Manuel Rueda

CHILPANCINGO, Mexico  —- Hundreds of teachers have set up a tent city in the main square of this state capital in southern Mexico, and say they will not leave until the government finds 43 college students who disappeared three weeks ago, after they were reportedly abducted by local police linked to a drug gang.

The protest, which began on Monday, reflects the outrage many Mexicans feel toward  politicians and law enforcement officials, whom they hold responsible for one the darkest crimes in Mexico’s recent history. The crowd shows few signs of dissipating.

"I don't  just think I will stay here, I am driven to stay here, as are all of my colleagues," said Pastor Mojica, one of the teachers. "We all feel the necessity to stay here because of the outrage we feel — it’s not something to think about it, it’s something that you feel and are compelled to do."

The students, from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college in the state of Guerrero, haven't been seen since Sept. 26, when they were attacked by police in the city of Iguala after they hijacked three buses during a protest.

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Three students were killed in the attack, and investigators suspect that the missing students were rounded up by police and handed over to a local drug cartel, who then executed them and buried them in clandestine graves. While  several possible grave sites have been identified, DNA tests showed that one site didn't contain the students' bodies, and authorities have yet to announce the  DNA results for the bodies found at two other grave sites nearby.

At the ZĂłcalo, a historical square in the heart of Chilpancingo, teachers sleep under nylon tents and cook whatever food is available to them in portable gas stoves. Showers are hard to come by, but the protesters have occupied city hall and use the bathrooms there.

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Despite such inconveniences, members of the camp say they've set no date of return.

“These crimes don’t just affect the cities,” said an elementary school teacher from Santa Cruz Copanatoyac, a municipality deep in Guerrero’s eastern mountains. “Sometimes people disappear in our area or die because they are involved in organized crime, but [the missing students] were just kids who wanted to better themselves,” said the teacher, who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.

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Most of the maestros sleeping in the square are affiliated with  teachers unions that have promised to occupy all 41 city hall buildings in the state until the students are found.  They are known for leading militant protests against Mexico’s education reforms, and economic policies like the privatization of the country’s oil sector.Many hail from rural areas that are mostly inhabited by indigenous people.

During the day, the teachers attend marches in Chilpancingo and nearby cities like Acapulco. At night, they organize meetings in which they plan the following days activities. Some of the teachers in the square were involved in a protest on Oct. 13  during which demonstrators burnt down several government buildings.

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“It’s a way of showing our open rejection of the state," Mojica explained. "It's a way to show our discontent — because just to march in the streets, like they do in a religious procession, walking in the streets, we have done thousands of times, and the killings continue to be unpunished."

Teachers in the square have also been joined by human rights activists, such as Javier Monroy, who directs a non profit called the Workshop for Community Development. His group set up a booth in which volunteers collect donations for the families of the missing students. They also sell handicrafts and provide passersby with information on missing people in Guerrero.

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Monroy said that since 2005,  more than 600 people have disappeared in Guerrero.

“The Ayotzinapa case has shed a light on a problem that the local government wanted to hide,” he added.

For the moment, it doesn't seem like police are preparing to forcibly remove protesters from the square. Officers have had a minimal presence around the tent city and stood by as protesters blocked the entrance to city hall on Monday, preventing municipal workers from entering the building.

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While police are avoiding confrontation with the protesters, the municipal government has shut off the lamps that usually illuminate this square at night, forcing the activists to light the tent city with electricity that they’ve managed to steal from a flag-post in the middle of the square. Long cables on the ground connect the flag post with various tents.

“It's usually real nice around here, the lights are on and kids can play around at night,” said Maria Cisneros, a volunteer at the booth with information about disappeared people. “I think the mayor is mad at us and that’s why he shut off the light."

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All photos by Manuel Rueda for Fusion.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.