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There are still no answers eight years after 43 students in Mexico went missing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been more than eight years now since 43 students from a rural teachers college went missing in Mexico. Two government administrations have said the students are all dead, but their parents believe they're alive. And as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports, they've never given up their quest for the truth about what happened to their children.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Clemente Rodriguez Moreno sits in his living room in the mountains of Guerrero state. He still has a poster of his son Christian right in the middle of the room. You took them alive; return them alive, it says at the bottom. Two presidents have told him his son is dead. The most convincing evidence he's ever gotten is a 5.5 centimeter piece of bone from Christian's left foot.

CLEMENTE RODRIGUEZ MORENO: (Through interpreter) But I think if they cut my leg off, if they cut my arm off, I could still survive.

PERALTA: Ever since the Ayotzinapa students disappeared in 2014, the government of Mexico has presented story after story of what they say happened - first, that authorities turned the students over to a drug gang; then that they were dismembered, incinerated and thrown into a ravine they call the butchery, where they found the fragment of Christian's foot. But it turned out that authorities likely planted evidence at that ravine. In 2018, the new president ordered a fresh investigation, which recently revealed that some students ended up alive at a military camp. But that story fell apart just weeks after it was presented as, quote, "the historical truth." It turned out that the text messages that pointed to a motive were likely fake.

RODRIGUEZ MORENO: (Through interpreter) I know that deep down inside, they're hiding something. And they don't want us to get to the truth.

PERALTA: The uncertainty, he says, has made him and his wife the walking dead. Every Christmas, every birthday, every holiday, he looks for his son and finds an empty chair. Christian, he says, loved dancing and loved farming.

RODRIGUEZ MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Even though it's been eight years, he still dreams about his son. In his last dream, he remembers picking up Christian from town, sharing a Coke with him and bringing him home. This wasn't a memory, he says, because he wasn't a kid anymore. He was tall, with a mustache.

RODRIGUEZ MORENO: (Through interpreter) Dad, I'm alive, he told me. Don't believe what they're saying.

PERALTA: In Mexico, it feels like truth exists in a different dimension. So far, not a single family has a body that they can bury.

RODRIGUEZ MORENO: (Through interpreter) My heart is telling me that the military is holding my son. The military has him because we know in this country, there are clandestine jails.

PERALTA: To the philosopher Ernesto Priani, the case of Ayotzinapa reminds him of the Akira Kurosawa film "Rashomon." It explores how humans can have completely different versions of the same crime.

ERNESTO PRIANI: And how, at the end, the film leaves you with the idea that the truth is something in between many versions.

PERALTA: Priani calls Mexicans orphans of the state. Without institutions they can trust, Mexicans wander, looking in hearts, in their dreams, anywhere to glean some truth. And he says that they are left languishing in a kind of philosophical purgatory, where...

PRIANI: The most powerful evidence is beyond your grasp how you can construct the truth.

PERALTA: I meet Hilda Legideno outside of the Ayotzinapa Rural School. A poster with her son's face hangs along the light posts.

HILDA LEGIDENO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Legideno says when the students first went missing, they did call authorities. But they lied over and over, and it left enough doubt that she cannot stop searching.

LEGIDENO: (Through interpreter) As long as I don't get scientific evidence, I can't forget him. I can't let this be.

PERALTA: I ask her, what if scientific evidence is impossible? What if the bodies were dissolved in acid like the government says? She pauses. Her eyes water.

LEGIDENO: (Through interpreter) For many, it might be easy to say, just accept what the government has told you, true or not true. But as a mother, it's impossible to forget a child. As a mother, I'll be here until the end.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

PERALTA: Almost every month, the students of the rural college come down from the mountains. They dress in black and march in formation slowly through the city centers. The chants are monotonous, and they echo across the state capital of Chilpancingo like the ghosts of their missing classmates. Sometimes students pick up a microphone and scream truths, things that are often said in whispers but rarely said out loud.

DIEGO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: One student, who goes by Diego, screams that children are being killed in the mountains by members of the cartels. They parade their guns without fear, he says, because they're in bed with politicians. A mask covers half his face, he says, because sometimes the truth in Mexico is dangerous.

DIEGO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: But he's here, he says, because he wants Mexicans to join their protest, to wake up to the real truth. The students move across the city. Some leave graffiti on the walls that reads, it was the state. When the students reach the offices of one of the big political parties, they begin banging on the doors with sledgehammers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEDGEHAMMER POUNDING)

PERALTA: These are the guys, they claim, who obscure the truth. And when the door doesn't budge, one student pulls out a pipe bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB EXPLODING)

PERALTA: Then they keep banging, their hands bloodied, unsure if the door will ever budge or even if the truth they seek will be inside. Eyder Peralta, NPR News in Guerrero state, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.