Portraits of missing students are displayed on an improvised altar at Ayotzinapa school in Tixtla,
Ayotzinapa - AFP
The 43 college students left behind empty dorm rooms and dreams of becoming teachers before embarking on a trip that ended tragically in southern Mexico.
The young men had come to the Ayotzinapa rural teacher-training college from other poor villages of Guerrero state, hoping to live a better life.
There was the horse rider who had quit law school to become a teacher. The shy guy who barely spoke. The rock fan who liked to joke around.
But their dreams turned into a nightmare on September 26 when they traveled to Iguala, where the city's police shot at their buses, rounded them up and handed 43 of them to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang.
Six weeks later, gang suspects confessed to slaughtering the group and burning their remains beyond recognition, in a case that has caused national revulsion.
Authorities say the attack was ordered by the city's mayor over fears the students, whose school is known as a bastion of left-wing activism, would disrupt a public event for his wife.
In Ayotzinapa, families and friends refuse to believe they are dead and insist on waiting for DNA results because they lost trust in the government long ago.
- Horse-riding lawyer -
The faces of the 43 have been plastered on banners in protests pressing authorities to find the young men.
A group of 25 artists met days ago in Ayotzinapa to immortalize the 43 in portraits.
One of the artists, Samuel Espiritu, used purple paint to capture the dark complexion in the youthful face of Dorian Gonzalez.He was told that Gonzalez came from the indigenous Tlapanec community in a remote village of Guerrero's mountains and barely spoke Spanish when he joined the school.
Abel Garcia Hernandez, 19, arrived in Ayotzinapa in August hoping to become a bilingual teacher of Spanish and Mixtec.
He is among seven students who came from the dusty village of Tecoanapa on the Pacific coast.
His mother, in her colorful Mixtec dresses, has been waiting for him to return to her home instead of Ayotzinapa because she does not speak Spanish.
"My mother knows nothing about what's going on," said Abel's brother, Oscar.
His girlfriend has been asking about him daily.
Oscar said he anxiously sat in the school patio for hours on October 5 waiting for his brother. Abel turned 19 that day.
"As a family you feel terrible when you know nothing," he said.
For the parents of 21-year-old Cesar Manuel Gonzalez, seeing him leave home was hard.
"It pained us a lot to let him go" study in Ayotzinapa, said his father, a former welder who wears cowboy boots."But it was his dream," said the father, who like many parents requested anonymity for fear of repercussions.
Cesar Manuel quit law school to become a teacher after doing some social work in a rural area.
His son took care of a stable and liked his horses so much that he kept pictures and videos of them on his cellphone, which his parents found abandoned in his dorm room.
The night of his disappearance, they had desperately called the same phone in vain.
"Without a suitcase or money, we ran there with my wife. We didn't find him," the father said.
Before his disappearance, he called home twice after working on a field with comrades.
"He was doing well. I could hear him sing," his father said.
- The quiet comrade -
Luis Angel Abarca Carrillo was considered too shy for a school known for its radical left-wing activism, with murals of communist icons Karl Marx and Che Guevara."Comrade, this is not for you. You're very quiet," a fellow student told him.
But he impressed in his first public presentation, giving a speech "without stuttering, very calm, sure of himself," a friend recalled with a smile.
He shared a room with Marco Antonio Gomez, a rock fan who teased his friends with jokes at night.
His parents took all his belongings, leaving the room empty and eerily quiet.