By Ricardo AinslieImage: Manifesto 43.
Mexico is still reeling from protests in the continuing aftermath of the September 26 disappearance and apparent murder of 43 students at a teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. The search for the missing students has led to the discovery of a series of previously unrecorded mass graves around Iguala, the city where the municipal police initially apprehended the students. Those graves are symptoms of a failed system when it comes to citizen security and the rule of law. The disappearance of the students has ignited a firestorm of indignation, disgust, and outrage, resulting in nation-wide demonstrations that have been ongoing for weeks. An entrance to the National Palace in Mexico City was set afire by protesters, the state legislature in Guerrero was also set ablaze, and victims’ families and activists temporarily shut down Acapulco International Airport. President Peña Nieto was forced to postpone a state visit to China and Australia due to the uproar. In a rare move, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States issued an extensive statement detailing what was known and what the government was doing to address the Ayotzinapa tragedy, but it did little to tamp down national and international activities in support of the students and their families.
Having endured years of violence on a national scale, Mexicans appear to have been jarred out of the haze of fear, numbness, and denial that has helped maintain the status quo in a nation where the rule of law remains tenuous. With a clear nexus between local and state government officials, local police, and organized crime groups, Ayotzinapa exposes unresolved problems that continue to haunt Mexico. Citizen demands go beyond the fate of these students; they are pressing for an end to endemic corruption and the implementation of judicial and law enforcement reforms. Throughout Mexico, Ayotzinapa has become emblematic of these failures.
The outrage is not new. Ten years ago a million citizens marched to Mexico City’s Zocalo, the country’s spiritual and political center, to demand an end the epidemic of crime that had engulfed the country since the 1990’s. Police collusion with crime, corruption in general, and failed institutions were the targets of the largest march in Mexico’s history. Two years ago, millions of Mexicans supported Mexican poet Javier Sicilia’s “Caravan for Peace” that crisscrossed the nation with similar demands following the murder of his son (LLILAS hosted a visit to campus by Sicilia in mid-November). There have been many other protests. The fact is that Mexican citizens have been demanding that the government live up to its most fundamental obligation, the protection of its citizens, for a long time.
But governments are averse to change. In 2007 the Mexican government acted to suppress my documentary film, Ya Basta!, which chronicles the 2004 million-person march and the tragedies that had led its leaders to form Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) in an effort to pressure the government into action. The husband of one had been kidnapped for 29 days during which four of his fingers were cut off to pressure the family into paying a higher ransom. Another’s daughter was kidnapped and murdered despite his having paid the agreed upon ransom. Just weeks before the film’s premier in Mexico, I screened it for then president Felipe Calderón’s chief of staff under the impression that the new administration was eager to pursue the reforms championed in the film (and by MUCD). Not long after, the MUCD leadership, which was negotiating with the administration over judicial and law enforcement reforms, was told to distance themselves from the film or else risk not having “a seat at the table,” leaving them no alternative but to comply.
Ten years after the Ya Basta march, Mexico’s cancer remains the country’s most important challenge, one that has profound implications for Mexico’s economy, as well. Energy reform, on which Mexico is pinning great hopes, will falter if organized crime controls the territory within which companies must work, or if cartels continue stealing oil and gasoline with impunity. Tourism has been hit hard by Mexico’s crisis (tourism if off by 65% in Acapulco, for example). Corruption and violence are costing the Mexican economy dearly. If president Peña Nieto is serious about addressing these issues he and his party must lead by example. That daunting challenge has been made even more difficult by recent revelations alleging that the Mexican company partnering with the Chinese to build a three billion dollar bullet train also built a seven million dollar home for Peña Nieto and his wife in an exclusive Mexico City neighborhood (the exposé went viral on youtube).
Whether the Ayotzinapa crisis leads Mexico toward real change remains to be seen. The nation may well fall back into silence and resignation as it has in the past following equally horrific moments. What the events at Ayotzinapa make clear is that it will take more than marches and protests to bring about the changes for which Mexicans hunger. Groups like Mexico Unido Contra la Delicuencia and other civic organizations must take the lead in pressuring the “three levels of government” (municipal, state, and federal), making them transparent and accountable to citizens.
Ricardo Ainslie is a native of Mexico City. His latest book, “The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War” (University of Texas Press, 2013) explores crime and violence in Mexico.
Ricardo C. Ainslie, Ph.D.
M.K. Hage Centennial Professor in Education
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.