runners will wear shirts like these in the marathon on Sunday. Not all of Tizapa’s supporters will run in the marathon. Many of them will be there to document the event, while others will display enlarged portraits of the 43 disappeared students at various points along the marathon course.
Tizapa says he hopes that by running in the marathon he and the others will raise awareness about the Ayotzinapa case and gain public support on the larger issue of disappeared persons in Mexico. Dozens of clandestine graves have been uncovered in Guerrero in the course of the search for the missing students. The latest official figures estimate the number of disappeared in Mexico at more than 25,000 since the cartel wars began in earnest in 2006.
“To us, the government is discrediting its own lies,” Tizapa said. “They know it is all a lie. But we are uncovering the lies they have told us. We want out children returned to us alive.”
Tizapa, like other parents of the missing students, holds the president of Mexico, Peña Nieto, ultimately responsible. He wants his son back alive, along with his 42 missing classmates. And he wants justice.
“We’re not going to rest. We’re not going to call off the search. And we want the word to reach them that we will keep up the search and we won’t lose hope or get exhausted. We will not stop.
“This is not only about Ayotzinapa. There are many cases like this one. And he must pay for them all.”