The disappearance of 43 students from a teacher training college – a normal as they are called – in Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state, and the discovery of a series of mass graves containing what may be their remains, has led to an outpouring of anger in Mexico.
Public fury has led to a series of protests not just in Guerrero and the city of Iguala where the students disappeared, but across Mexico as a whole. A day of action in early October saw protests take place in 19 Mexican states, as well as in other countries. A group of protestors demonstrated outside the Mexican embassy in London.
The disappearance of the students has shone a light on the links between organised criminal networks and corrupt police officers. Guerrero state governor Angel Aguirre has pointed to significant infiltration of the police by criminal gangs.
The students were driven away by the police after the clashes and have not been seen since. Testimonies suggest that the police may have handed the students over to members of the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) gang.
Explaining the Disappearances
No-one is quite sure exactly why the students were taken, though of course various theories have been advanced.
These have ranged from suggestions that they were targeted after the university that they attended, which had a history of radicalism, was involved in efforts to expel the gangs from the area, through to suggestions that Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, the wife of the mayor of Iguala, was concerned that the students would disrupt a speech she was due to give.
The students apparently clashed with police in Iguala while seeking to raise money for a planned protest. The students wanted to protest against education reforms that will change the way in which teachers are hired and evaluated. Apparently, six people were shot dead and a further twenty five were injured.
Twenty-two police officers who are suspected of being in cahoots with the Guerreros Unidos gang have been arrested. The mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velazquez is on the run together with his wife and his head of security. Abarca and Pineda Villa have long been suspected of having links to criminal networks, and the Beltran Leyva cartel in particular.
Thousands protest after disappearance of students Credit: voanews.com
Violence on top of violence
The student disappearances come on top of the suspected extrajudicial killing of 22 suspected gang members by army units in the village of Cuadrilla Nueva in Tlataya in June. The suspected gang members were allegedly murdered after they had surrendered to the soldiers.
This brought condemnation from the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Christof Heyns who noted that ‘The Government of Mexico has the duty to fully investigate, prosecute, and punish all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions’. Eight soldiers have been arrested for the killings.
Undermining the Mexican ‘Moment’?
These disappearances are likely to have significant ramifications for the PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto.
The disappearance of the students changes the dynamic of Peña Nieto’s narrative for the country. Peña Nieto has been keen to recast Mexico’s domestic and international image, away from that of being the epicentre of cartel-fuelled violence.
To facilitate this, Peña Nieto has taken a different tack from his predecessor Felipe Calderón who in 2006 launched the ‘war on drugs’, a hyper-militarised effort to bring the country’s notorious cartels to heel.
Peña Nieto has scaled back on Calderón’s militarised approach. Writing in The New Republic, Leon Krauze notes that Peña Nieto has pushed ‘narco-violence and the institutional implosion that has come with it under the rug’.
Instead, Peña Nieto’s administration has put the accent on market-friendly economic reforms that have spanned energy, justice, social development and political reform. The Peña Nieto government has been keen to project Mexico as a country whose ‘moment’ had arrived, a ‘new China’ about to join the front rank of world economies.
Clearly, endemic violence, bloodshed and corruption is not conducive to attracting investors to the country.
Security Challenges for the Aztec Tiger
However, the disappearance of the students and the spate of accompanying violence, including the on-air murder of broadcaster Atilano Román Tirado by two gunmen in Sinaloa, has brought Mexico’s endemic violence once more to the fore.
These episodes remind us that despite the efforts of the government, Mexico faces very significant challenges when it comes to security.
Each year the Mexican based NGO, the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, publishes its list of the top 50 most violent cities in the world. The 2014 list includes nine Mexican cities,with Acapulco – a city that was once a focal point of Mexico’s tourist industry – leading the Mexican contingent at number 2.
Estimates vary, of course, but since the onset of the drug war, somewhere in the region of 70,000 people have been killed. Many thousands more have either been injured or displaced.
These statistics undermine the government’s claims that the country’s violence and problems with corruption are being brought under control, and makes clear the inadequacy of the measures so far undertaken.
This grim situation is further highlighted by the emergence of self-help vigilante groups in states such as Michoacan.
In an address to the nation, President Peña Nieto called the student disappearances ‘outrageous, painful and unacceptable’
and has deployed federal forces to the area to ascertain what has happened and ‘apply the full extent of the law to those responsible’.
He has put pressure on the office of the Attorney General as well as the Ministry of Interior to find the students quickly. A reward of $750,000 has been offered for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing students.
Mexican authorities have also come under pressure from the United States and the Organisation of American States (OAS) to find out what has happened to the students and, if necessary, bring the perpetrators to justice. José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the OAS, said in the wake of the disappearance that ‘all Latin America is grieving’.
For all Peña Nieto’s efforts to change Mexico’s narrative, the country’s story seems resolutely destined to stay the same.