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Ayotzinapa and Mexico’s cry for justice

Here is something you might not know: Mexico was ruled by the same political party for 71 years. Now, after a brief pause of 12 years, the same party is back: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI) won the last election promising that it was a new party. The “Nuevo PRI” or “new/reformed” PRI was going to be more democratic and leave behind the authoritarian past that it had been known for. This promise was at the centre of Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign during the elections back in 2012. Part of the international optimism about Mr. Nieto’s victory was derived from a perceived change in politics-as-usual in Mexico. Now, that optimism has all but disappeared. This text is an attempt from someone who has been part of the protests against Mr. Nieto to explain what is happening and why.

Who is Enrique Peña Nieto?
Peña Nieto is a politician that grew within the traditional ranks of the PRI party. He was a bureaucrat during the tenure of Mexico State’s governor Arturo Montiel. Being his personal secretary, he became the protégée of a state governor known for his corruption and authoritarianism. His political rise eventually turned him into Mexico State’s governor in 2005, helped by a mixture of family and political connections in a state that has been ruled by the PRI for 89 years without interruption.

During his tenure in the year 2006, Peña Nieto oversaw a violent police operation in the town of San Salvador Atenco2. The population had been resisting attempts to wrestle agricultural land away from them using eminent domain, in order to build a new airport. Back then and today, the social situation was grim: Mexico State is amongst the most violent areas of the country and the images of policemen chasing and hitting protesters in the streets of the town were broadcast on live television. After the operation, reports of rape and disproportionate violence surfaced. The violent repression of the protests in Atenco would haunt Peña Nieto during his presidential campaign. This would trigger massive student protests against him years later.

#Yosoy132 is born
Now, let’s skip forward 6 years. It’s 2012 and Peña Nieto is campaigning to be president. His visit to a renowned private university ended with a Q&A round in which students asked him about the San Salvador Atenco operation. He sternly defended having “reestablished the rule of law” and had to be escorted by his entourage out of the university among thousands of students that booed him and chanted “this university doesn’t want you”. Signaling the unrepentant stance of Peña Nieto towards human rights abuses, that first protest mutated into a massive student social movement named #Yosoy132 that warned about a possible authoritarian regression if Peña Nieto won.

Thousands of young people took to the streets (I was among them) and organized rallies and protests to try and break the information monopoly that the two dominant media conglomerates in Mexico exert upon the news. What seemed like an easy election for Peña Nieto turned into a difficult scenario: he led comfortably in the polls by about 20% but the student protests and other political factors reduced that lead to a mere 6% in the final vote. For better or for worse, the movement didn’t stop Peña from winning, who achieved victory using a combination of sophisticated and shady funding techniques and more traditional vote rigging practices, common to all political parties in Mexico. After his victory it was yet to be seen if the predictions that the student movement made would become true. Students warned people to be ready to “switch their clocks back 70 years”. Those of us who participated in the student movement feared that the way in which the PRI governed would be back: rigging elections, violently repressing student protests, mismanaging the economy and just being outright anti-democratic.

Many of these fears were displaced by something else: during the first two years of Peña’s presidency, an ambitious reform agenda was set and it met its own objectives in record time. While the student protests never ceased, the country was busy trying to understand what 11 constitutional reforms meant – Peña Nieto made so many changes to laws that it’s safe to say he changed the fundamental legal structure of Mexico. The participants in the student movement like myself remained sceptical about the reform’s purported benefits, but international optimism and a fragmented political opposition at home made it difficult to unify any criticisms. The warnings about a flawed and corrupt political system did not spread to everyone. What nobody could foresee is that a terrible incident would unify Mexican society in a call for justice and an end to impunity.

Mexico’s violent nightmare
It’s no secret that Mexico has security problems. More than 80% of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved. If anyone outside of Mexico heard anything about the country in past few years it’s probably related to drug violence. What is probably not well known is the extent to which this violence has penetrated Mexican society. Drug cartels have literally bought a place in the mainstream political system. For example, in Michoacán state, the governor’s son was recorded having a relaxed conversation and beers with the leader of a fearsome cartel named “La Familia Michoacana”.

Accusations of members of the chamber of deputies being financed by, or being part of, drug cartels have been circulating for years now. This is the immediate preamble for the atrocity that happened in Guerrero state, in the city of Iguala. A terribly dangerous combination is present in many parts of Mexico, especially in Michoacán and Guerrero state: Drug trafficking money has infiltrated municipalities and governments, extorting, bribing, blackmailing or even killing elected officials to make them comply with their demands. When it proved more convenient, the cartels effectively bought or infiltrated the candidacies of political parties and in many cases, obtained political representation through elections. This was the case in Iguala, the mayor had close ties with the dominant drug cartel in Guerrero. He was accused of killing a member of his own political party that competed with him for the candidacy and rumours of his lavish lifestyle were widespread. Nobody from the federal, state or local government did anything about it, even though the information was known to the Attorney General’s office. What happened later is a direct result of that failure to act.

The tragedy of Ayotzinapa
In the vicinity of Iguala, there is a rural teacher’s school in Ayotzinapa that houses many students. They go there to break away from a circle of poverty and exclusion that traps most of Guerrero’s peasant and indigenous youth. By being rural teachers, these students attempt to secure an income and educate themselves. Living in a state plagued by social inequality, Ayotzinapa’s students face many difficulties that range from lack of government funding up to outright police and political opposition to their demands for social equality. The students were well known in Guerrero for their combative stance and were always a thorn in the government’s side, frustrating local politicians that wished they would not agitate the population into demanding more from their government.

Those students were in route for the city of Iguala on September 26th aboard some buses, their aim was gathering funds to travel to Mexico City so they could attend a demonstration commemorating a government massacre against students in Mexico City that happened in 1968. While many of the facts are not clear yet, it’s believed that the mayor of Iguala thought that they were going to disrupt a political rally of his wife, which was set to be his successor. The students had protested blocking highways and commandeering buses before, hence the suspicion. What followed was one of the most barbaric acts in Mexico’s history.

The mayor ordered the police to stop them. Police officers stopped the buses and opened fire on the unarmed students, killing 3 people, among them a football player from a bus that was confused as being one of the students’. They kidnapped the students, one of which turned out dead the day after with the flesh and eyes removed from his skull, having been tortured to death. The rest, according to the government’s investigation, were taken to a garbage disposal site, summarily executed and then burnt to be finally disposed of by dumping their charred remains into a river.

This act shocked the nation. The forced disappearance of 43 students at the hands of local police, the mayor and a drug cartel was unprecedented in that the line between criminals and government was completely erased. It made it obvious that government officials were criminals and criminals were government officials. It also enraged people because it was known by authorities at the highest level that this could happen. In short, Ayotzinapa was a ticking bomb waiting to explode. Thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to protest Peña’s government response, which has been characterised as slow, insufficient and insensitive. It took the government weeks to react and start investigating seriously and it was mainly due to political pressure exerted from street protests.

A big question floats around in many countries around the world. What changed in Mexico? Why are the protests so massive? What happened? Many of the answers are within the story we’ve told here: ever since Mexicans can remember, violence and political oppression have been a part of their daily lives. Even for those who are lucky enough to have a college education and are relatively well off, the constant in their lives is a sense of insecurity. Economic opportunity for the great majority of people has remained elusive. Government corruption is widespread and tolerated. But the change that Ayotzinapa brought forth is the sense that government and crime are now indiscriminately killing citizens. There is a feeling that nobody is safe. This can be a watershed moment: maybe, Mexicans have realised that their current political system is seriously flawed and they can push for change. Some of the persons that looked away from the protests of the #Yosoy132 movement are now joining in massive, civic and nonpartisan protests calling for justice and against Enrique Peña Nieto.

The protests are varied but one element is common to most protesters: disillusionment with the entire political class. Initially, the call for Guerrero’s governor to resign were so strong that he was forced to step down. Now, many are calling for the Attorney General and Peña Nieto’s resignation. Never before had such a broad section of Mexican society demanded sweeping political change without consideration of any political party, politician or ideology.

There is a strong sense that in Mexico, no government mechanism works, not the economy, not the police, not the judiciary. This frustration, coupled with an enormous amount of young people that demand a better future, has been the catalyst of the protests in support of Ayotzinapa. The Mexican government is at a tipping point. Mr. Peña has proposed a series of 10 measures that range from special economic zones in Michoacán and Guerrero, to judiciary reforms to provide Mexicans a quick, easy access to justice in everyday affairs such as divorce or labour issues. Unfortunately for him, these measures did not go very far in gaining back the confidence of the population. Most people think it’s too little and too late. Also, the proposed reforms ignore a fundamental fact: legal changes do very little in the way of improving things when the problem is the application and effectiveness of the law. 

The Mexican people have raised the bar higher than that. They demand something much more difficult to accomplish: real economic development, equality in the opportunities to educate themselves, a more egalitarian country and a stop to the violence. Mexicans like me that have gone out of the streets and demanded justice for Ayotzinapa have rallied behind the cry “Todos somos Ayotzinapa” (We are all Ayotzinapa). For us, justice for the 43 disappeared students is also a demand of justice for all Mexicans. We are two months into the protests and the story is still unfolding. Hope is out there that, for the first time, Mexico can change. I hope it does.

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