21 Jul 2015

Guerrero: the monster in the mountains

On September 26, 2014, 43 trainee teachers were taken into custody by police in Iguala, a small city in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. None has been seen or heard from since.

Although the Mexican government officially closed its investigation, the remains of only one student, Alexander Mora Venancio, 19, has subsequently been identified, writes US photo-journalist Matt Black.

“I think the devil is punishing Mexico with great fury,” Pope Francis said in an interview broadcast six months after the students’ disappearance.

But for Guerrero, which suffers Mexico’s highest murder rate and is the second poorest state in the country, the devil must be saving a special rage: in the hills above Iguala, the search for the missing students has revealed a landscape littered with clandestine graves, which are thought to contain the remains of at least 400 local people reported as disappeared.

Galvanised by the loss of the students and enraged by officials’ alleged complicity in their disappearance, scores of armed self-defence groups in the state’s rural villages have stepped up their patrols.

My photography in Guerrero started by way of California’s Central Valley, the rural agricultural area where I live. An increase in migration from indigenous, southern Mexico has transformed the small towns and farm fields of California’s middle.

Through my project The People of Clouds, I have sought to document the sources and causes of this new face of migration.

Initially, my work in Guerrero focused on the extreme poverty in the regions of La Montana and the Costa Chica, where the state’s indigenous population is concentrated.Halfway through my work, the forty-three students went missing.

To be admitted to the teacher training school in Ayotzinapa, students must demonstrate that they come from impoverished backgrounds. After their training, the 43 young men were meant to return as full-fledged teachers to their communities. Instead, they were “disappeared”.

In these communities, “the tragedy of Mexico is condensed”, says Abel Barrera, a human rights advocate based in the town of Tlapa de Comonfort. “Here in the mountains, you live with the demons.”

  • Additional video: Cesar Rodriguez Becerra
  • Additional sound: Felix Blume, Mark DiAngelo
  • Editors: Uwe H Martin and Frauke Huber
  • Concept, photography and sound: Matt Black/Magnum Photoes
  • A Bombay Flying Club production for Channel 4 News
  • Matt Black’s reporting in Guerrero was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting