Carmelo Ramirez Morales lived through a night of violence that dominated international headlines in fall 2014. It was the last time he saw his cousin and 42 other students at a rural teachers college in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Now resettled in Minnesota, Morales is believed to be the first person to apply for political asylum in the United States following the students’ disappearance. They were last seen boarding police cars after a standoff with authorities on their way to a protest. Since then, Morales and others have traveled across Mexico and beyond to call for holding those involved in the disappearance accountable.
Morales’ application is a test case watched closely by others in Guerrero who have criticized the Mexican government’s handling of the incident, says his Minneapolis attorney, Jeff Larson. Some families of the missing students see his asylum bid as abandoning their cause. But with a group of Minnesota supporters rallying around him, Morales argues he is just seeking a larger pulpit to continue speaking out.
“I don’t want people to forget what happened,” said Morales, 20. “We have to continue fighting and looking for justice.”
A chaotic night
Morales first came to Minnesota in November to speak on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville.
There, a group following the students’ disappearance closely were worried it was slipping out of the public consciousness. One of them, graduate student Jose Velazquez, had stayed with Morales during a visit to Guerrero earlier last year to offer support to the families. He helped line up an invitation to the university’s Global Awareness Lecture series for Morales and a classmate.
“Bringing the students to campus was a good way to relight that story,” said Jake Collins, a senior and fellow organizer.
In Collegeville, Morales and his classmate took part in a candlelight vigil and the screening of a new documentary about the case. They told their story to about 300 people.
On a rainy night in September 2014, Morales’ classmates left to commandeer buses so they could get to a protest in Mexico City. The practice, popular with the college’s first-year students, had long been tolerated by the bus companies and authorities in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states. Morales, in his second year at the school, had participated many times. But that evening, he bowed out because his girlfriend was visiting.
At about 8:30 he got a call from a distraught classmate saying police had shot at three buses in the town of Iguala. When Morales and a group of fellow students drove to the scene, they found bullet holes in the empty buses and blood on the ground. A classmate told him his cousin was among a group police had taken away.
Around midnight, the students held an impromptu news conference at the buses. As they spoke to reporters, several vehicles pulled up, including what Morales believes was a police car. Men opened fire.
“Don’t shoot,” Morales and the other young men shouted. “We’re students.”
Later, Morales and other classmates took a friend shot in the face to a nearby private medical clinic. Army members arrived, shouted insults at the students, took their names and held them for about two hours. When the students were finally free to go, Morales and several classmates spent the night in the home of a stranger who agreed to put them up.
The next morning, students spread the word that it was safe to come outside. State police took Morales and other students to give statements in the Iguala attorney general’s office. Morales says he helped identify police officers who had participated in the attacks from behind a one-way mirror, only to run into them on their way out of the station.
In all, that night’s spree of violence left six people dead, scores wounded and the fate of 43 students a mystery.
A week after he returned to Mexico, Morales called Velazquez to replay a threatening voicemail. It seemed his activism was catching up to him.
Bid for asylum
Morales had talked to a TV reporter two weeks after the students’ disappearance, using an assumed name, Francisco Sanchez Nava. He later spoke at a string of forums and rallies. He joined a caravan of relatives that traveled to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, criticizing the government for failing to uncover what had happened to the missing. Morales says he also met with members of the investigative panel in Mexico City, which challenged the government’s version of events.
The panel’s 605-page report released this month found state and federal authorities at the very least witnessed and failed to intervene in the events of that night. It disputes the government’s claim that local police turned the students over to members of a drug gang, who killed them and burned their bodies in a trash dump. However, it stops short of explaining what happened to the missing students.
When Velazquez heard the voicemail, he offered to help. He approached Larson, who agreed to take the case pro bono.
“He has an extremely strong case,” Larson said. “He is in the eye of the storm. It’s compelling and well-documented.”
Stephen Meili, an expert on asylum at the University of Minnesota, says the strongest cases for political asylum usually show evidence of physical harm applicants have suffered because of their views. But that is not a prerequisite for a successful application.
“He has made himself known to the authorities as someone who has a political opinion,” Meili said. “The government knows who he is.”
Larson is asking the U.S. government to expedite Morales’ application so he can sidestep yearslong waits and resume traveling to speak about the case. Larson says Morales is torn about his decision to leave Mexico, especially after criticism from family members of the disappeared that he is taking advantage of their cause.
But Morales, who has settled in St. Cloud, says he has not abandoned the movement. His dream is to become a lawyer and launch a nonprofit that supports victims of violence.
“That night is always present for me,” he said. “I still have hope that we will find them.”