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Hundreds of people marched peacefully in Santa Ana on Thursday evening in a mass demonstration against the recent kidnapping and presumed murder of 43 Mexican students who were detained by police on their way to protest a speech by a mayor’s wife.
The students’ forced disappearance in the state of Guerrero has become a global rallying cry for denouncing rampant political corruption and organized killings in Mexico.
In Santa Ana, families with young children walked alongside high school and college students as they carried signs and candles from a park on the city’s east end, along a major street and to the Mexican consulate.
As they marched, demonstrators chanted in unison, including counting one-by-one to the number 43 – one for each of the missing students.
At the consulate, the crowd – still in the hundreds – formed a circle around a candlelight vigil, shouting calls for justicia and condemning Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“We want them to know that even though we are far, we are with them. And this is not just their problem, it’s our problem too,” said Fatima Rosas, a Santa Ana resident.
“I’m a mother, and as a mother I can’t imagine what the pain that right now the mothers are going through. And we want to know: Where are they? They don’t have a response [of] where they are.”
The students' Sept. 26 disappearance has galvanized Mexicans worldwide to demonstrate against the bloodshed that continues to terrorize many of the country’s communities.
According to Mexico’s attorney general, the students had been on their way to protest a speech by the wife of the mayor of Iguala. While en route, the mayor reportedly ordered police to detain them. The police then turned the students over to a drug gang with ties to the mayor, which allegedly killed them and burned their bodies.
Emmanuel Gonzalez, a senior at Beckman High School in Irvine, said he helped organize the protest to unite Santa Ana and let the world know “it’s not a silent city.”
He noted that many different types of people who stand up against corruption in Mexico have been targeted for assassinations and killings.
“It’s not just students. It’s teachers, activists, reporters – anybody that [tries] to bring light to the situation gets that kind of treatment,” said Gonzalez.
“That’s why we decided to do something about it, because it’s not right that they’re killing people – innocent people – just for standing up against the government or expressing their right to protest.”
The demonstrators gathered at Cabrillo Park on Santa Ana’s east end, before marching on a residential street and along busy Tustin Ave.
Many protesters held aloft photos of each of the 43 students.
Police officers largely kept their distance during the protest, with patrol cars and officers escorting the crowd as they marched on the right lane of busy Tustin Ave.
After arriving at the consulate, demonstrators gathered around a candlelight vigil, with the photos of the students placed on the ground.
Traditional folk musicians and dancers performed.
Protesters then took turns giving speeches on a megaphone, as some in the crowd lead chants denouncing “narco-corrupción.” Several speakers implored residents to stay in school and become as educated as possible.
By the end of the protest, a series of posters and photos of the students had been placed at the entrance to the consulate.
“Pinche Gobierno Corrupto! #43,” read one sign laid at the foot of the consulate’s door. It translates to “Fucking Corrupt Government.”
“#Ayotzi Garden Grove supports you,” said another sign, using to a shortened version of the Mexican students’ school, the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers' College of Ayotzinapa.
“We Are All the 43. No More Injustices,” another read, in Spanish.
Targeted kidnappings and killings have become rampant in Mexico in recent years.
More than 26,000 people were reported missing or kidnapped in Mexico between 2006 and 2012.
And over 65,000 have been killed by drug cartels, criminal gangs and police operations since 2006, according to the Mexican government.
For vast numbers of Santa Ana residents, the violence in Mexico hits very close to home.
Just over 70 percent of the city’s 334,000 residents are of Mexican heritage, according to the latest Census, and many have close family and friends in Mexico.
Much of the country’s assassinations are linked to the illegal drug trade to the United States. Cocaine, heroin and other drugs flow north, while high-powered weapons and billions of dollars in cash flow south.
As rival groups compete for territory and settle scores, innocent civilians are often caught in the crossfire.
And when city officials become entwined with drug gangs and cartels, local police can essentially become agents for organized crime groups.
In the missing students’ case, the town’s mayor was paid at least $150,000 per month by a local drug gang, which was in turn allowed to largely run the city itself, according to Mexican Attorney General Murillo Karam.
But despite Mexico’s challenges, many of the protesters in Santa Ana were hopeful that things can take a turn for the better.
“I have hope that we live in an age where, I think, with technology and with mass media and communication being almost instant now…we can really garner an atmosphere, an environment, where we advocate on behalf of these issues and injustices, and really move forward,” said Evee Hurtado, a Santa Ana resident who attends Santa Ana College.
Locally, organizers plan to keep drawing attention to the missing students.
Another demonstration is planned for Dec. 3, in conjunction with nationwide protests on that day.