‘They were alive when we last saw them, we want them returned to us alive’. This has become the slogan of the families of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training school, who disappeared in the city of Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero on 26 September.
More than two months later, there is still no clear idea of what happened to the 43. The official version is that the students had hijacked a bus and were hoping to travel in it to Mexico City for protests on 2 October to commemorate the 1968 massacre of students in Tlatelolco Square, Mexico City. The bus was intercepted by the municipal police in the town of Iguala, on the orders of the local mayor, José Luis Abarca, after six young people had been killed in the town on the same day. The students were then apparently handed over to members of the dominant local drugs cartel, Guerreros Unidos, who are said to have killed them all, burnt their bodies, and either threw them onto a rubbish tip or buried them in a mass grave.
In the search for the students’ bodies, at least 12 mass graves have been unearthed in the area around Iguala. What has incensed and stupefied Mexicans is that none of the bodies found in these graves (more than 300 people) were those of the missing students. These discoveries have demonstrated yet again for years, ordinary Mexicans have been snatched, killed, and buried without the authorities doing anything to try to find and identify them.
There is similar stupefaction over the most recent disappearances. How can it be that the central or local state authorities have so far been unable to give any convincing version of what happened to the 43 victims? Some observers are comparing the situation to the abduction of several hundred schoolgirls in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram – in both cases, the central government appears to have no knowledge or control over what is going on in an important part of the country.
The answer to the authorities’ incapacity is that the corruption that has its origins in the vast amounts of money the drugs cartels generate has spread through all levels of the Mexican state. The local mayor and his wife, whose brother is alleged to be one of the leaders of the Guerreros Unidos drugs gang, went on the run and were finally captured in a poor district of Mexico City. So far though, they have apparently given no further information to the authorities, or been charged with any crime. The Guerrero state governor has also been forced to step down. The municipal police force has been replaced by a federal unit, and Iguala’s local officials suspended.
After weeks of apparently downplaying the significance of the alleged student massacre, President Enrique Peña Nieto even left the country for several days to attend the G20 summit in China- he finally appeared on TV on Thursday 27 November to announce a ten-point plan designed to combat corruption and avoid similar disappearances in the future. Among the measures are the substitution of more than 1,800 local police forces with one national unit, the dissolution of municipal governments suspected of being infiltrated by drug gangs, and measures to alleviate poverty in poor states such as Guerrero.
The problem is that almost no-one here believes a word of what their president says. This is largely because at the same time as he was announcing his plan he and his wife are caught up in a corruption scandal of their own.
This revolves around a US$9 million property his wife Angélica owns in the smartest district of the capital. There is no way that Mexico’s first lady is meant to have access to such sums of money. A former soap opera actress, she has defended herself by saying that the money was paid to her by a TV company to secure her services once her husband’s term in office finishes.
However, the property is apparently jointly owned with a public works contractor who has benefitted from several big government contracts. The latest of these was participation in the ambitious – and very expensive – ‘bullet train’ designed to link Mexico City and Querétaro. When the scandal first broke, the president cancelled the project. This greatly annoyed the Chinese, who were putting up much of the finance, and has disgusted the Mexican taxpayers, who are now faced with indemnifying them.
All this should have strengthened the main left-wing opposition party, the PRD. Unfortunately for them, both the Iguala mayor and the governor of Guerrero were PRD members. The suspicion that the PRD is little better than the ruling PRI party has led to its historic leader Cuauthemoc Cárdenas resigning as its president, saying that its politicians needed to examine their consciences and expel anyone suspected of corruption.
Nor has the right-wing PAN been able to profit from the situation. Many Mexicans blame them for the way in which they militarised the conflict with the drug cartels during their 12 years in power from 2000-2012. President Felipe Calderón in particular declared open war on the cartels, bringing in the army and the marines to fight them. The result was more than 25,000 deaths and disappearances, and the reinforcement of the firepower of the drug gangs.
Members of the missing students’ families are touring the country, trying to persuade Mexicans not be indifferent to what has happened. The response has been overwhelming, with almost daily protests in many cities. These demonstrations have led to more police brutality, convincing many Mexicans still further that the state has no answers beyond repression and corruption. Yet any political change seems unlikely, and as usual those who have committed crimes will remain unpunished.