There are perhaps a hundred of them. Marching on a Saturday afternoon through the streets of the centre of Mexico City. They are chanting, to prompts from a loudspeaker, that “they were alive when they left, we want them back alive”.
More than a year after the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa near the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero, this march by some of their parents and supporters barely rates a second glance from passers-by visiting the nearby market or simply out for a stroll on this sunny afternoon.
Many of the disappeared students’ parents are holding a plantón, camping out near the presidential residence of Los Pinos, also in the centre of the capital. But the mass protests that shook Mexico after the disappearance of the student teachers have now been replaced by a weary acknowledgement that the truth is never likely to come out.
After a lengthy report from a group set up by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission severely criticising the government’s version that the students had been abducted, murdered and dumped in a mass grave by members of a drugs gang, the government promised a new, independent enquiry.
So far, this enquiry has produced no fresh results, and done nothing to resolve the mystery. Only one body has been found and identified, and even that discovery has been called into question. Although the local mayor and his wife, whom the federal government blames for giving the orders to the local security forces, have been arrested, neither they nor anyone else has yet gone on trial for the crimes.
According to the priest José Solalinde Guerra, who runs a centre for migrants in the nearby state of Oaxaca and has played a prominent role in pushing for a proper investigation into not only the Ayotzinapa disappearances but that of many other unidentified migrants: “the government knows exactly what happened. So do lots of witnesses, but they have had pressure put on them, and direct threats, in order for them to say nothing.”
Solalinde, whose own life has been threatened many times, describes the Peña Nieto government as ‘autistic’, incapable of responding in any way to the demands of clarification and justice for the Ayotzinapa victims and many thousands more who have disappeared in Mexico in recent years.
A prominent Mexican journalist, Héctor Aguilar Camín goes further, describing the current government as being “anaesthetized in a way that leads it to ignore or to respond far too late to the scandals of corruption and human rights abuses they should confront.”
President Peña Nieto seems to have decided that the best way to deal with Ayotzinapa and all the other scandals besetting his administration is to pretend they do not exist, or are best forgotten and passed over in silence.
Having promised a national dialogue when he came to power in 2012 as leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he embarked on a wide-ranging series of much-needed reforms in areas from the oil industry to education.
In 2013, the first year of his administration, the national Congress adopted 54 changes to the constitution that were meant to shake up Mexico and open the country up to foreign investment, job creation and modernisation of the state and its institutions.
Halfway through his six years in office, the president now appears detached from day-to-day events. His increasingly bunker-like mentality seems to be aimed at seeing out the rest of his six-year term with as little trouble as possible.
At the same time, as often happened in the past, the PRI government has begun the count-down to the next presidential contest in 2018 by increasing public spending and other moves aimed at reminding Mexicans who they should be grateful to.
One of the most obvious measures in this respect is the way that the government is handing out free televisions to everyone as the country moves from an analogous to a digital system.
Possibly even stranger is the silence of the opposition parties on both the left and right of Mexican political life to call the Peña Nieto administration to account and to stimulate debate in the country.
December 2015 marks 15 years since the ending of the hegemony of the PRI as the ruling party in Mexico. The presidency passed to the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) between 2000 and 2012.
Now though the PAN, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) on the left are too busy fighting within their own ranks as they try to find candidates for the next presidential and congressional elections to provide any real opposition to Peña Nieto.
This means that there is a strange silence at the heart of political life in Mexico. The alternation of parties in power has not strengthened democratic debate or stimulated interest in politics.
The disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in September 2014 was a watershed. It demonstrated yet again the obvious inability of Mexican politicians of any persuasion to be able to explain how such barbaric acts can take place in a country that wishes to be seen as modern and democratic.
None of them has proved capable of offering answers not only to the violence related to the traffic in illegal drugs, but to the poverty that affects almost half a country of some 110 million inhabitants, or to the corruption that exists at all levels of the state.
As a result, according to a recent poll only some 19% of Mexicans believe their country is a functioning democracy. Mexican journalist José Luis Reyna concludes: “there is a long way to go before Mexico has a robust political regime and citizens who believe in its institutions.”