School at heart of Mexican massacre a lonely place

Ayotzinapa (Mexico) (AFP) - The teacher training college at the center of Mexico's latest spasm of gang-related violence is now a lonely and fearful place.

A total of 43 of its students have vanished and are feared dead since September 26 when they attended a fund-raising rally in the town of Iguala.

It is thought they were killed by gang-members and corrupt local police, then dumped in one of the mass graves that dot this region, which is haunted by drug-related violence.

The shooting allegedly started when the students commandeered buses to get back home to the college.

At the school, in the town of Ayotzinapa, the black door of one of the dorms is sealed shut. Its red walls, supposed to symbolize the left's fight for the downtrodden, look bleak.

Ten of the students that lived in the dorm are among the 43 missing. Another five fled, fearing for their lives.

Ernesto Guerrero, a 21-year-old student at the college, survived September's maelstrom of violence in Iguala, 130 kilometers (80 miles) away.

Guerrero is one of only five students who remain in the dorm. He is proud of staying put at this school that bills itself as a place of revolutionary ideology.

But when night comes, he is afraid to sleep in his assigned room. He seeks out a spot in with other students, for the comfort of their company. His roommates do the same.

Of 140 first-year students at the college in Ayotzinapa, 110 are gone: the 43 who are missing, and 67 who fled.

"My parents have told me to come home. They prefer that I end up without a degree rather than get killed somewhere," said Guerrero, standing outside the dorm.

It is painted Communist red with likenesses of Karl Marx and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

He recalls the way it used to be, with his roommates talking into the night about political ideology, playing music and joking.

- Classmates leaving in fear -

Guerrero wants to be a teacher in rural Mexico. But he also wants at all costs to prevent the closure of his college and a dozen similar ones around the country run by a federation of rural students.

The schools are the last bastion of an education project designed to help destitute rural Mexicans, an initiative founded at the end of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.

Students at these schools are used to pressing forcefully, even with violence, for the government to keep them open.

The night of the attacks in Iguala, the 43 students had seized buses to get back to Ayotzinapa.

The mayor of Iguala, who is linked to a drug cartel, ordered the attack because he thought the students were going to disrupt a speech by his wife, prosecutors have said.

On Wednesday, the families of the missing received a pledge from President Enrique Pena Nieto to "redignify" the schools.

Another student, aged 25, escaped the bloodshed with a bullet in the knee. He laments that classmates with whom he has shared so much are leaving. The initial clash left six dead.

"I see that some are leaving," he said, without giving his name. "They are afraid."

- United in suffering -

The mother of Julio Cesar Ramirez, one of the six killed in the initial fighting, cries as she stands before an altar with orange flowers around a picture of him.

"My hope now is to see the other boys come back alive so he can rest in peace and let me rest," said the mother, Berta Nava.

Another one of the missing students, 21-year-old Cesar Manuel Gonzalez, has a dog named Lulu, a rabbit named Whiskas and a cat, Tambor.

"They are waiting for him at home," said his father Cesar Mario, his eyes red with tears.

The father carries a rosary and bracelets with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, gifts from well-wishers who joined him to pray for the missing students.