A banner referring to the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa school
Ayotzinapa - AFP
Brigida Olivares has lived in a classroom at her grandson's rural teacher college in southern Mexico since the young man and 42 other students vanished last year.
Like Olivares, 62, several relatives of the students are desperately waiting at the Ayotzinapa school for them to turn up, while classes have been suspended since they disappeared almost a year ago in the southern state of Guerrero.
"We hope that the boys will return at any moment," Olivares said as she inserted a purple thread through a needle and sewed to fight off sadness while sitting outside.
Her grandson, 22-year-old Antonio Santana, was among the 43 young men who vanished after they went to the city of Iguala, some 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Ayotzinapa, on September 26, 2014 to seize buses for a protest.
Prosecutors say crooked police officers attacked the buses and handed the students over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang, which killed them and incinerated their bodies after confusing them with rivals.
The parents have refused to accept the official conclusion, holding out hope that their sons may still be found elsewhere, even though one was identified among charred remains and DNA tests showed a possible match for a second one.
They were given new hope this month when an independent investigation tore apart the official probe, saying there was no evidence that the students were incinerated in a funeral pyre in a garbage dump.
- A father's 'nightmare' -
For the past 12 months, the families have spent hours congregating in the school's central patio, where 43 empty desks were placed in a bleak reminder of the young men's absence.
Pictures of the students, cards, candles and some of their personal belongings rest on the seats.
Margarito Rodriguez, a farmer from a village on Guerrero's Pacific coast, abandoned his corn fields to stay at the school of his missing 20-year-old son, Carlos Ivan Rodriguez.
The days at the college are "sad, a nightmare," Rodriguez said. "But we can't just calmly go home without knowing what happened to them."
The school is known as a hotbed of radical activism with murals featuring communist icons such as Karl Marx and Che Guevara.
Since the 43 students disappeared last year, their friends have led a series of protests that have turned violent. The latest took place on Tuesday, when masked protestors clashed with police on a road near the school, leaving 11 officers and two students injured.
"Life at the school has been altered," said Vidulfo Rosales, a human rights lawyer representing the families. "The students have become even more activists than students."
The parents began a 43-hour hunger strike in Mexico City on Wednesday, on the eve of a meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose administration has struggled to shake off a crisis triggered by the students' disappearance.
Parents and students will lead a protest in Mexico City on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the case.
- No teachers, no classes -
The Ayotzinapa school was created by the Mexican government seven decades ago to train teachers for rural regions.
But there have been no classes since September last year. The professors are gone.
"It would not look good for us to have classes while the parents are here," said Santiago Garcia, a press secretary for the student council that tacitly leads the college.
A professor told AFP by telephone that the students negotiated with the authorities to remove the administrators and educators from the college.
Freshmen students say their older peers have been helping them with their studies instead.
Most of the 43 young men were first-year students known as "pelones" (baldies) because their heads are shaved when they arrive at the college.
The freshmen are given tasks that include cleaning the school, doing work in the fields and participating in protests.
Last year, dozens of them were sent to Iguala to raise funds and seize buses for a protest in Mexico City before they came under attack.
A new student, Juan Antonio Mendoza, said he was not afraid despite what happened to last year's freshman class.
"I'm not scared. Whatever happens, happens," he said.
"They give us everything here, food and a dorm," Mendoza said.
He admitted that he wanted to go to another school, but his parents didn't have enough money.