Mexico's Moment Reconsidered
November 15, 2014
“This time is different, this time we see through [the government’s] Sh*t,” said Juan, a young Mexican student eating pizza with his girlfriend at a sidewalk cafe in Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood. He was referring to the nationwide outrage and mass protests in the wake of the recent disappearance––likely at the hands of municipal police and cartel affiliated gunmen––of 43 student teachers from Iguala in Guerrero state, Mexico.
President Enrique Peña Nieto came in to office in December 2012 promising to stamp out corruption. He has proven incapable (or unwilling) of doing so and his popularity here at home has suffered. Adding to that, Mexico’s youth unemployment and poverty rate are both troublingly high with little prospect on the horizon for improvement.
Sentiment here is that these protests are different from previous protests. These kidnappings are different from previous kidnappings. And the corruption being exposed is different from previous corruption. This time, people believe, things will change. They may be right but this time is not different because the crimes committed were uniquely offensive. Rather, this time is different because the political and economic climate have created an atmosphere primed for a trigger.
Cartel violence, government corruption, and even mass disappearances are nothing new in Mexico. The search for the missing students has uncovered a troubling number of mass graves having nothing to do with the missing 43. Among the most recent atrocities were the June killing of twenty two young people, including a 17 year old girl, by the Army in they initially reported as a pitched battle with gang members but was later revealed by the Associated Press and human rights groups to be execution style murders. In May 2012, 49 dismembered men and women were discovered stuffed into plastic bags along a highway in Nuevo Leon, just south of the Texas border. None had affiliations to criminal activity. And on October 16, in Reynosa, Taumalipas, Dr. Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, who had been tweeting information under a pseudonym about cartel activity in the area, was kidnapped and presumably killed. Her death was announced on Twitter with the message, “#reynosafollow FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MY REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A PHYSICIAN. TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END.” “Mexico," said Professor Sergio Aguayo of Colegio de Mexico, "is a killing field."
And then, on September 26, 43 students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, Guerrero were kidnapped and haven’t been seen since. The students, training to teach in some of Guerrero’s poorest schools, were themselves from poor, rural families. Acceptance to Ayotzinapa is prestigious; these kids were bright. They were stopped by municipal police and masked gunmen while raising money in nearby city of Iguala and in the ensuing violence six people were killed, more than twenty were injured, and 43 were detained and disappeared. Those 43 have become icons of state failure and rallying cries for people across the country.
The details behind the students’ disappearance have revealed, with alarming clarity, and, if not for their tragic nature, almost comical complexity, the depths of Mexican corruption. Soon after the kidnappings, the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda (dubbed the Imperial Couple by local media) fled and remained on the run for over a month until being arrested on November 4th in Mexico City. Not only are the two likely responsible for ordering the students’ killing but Ángeles Pineda’s brothers are believed to be leaders of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, a notoriously violent cartel responsible for a great deal of the heroin making its way to the United States. She was using the cartel’s money to keep local police on the payroll and was sending money to her lover, the Governor of Guerrero state, Ángel Aguirre.
Mexico’s drug war has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives in the past six years and 22,000 total disappeared, but it wasn’t until these 43 students from rural Ayotzinapa were kidnapped that the Mexican people, from Baja in the north to Chiapas in the south, mobilized by the thousands. Demonstrations this widespread and this unrelenting have not been seen here since the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre when government forces killed anywhere from 30-300 students demonstrating against the $150 million being spent to host the 1968 Summer Olympics. One sign at a recent demonstration in Ciudad Juarez read, “Tlatelolco touched my father, Ayotzinapa touched me. Struggle so your child won’t be touched.” Tlatelolco is often thought of as a turning point in Mexican politics and many here believe that Ayotzinapa will be this generations equivalent.
If you ask people in Mexico City why they are driven to act now, inevitably they will tell you that it is because these were students. Worse yet, they were studying to become teachers. They were idealists from a school with a rich tradition of leftist political activism and the go-to government trope of labeling victims in these situations as criminals and drug dealers rings hollow. Parents, teachers, and fellow students all see themselves in either the disappeared 43 students or their families.
And yet empathy alone does not bring 50,000 + people into the streets to protest. It doesn’t catalyze an entire nation from rural farmers to metropolitan business men to demand answers from their government.
So what has changed?
Although no single ingredient is certain to give rise to social unrest, economic inequality and unemployment heighten existing tensions and increase the likelihood that a trigger event will lead to more widespread upheaval.
For the past year and a half opinion polls have increasingly shown dissatisfaction with the Mexican government and the behavior of the country’s political elites. Despite strong international praise for his economic and social reforms, President Peña Nieto’s administration has been far less popular here at home. His approval ratings have steadily declined since taking office in December 2012. Worse, Mexico’s poverty level which optimistically dropped to 42% in 2006, has rebounded to over 52% today and Mexico’s poorest citizens are doing worse under Peña Nieto than before.
And that’s not all. President Peña Nieto passed landmark education reform last year which, like his economic reforms, were hailed by the international community. Many here in Mexico, however, fear that his reforms are the beginning of the privatization of the education system. Estefani, a 19 year old student at Mexico City’s National Polytechnic Institute who attended the massive protest in Mexico City November 5th, said that she fears the government is trying to privatize education and that she is fighting the same fight as the students from Ayotzinapa.
Finally, as poverty and inequality increase, and a fear that education will soon be less accessible grows, it is crucial to this equation that Mexico’s 20-29 year olds have an unemployment rate that is double the rest of the economically active population. Mexico’s share of young people age 15-24 who are neither employed nor in school is the second highest among OECD countries behind Turkey.
All of this matters for a few important reasons. President Peña Nieto has gone to great lengths to shift the narrative away from the drug war to focus on reforms and Mexico’s economic growth. In February, Mexico’s bonds earned an A-rating for the first time ever and many on Wall Street are putting large sums of money where Peña Nieto’s mouth is. But the chronic problems of corruption and narco trafficking, which have gutted the municipal governments, persists. Changing the narrative won’t fix the problem. And while international investors may not have caught up yet, Mexican confidence in their government is declining.
And rightfully so. What everyone knows here is that the absurd relationships between government and cartel exposed by the Ayotzinapa kidnappings isn’t an unusual case. It’s the norm. Even if the corruption doesn’t reach all the way up to the federal level (and many believe that it does), neither an economy nor a state can function when it is so thoroughly penetrated by organized crime. And so while the international community has taken to calling this “Mexico’s moment,” optimistically believing that Peña Nieto’s reforms will stabilize the country and bring it firmly into the global economic arena, many here believe that Mexico’s moment is in fact about purging the government of corrupt state and federal officials, refusing to accept the status quo, and tackling the narco gangs once and for all.