Widow of Ayotzinapa Student Whose Face Was Mutilated Is Still Waiting for Justice

By Melissa del Pozo

In the weeks before his brutal slaying, 22-year-old Julio César Mondragón was no longer liking being a teachers college student at the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero.

Initially, he entered the school with high hopes to "make history."

The college in southern Mexico is led and controlled by its students. Julio wouldn't have to pay for his education, or room and board. He'd be surrounded by murals of revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara and Lucio Cabañas.

But by late summer 2014, Julio César told his partner Marissa Mendoza back in Mexico City that "punishments" the students carried out on one another for disobeying rules were too severe. These included being forced into something called the Well, a ditch full of filthy mud and toilet water.

He also told Marissa that — although admission to the school is rigorously selective — the students at Ayotzinapa didn't study.

Instead, Mondragón, one of the first victims of the Guerrero police attacks that occurred six months ago today, said the Ayotzinapa students organized their days around "carteras," or "pockets," student commissions that focused entirely on the school's ideologically driven political work.

This included tending to the school's communal farmland, and hijacking passenger buses to get from protest to protest.

"He said he was sick of it, because they weren't studying," Mendoza told VICE News in an interview Tuesday.

The pair met at a normal-school dance in Mexico City in 2010. Mendoza at the time was studying to be a teacher herself. Three weeks after Mondragón moved to Guerrero to start at Ayotzinapa, Marissa Mendoza gave birth to their daughter, Melisa.

"He told me that he would make history at that school, but I never imagined it would be this way," Mendoza said.

On September 26, Mondragón was among a group of about 100 Ayotzinapa Normal School students who rode in a caravan of hijacked buses to the city of Iguala, Guerrero, to take over more buses and to solicit funds for their school.

The Ayotzinapa students came under attack from Iguala police.

Police trapped the buses and opened fire, before handing over 43 captured Ayotzinapa students to a local drug cartel, the Guerreros Unidos. The gang's hitmen are now accused of kidnapping and massacring the 43 students in a trash dump.

Six months later, survivors and scores of people who have demonstrated against the attacks still doubt the government's claim on the fate of the 43 disappeared students. Many will be gathering today in Mexico City for another major protest against the attacks and to call for justice for the victims.

  Survivors of the attacks and parents of the missing held a press conference in Mexico City on Tuesday to ask that state elections be voided in Guerrero this year. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo/VICE News)

Survivors of the attacks and parents of the missing held a press conference in Mexico City on Tuesday to ask that state elections be voided in Guerrero this year. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo/VICE News)

Six people were confirmed killed that rainy September night in Iguala.

Five of them were shot, including two Ayotzinapa students and three innocent bystanders. The sixth victim, Julio César Mondragón, suffered one of the cruelest death imaginable. His killers skinned his face and ripped out his eyeballs before dumping his body outside an empty lot.

"He wrote me and said that he was in Iguala, that they were going to hijack buses," Mendoza told VICE News. "We talked about the little girl, and said sweet things to each other, until he said that they were shooting at him. I told him to get out of there, and he said no, because he couldn't leave his classmates."

One man has been arrested in connection to Mondragón's death.

But six months after the Iguala police attacks, his survivors are among dozens of people who are awaiting justice in a case that shook Mexico and drew sharp critique for its handling under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The parents of the 43 students as well as surviving students and other supporters have staged dozens of demonstrations in Guerrero and across Mexico calling for the students to be returned alive, a semi-symbolic chant that places responsibility for the student's lives in the hands of the government.

In the aftermath, the United Nations human-rights commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have admonished the Mexican government for its rights record and called for the case of the missing to be solved conclusively.

In February, Mexican attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam was forced to step down after mounting criticism over his office's handling of the case.

'I ask that you take good care of my daughter, and yourself. Don't forget that I love you both, because they are probably going to kill me.'

Julio and Marissa began to live together in 2012. Marissa's salary as an elementary school teacher was barely enough to get by on, so Julio began to work as a security guard at a mall in the city. In late 2013, Marissa found out she was pregnant.

Modragón decided to go back to school last February.

He set his sights on the "Raul Isidro Burgos" Rural Normal School in Ayotzinapa, in central Guerrero. It's a school nationally known for its radical leftist politics and as the political birthplace of figures such as 1970s guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas.

"I told him not to go," Mendoza said. "I said the distance would separate us, but he said I was being selfish for not wanting him to go better himself."

In August, having never visited Guerrero before, and with baby Melisa on the way, Julio was accepted at Ayotzinapa and enrolled.

"The last thing he said to me [before leaving], was that he was going to that school, and he was going to leave a mark," Marissa said.

They kept in touch constantly. Julio would tell Marissa that he disagreed with a lot of the rules that the normal school's student leaders had established over the years.

"He called me and said he would ask for a transfer to a different normal school in December," she said. "He said there were too many punishments."

Mondragón was still a first-year student and thus had to follow the older students' directions. But Julio also aimed at climbing the ranks of the governing "student federation" in his remaining months, Mendoza said, to try to change those rules.

"He said they would throw them into something called 'the Well,' a ditch of mud and dirty water where they would make them do laps," she told VICE News. "Or if you fell asleep in a meeting, they would make you go to a dirty pool full of slime, stuff like that."

Julio and Marissa saw each other last on September 11. He took a quick trip for the weekend to Mexico City to see his newborn daughter for the second time. On September 26, he was among the Ayotzinapa first-years who were ordered to the city of Iguala.

They were going to hijack more buses. Their heads had been recently shaved in a sort of hazing ritual. Marissa was in contact with Julio until 9 pm, when he sent her an alarming message.

"He just said, 'I ask that you take good care of my daughter, and yourself. Don't forget that I love you both, because they are probably going to kill me'," Mendoza said, between sobs.

On September 27, 2014, after countless messages and calls to Julio went unanswered, the young woman opened Facebook. The first thing she saw was the horrifying image of a young man with no face and no eyes, lying on the bare ground, wearing a red shirt, black pants, and a brown scarf.

"I immediately thought it was him, because of the scars on his hand in the shape of a U, and because of the scarf," she said.

Mendoza and her mother traveled immediately to Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero. There, Julio's surviving classmates took her to the morgue, where Mendoza asked to see the body that she suspected was her daughter's father.

"Just seeing his feet, I knew it was him," she told VICE News. "Then they started to remove the sheet, and I saw that he didn't have a face, or eyes. His entire body was beaten badly, covered in bruises. The biggest one was on his shoulder, and was so grotesque that it looked black."

Marissa Mendoza is one of the many family members of the Ayotzinapa students who met with President Peña Nieto on October 29, 2014, at the presidential residence of Los Pinos.

"We asked him to help us, not just with the disappearance of the 43, but also to clear up Julio's case," she said. "He said that he would do everything possible to find the normalistas, but didn't say anything about Julio."

On February 25, 2015, Mexico's National Security Commission released a statement saying 40-year-old Luis Francisco Martínez Díaz, a municipal police officer in Iguala, had been arrested in connection to Mondragón's death, one of more than 100 people arrested so far after the Iguala police attacks.

According to the government's investigation — which has faced severe rebuke from independent experts — Martínez Díaz was responsible for cruelly murdering Julio César Mondragón by ripping off his face and eyes.

"I don't think this police officer alone is responsible," Mendoza said. "There are more, who are surely free. There is still so much doubt, and this is just a way for the government to close the case."

  Others in Iguala have come forward with unsolved cases of missing relatives. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)

Others in Iguala have come forward with unsolved cases of missing relatives. (Photo by Melissa del Pozo)

Mendoza is now 24, a single mother, working two teaching jobs at once.

Her jobs give her just enough to pay rent on the apartment she used to share with Julio, and for food, transportation, and child care. She doesn't yet know what she will tell her daughter when she is finally able to ask who and where her father is.

His daughter Melisa is now almost eight months old, and is about to take her first steps. Their daughter "is the living portrait of her father — and just as serious," Mendoza said. "She doesn't laugh much, but Julio didn't either."

Unlike most of the families of the dead and missing, Mendoza has hardly been involved in the gatherings of the parents of the normalistas, as the normal students are known, although she said she is in solidarity with Julio's classmates' families.

Since then, Mendoza's focus in life has been her daughter Melisa.

"Julio always asked me to take good care of our ratita [little rat], that's what he called Melisa, she is like a tiny drop of him," she said. "And that's what I'm going to do."

Sitting at a Mexico City cafe on a rainy Tuesday night, Mendoza sipped at her coffee.

"I feel like the government is laughing at our feelings, that's why now I don't listen to anything the government says," Mendoza said.