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Mexico Unrest: Disappearance of 43 College Students Drives Protests

Laura Carlsen Dec 16

MEXICO CITY — “One, two, three, four … forty-three!” Students from the Polytechnical University count methodically as they march down the central avenue of Mexico City’s financial district. On “43” they cry “justice!” and break into a run.

Forty-three is the number of students forcibly disappeared on September 26 from the southern Mexican city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero. It has become the battle cry of a youth-led protest movement frustrated by years of violence, lawlessness and collusion between drug cartels and officials at all levels of government. 

The faces of “Los 43” now stare out from banners carried in the marches, from handmade signs held up by protesters, from university walls, from social media posts and from newspaper pages. The fate of the students has gripped Mexico for more than two months and the impact of this incident on Mexican politics and society is likely to be far-reaching for years to come.

The students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were last seen being taken away by police. According to the federal government, the students were subsequently handed over to a local drug gang with close ties to Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, and murdered. Why the police abducted the mostly first-year students remains unclear. Though there has been much speculation that Abarca was angered that the students might try to disrupt a speech his wife was scheduled to give that night, survivors say they didn’t even know about the event until later. 

Mexico’s Narco State

Killings and “forced disappearances” are commonplace in Mexico. More than 100,000 people have been murdered since the drug war began in 2006 and some 30,000 people disappeared. The launch of the drug war also saw a rise in other crimes, including kidnapping, torture, extortion, rape and other forms of sexual violence. 

Amid so much carnage, the September 26 killings in Iguala of six people and the related abduction of the 43 young men shocked Mexico because the direct involvement of the local police in the attacks, if not new, thrust the problem of collusion between government authorities and organized crime into full view. It also struck a nerve because it revealed the vulnerability of youth, frequently the victims of both state and criminal abuse, and the stark divide between the modernizing Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto has portrayed and the dirt poor Mexico that these mostly indigenous rural college students come from. 

Most important though, the protesters believe this was a political crime of the state. The rural teachers college of Ayotzinapa was founded in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. Located on a former hacienda where students work in the fields to grow food for the school, the campus’s walls are covered in revolutionary slogans and painted with murals of Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Lucio Cabañas, a school teacher-turned-guerrilla leader who was killed by the Mexican army in 1974. 

The school is one of 17 rural teachers colleges still operating in Mexico that give the children of poor, peasant, mostly indigenous families access to an education and a career. It also serves as a place to inculcate the values of social justice and peasant and labor rights. 

The students regularly participate in national protests against government policies and engage in highway blockades and other forms of direct action in defense of their school, which the government has repeatedly attempted to defund and shut down. Many Mexicans see the Ayotzinapa school and its students as a living symbol of the revolutionary ideals that Mexico’s neoliberal leaders have tried so hard to erase from the national character over the past three decades. For them, the attack on the students was an attack on the opposition to Mexico’s current path.

The scenario presented by Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, denies a political motive, aside from the mayor’s supposed tantrum. Murillo Karam posits that the Iguala police, allegedly under orders from the now-jailed Abarca, captured the students and turned them over to local police in the nearby town of Cocula, and they in turn delivered the students into the hands of the ruthless drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, or Warriors United. 

Murillo Karam claims, based on confessions from gang members arrested a few weeks after the attack, that the cartel assassinated the students and burned their bodies. On December 6, a team of forensic anthropologists from Argentina announced that the remains of one of the 43 students — Alexander Mora Venancio — had been identified. 

While the drug cartel practice of incinerating their victims’ remains is common in Mexico, many parents believe their sons are alive and accuse the authorities of not really looking for their children. The father of one of the 43 — weary-eyed, with a newborn asleep on his shoulder — told me that whether the students are dead or not, “The government knows where they are.” 

The Iguala mayor’s wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, also apprehended, is said to be a member of the family that runs Guerreros Unidos, a splinter group of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, which was decimated by attacks in the Mexico-U.S. drug war. As the government and mainstream media have spotlighted the couple, the movement in support of the Ayotzinapa students refuses to accept the “few bad apples” version of events. 

U.S.-Backed Drug War

Since search teams set out into the hills around Iguala to find the students, they have unearthed more than 30 cadavers — and still counting — in clandestine graves. While the international media considered the bodies a bombshell, the fact that the gently rolling hills hid a narco-cemetery surprised no one in Iguala. Many families immediately went down to government offices to sign up for DNA testing to see if the bodies belonged to their disappeared loved ones. 

Mexico’s bloodbath can be traced back to the U.S.-imposed drug war. While the official goal of this highly militarized initiative is take down the major drug cartels and their leaders, it also serves to pull Mexico more firmly into the U.S. security orbit. This strategy has fragmented many cartels but did not eliminate them, setting off bloody turf wars among rival groups. 

Protesters in Mexico City demand the resignation of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto for his role in presiding over a narco-state. Photo: Viviana Zuñiga

Deploying Mexico’s military against the cartels did more to corrupt the former than eliminate the latter. Police, which have always had relationships with the cartels in major production and transit zones, have also been pulled into disputes between rival gangs. Drug war violence covers up brutal crimes of all kinds, especially against women, and the rule of law has eroded to the point that some 94 percent of reported crimes are not punished in a justice system that works like a sieve. 

The United States, which has spent nearly $3 billion to fund the Mexican government’s drug war, insists that institutional efforts to vet police, provide training in procuring justice and increase military and intelligence capacity will eventually defeat the cartels. Mexican government officials say they’re fighting the cartels and corrupted officials. They claim Iguala is an example of a lack of state control over organized crime.

“Iguala is not the Mexican state,” Murillo Karam affirmed at his November 8 press conference –— the same one in which he cut off questions by saying, “I’m tired now,” and setting off a Twitter scandal under the hashtag #YaMeCanse, later brought to the United States as “#USTired2.” Peña Nieto has produced a 10-point plan reaffirming the war on drugs strategy and has sent the military in to take over local security forces.

These efforts are far from convincing many people that the Mexican government is their protector. On the night of September 26, the Mexican army, as well as state and federal police, were stationed nearby and did nothing as the local police shot at the students and took the 43 away. It begs the question of how the local police thought they could get away with such a crime and reinforces the belief of protesters and survivors that the government works with organized crime and not against it, and that — whether planned exactly in this way or not — the state wanted to get rid of the Ayotzinapa students. 

Student Rebels

“Business as usual” has changed in Mexico and the rise of the cartels and cartel violence is just a part of it. The country has been roiled by a new wave of neoliberal reforms since President Peña Nieto came into office two years ago. His education reform — which scraps many teacher rights and rolls back liberal arts education in favor of more narrowly focused vocational instruction — sparked widespread protests in which the Ayotzinapa students participated. The recent privatization of the nation’s oil and gas resources and other changes in taxes, labor and telecommunications laws have chipped away at the post-revolutionary constitution and laid the final stones in the neoliberal restructuring of Mexico. 

In an economic system made for the few, many people fall through the cracks. And some — the rebellious, the brave, the outspoken — are pushed. The government had many reasons to push the students of Ayotzinapa. Not only did they block highways to demand that their school remain open and commandeer commercial buses when they needed transportation, but they also supported the protests of the poor communities that are taking the brunt of the new policies. 

“All the injustices committed against our communities, we feel that. So when they carry out actions to demand justice, we participate,” notes Carlos Perez Díaz, a second-year student at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College and a survivor of the attacks. “It seems that’s what bothers them the most — that there are students who have left this rural college, who have gone out and raised awareness among the people to organize, to demand their rights. We think this is why they attacked on the 26th, to silence all these voices of social protest in the state of Guerrero, and not just in Guerrero — in the whole country.” 

Marco Granados, a student at a rural teachers’ college in the neighboring state of Michoacán and head of the Federation of Peasant Socialist Students of Mexico, agrees. Julio Cesar Mondragon, one of the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala during the initial attacks on September 26, was found murdered with his face stripped off and his eyes gouged out. Granados sees it as a message.

“This, for people who protest, for us rural college students, is a very strong message. Because it says to us, ‘this can happen to any of you,’” Granados said. 

Brewing Discontents

The case of the Ayotzinapa 43 has united powerful undercurrents in Mexican society into a single voice. The discontent with a drug war that had been brewing for years boiled to the surface, along with opposition to the economic reforms. Teachers who protested the education reform are back in the streets; unions fighting rollbacks of labor rights and small farmers who oppose the land expropriation clauses of the oil privatization reform march alongside rebellious youth. The result is a multi-sector movement that demands the safe return of the students — and a complete and total overhaul of the political system. 

As the demonstrations continue, protesters have not put forward the long list of demands and grievances that usually characterizes Mexican protest movements. If you ask the students or parents from Ayotzinapa, they insist their only demand is the return of the missing students alive.

For now, that’s enough, because that simple demand poses a fundamental challenge to the state. It’s also enough because, although the movement may not have a roadmap for where it’s going, it has a very clear idea of what it wants to leave behind — the entire corrupt political system of alliances between politicians, big business and organized crime. 

All three major political parties — the ruling PRI; the conservative PAN, which started the drug war when it governed the country from 2006 to 2012; and the PRD, the party of both the mayor of Iguala and the governor of the state of Guerrero — are widely distrusted. “PRI+PAN+PRD=Narco-government” is a common slogan on protest banners. 

On December 1, a 15-day campaign began to take over municipal governments throughout Guerrero and form citizen assemblies. And lately, the movement is coalescing around the demand for Peña Nieto to resign. Two years into his administration, the president’s approval levels have hit a low at 39 percent, according to a poll by the Mexican newspaper Reforma. Peña Nieto also faces conflict of interest and corruption scandals based on revelations of a multi-million dollar presidential mansion under the name of a construction company favored by government contracts.

Still, the demand for resignation is a long shot. 

One protest banner reads, “When those below move, those above fall.” Does that mean this anti-systemic movement can take down a corrupt and entrenched political class? For now, there are no scenarios or predictions and no recent precedent, as Mexico’s political system has remained remarkably stable for the past 80 years despite passing through other moments of intense crisis like this one. The movement relies on the national and international momentum it has generated as it seeks to push forward. 

Regardless of what happens, even Peña Nieto acknowledged, in a November 27 speech, that “Mexico can’t go on like this. After Iguala, Mexico must change.” He then presented a list of measures, many of them proposals made by his predecessor and all of them designed to strengthen the drug war and push his neoliberal economic policies forward. 

The protesters responded with their characteristic combination of indignation and mockery. They may not have a 10-point plan, but it’s clear they aren’t going to settle for Peña Nieto’s list either. 

Laura Carlsen is director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. For more, see cipamericas.org or follow @cipamericas.