Mexico On the Brink

Mexico On the Brink

Ayotzinapa solidarity march, Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, November 20, 2014 (Montecruz Foto / Flickr)

Since early October, Mexico’s citizens have organized an increasingly vociferous campaign to demand an efficient government response to the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. Each time one story seems to end, new details emerge of corruption, state repression, police torture, mass graves, and child kidnapping. Now, two months later, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto stands on the brink. Fuelled by tales of official incompetence and government indifference, pundits and protestors alike are calling for drastic change; many demand an end to the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) regime.

Retreating for a moment from the cycle of depressing revelations and condemnatory editorials, two key questions stand out. First, why now? Why, after nearly a decade of drug war violence, police incompetence, judicial impunity, and official corruption, have Mexicans suddenly taken to the streets to demand political change? Second, can Peña Nieto’s suggested reforms do anything to stem this wave of unrest? Or, as the great Mexican cartoonist Rius wishfully wrote after anther such massacre, is it PRI RIP?

Why now?

Since Felipe Calderon narrowly won the presidential election in late 2006 and declared a war on the country’s cartels, at least 80,000 Mexicans have lost their lives to drug violence. Repentant cartel insiders, with their tales of acid baths and hidden graves, hint at many more. Beyond the dead, there are also the disappeared. Official figures put the number at around 26,000, but again, these numbers are too low. Even in the relatively peaceful state of Oaxaca, rumors of unreported levantones or mass kidnappings abound. Many of the disappeared are probably dead, employed to dig the subterranean drug tunnels into the United States, or used as cartel cannon fodder. Others fill the sad ranks of Mexico’s 266,000 slaves, cut off from their families and working far from home as house servants, sex workers, or drug runners.

Massacres of innocents have been depressingly frequent. August 2010, 72 migrants shot in San Fernando, Tamaulipas; January 2010, 16 teenagers gunned down at a party in Ciudad Juárez; April 2011, 193 bus passengers kidnapped and killed in San Fernando (again); August 2011, 52 lunchtime gamblers burned to death in a Monterrey Casino. The list goes on. Investigators only opened the mass graves of 300 victims of a 2011 drug massacre near Allende, Coahuila six months ago. No one even knows what is happening in Tamaulipas. Fearing for their lives, journalists and human rights advocates rarely enter the border state.

Some of these massacres have elicited public outcry. After the murder of his son, for example, poet Javier Sicilia started the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad, which organized marches against corruption and impunity throughout the country in 2011. And some victims’ relatives have directly implicated the government. When Calderon implied that the 16 Ciudad Juarez teenagers might have had links to the cartels, relatives hung placards outside their homes in which they declared “until those responsible are found, you [Calderon] are the murderer.”

But these are the exceptions. Outside of a small group of journalists, human rights activists, and victims, most Mexicans have remained silent. In a depressing new piece of research, Javier Trevino-Rangel finds that most middle-class Mexicans—even those who have experienced family tragedies—prefer to believe that the dead partly deserved their fate and that they were paying for their covert connections to organized crime. Most also confessed that they thought protest was “pointless.” So what has changed? Why have the Ayotzinapa 43 elicited such a strong, persistent wave of mobilization?

At the most basic level, the victims have a ready-made, vocal support network among Mexico’s most competent and aggressive social activists—students and teachers. Time and again, both groups have organized and fronted marches, giving the movement a reach outside Guerrero and into squares and university campuses across Mexico and abroad. Perhaps most importantly, allies at Mexico City’s major universities have moved the center of opposition to the country’s capital. For over a decade, the city has been relatively free of drug violence. But now, thanks to demonstrations in the Zócalo and outside the National Palace, what were often deemed provincial problems have started to gain political purchase. Whereas before, pundits and politicians ignored these massacres—the discovery of the 300 dead in Allende barely merited a paragraph in Mexico’s major newspapers—they now have little choice but to take note.

The protests also expose expectations about this PRI regime. Mexicans voted for the PRI not because they wanted to re-privatize the petroleum industry, or bust the teachers’ union, or even gaze at Peña Nieto’s photogenic face. They voted for the PRI because they assumed, that the party “sabe gobernar”—“knows how to rule”—and could bring some level of security to the country. To do this, many tacitly acknowledged that the PRI would introduce some of its old tactics, including secret pacts with the cartels—that it would be corrupt, but in a relatively beneficial way.

For over two years, Peña Nieto’s government lived up to expectations. Major cartel leaders were killed or imprisoned, murder rates dropped, and security insiders whispered of a new status quo, a new government-trafficker pact, which exchanged state non-interference for relative peace.

The Ayotzinapa victims have a ready-made, vocal support network among Mexico’s most competent and aggressive activists—students and teachers.

Then came Ayotzinapa. Hopes that the PRI “sabe gobernar,” that it could cope with the dizzying fragmentation of the cartels and their expansion into all levels of government institutions and organized crime, disappeared. Mexican citizens now realize that they are not only saddled with the most corrupt of the country’s political parties, but that this corruption—this blend of hard-nosed repression and back-room deals—can no longer keep gangs in check.

Mexico’s other parties offer no solace. Many citizens hold the right-wing PAN (National Action Party)—which started the war on drugs—responsible for much of the bloodshed. And the left-leaning PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), which once offered some hope of social and political reform, has seen its reputation further damaged by Ayotzinapa. The mayor of Iguala, who ordered the police to kidnap the students, was a PRD appointee. Two weeks ago, the PRD’s elder statesman, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, resigned, in part at least in protest at the party’s involvement in the crime. Democracy, defined narrowly as the promise of electoral change, offers little hope.

But public anger in Mexico is about more than the failures of party politics; it is about the nature of the tragedy itself. Disappearances, perhaps more than deaths, go to the heart of Mexico’s war on drugs. However incompetent the judicial system, however poor the policing, deaths can be explained. Politicians and editorialists can weave a narrative around the victim’s eventual demise, offer society some explanation (however spurious), and, with time, some closure. While relatives are left to grieve, the politicians, the media, and other citizens move on.

Disappearances are different. In the most practical terms, they prolong our gaze at the state. As politicians and police shift between denial and condemnation, grapple with shifting public expectations, and scrabble around for explanations, we see them for what they are—cheap, corrupt, incompetent, and callous.

In the case of Ayotzinapa, Mexicans have seen their politicians try to bribe victims’ parents; dismiss grieving parents with terse statements of indifference; use agitators to undermine genuine demonstrators; lock up and torture protestors on laughable charges; encourage a half-hearted campaign to drum up the threat of imminent anarchy; and indulge in risible defenses of private corruption. (I had no idea Peña Nieto’s wife was such a bad actress until I saw her trying to claim she was wealthy through “honesty and hard work.”)

But beyond this, disappearances also hold a more profound symbolic meaning in contemporary Mexico. Disappearances highlight how the war on drugs has denied citizens their ability to comprehend the world around them. The war on drugs has been fought not on the streets, in pitched battles by orthodox government forces against criminal gangs, but in what Wil Pansters terms the “grey zone.” Here, behind closed doors, traffickers, politicians, military officials, and state, judicial, and municipal police units alternate between alliance and war, temporary pacts and bloody massacres. The media, which one might expect to make some sense of these maneuvers, has been co-opted, corrupted, or cowed. So citizens are forced to make what they will of a mix of nota roja reports, narcomensajes, and online rumors that now pass for Mexico’s public sphere. This permanent state of uncertainty and incomprehension has linked Mexicans to the drama of the Ayotzinapa case like no other. The victims’ parents are not alone in their state of “not knowing.” All Mexicans, like the Ayotzinapa parents, want some sort of truth.

Peña Nieto’s Empty Reforms

In answer to growing outcry, Peña Nieto recently announced a ten-point program for security reform, which he clearly hopes will stem public anger. Some are little more than window dressing; the proposal to introduce one countrywide police phone number (like 911 in the US) has already become a running joke online. Others, like the introduction of a national database for missing persons, seem so obvious that they merely serve to highlight the past incompetence of the PRI.

But two in particular are worth analyzing in more depth. First, Peña Nieto has proposed that Mexico’s congress will get the power to dissolve local town councils infiltrated by organized crime. On purely practical grounds, this seems impossible to implement. According to Edgardo Buscaglia, president of the Institute of Citizen Action, criminals control around 70 percent of municipal governments. For many, taking 10 per cent of the profits from brothels and drug traffickers are the only means to stay afloat. Does Peña Nieto really anticipate the federal government usurping control of over half—over 1,000—town governments? There is also the question of politics. With such abundant evidence of criminal collusion, congress will have to choose which councils to close down. Presumably choices will fall along party lines, with PRI congressmen voting against PAN and PRD councils and vice versa.

Second, Peña Nieto has proposed closing down Mexico’s 1,800 municipal police forces and replacing them with stronger state forces. Again, this appears completely impractical. In 2009, the PAN tried to do something similar by creating a unified police structure. The effort “failed completely,” according to security expert Alejandro Hope. At the same time, there is no evidence that state police forces are any less corrupt than their municipal counterparts. Organized crime has infiltrated every level of the Mexican police. Over the past decade, competition between rival drug gangs has often materialized as firefights between the opposing corrupt police forces.

Beyond the impossibility of implementation, Peña Nieto’s proposals also demonstrate just how out of touch the PRI has become. Mexicans do not see the solution in greater centralization. They distrust the president, the congress, the governors, and the military just as much as the corrupted municipal leaders. Ayotzinapa has only cemented this cynicism. Protestors point to the military forces, who stayed in their barracks while the Iguala police kidnapped the students; they point to the Guerrero governor who tried to link the students to organized crime; and they point to Peña Nieto, who put handshaking events with Prince Charles and the Chinese premier before the needs of the Ayotzinapa parents.

If Ayotzinapa has taught Mexicans anything, it is that what is needed is not more centralization but less. Over the past two months, civil society has taken to the streets to demand justice and truth. And in Guerrero, local citizens have linked up with representative civilian defense units to search the mountains around Iguala for more mass graves.

Until Mexico’s authorities seek to harness this civil mobilization—for example, by instituting greater civil oversight of the police, a functional transitional justice policy, and perhaps even an effective truth, justice, and reconciliation commission—the protests will continue.


Benjamin T. Smith is an associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick. He is currently working on a history of the Mexican press and, together with Wil Pansters and Peter Watt, a history of the Mexican drug trade. His last book, co-edited with Paul Gillingham, was Dictablanda: Politics, Work and Culture in Mexico, 1938-1968 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

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