The World

Mexico’s Breaking Point

Demonstrators clash with the riot police near the Acapulco airport on Nov. 10, 2014.

Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 26, in the rural town of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero in southwest Mexico, a bus carrying student teachers was stopped by police and gunmen believed to belong to a local cartel. The students, who attend the Normal University in Ayotzinapa, were traveling to Iguala to protest education reforms and raise funds. They also stole four buses to return home. Six people were killed at the scene, and 43 went missing.

Authorities believe the police delivered the students to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of the town, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were later arrested and charged with ordering the police to capture the students out of fear that they would cause a disturbance.

Three of the gang members confessed this week to murdering the students, burning them, and throwing the remains in plastic bags in a nearby river and garbage dump. The remains are so badly charred that local forensics investigators haven’t been able to confirm their identities. An outside commission from Argentina had to be called to perform further tests.

This is not the first, biggest, or most gruesome mass disappearance during Mexico’s past eight years of brutal drug violence. More than 106,000 have died in what government data term “executions,” “confrontations,” and “homicide-aggressions” since former President Felipe Calderon informally declared his war on drugs in 2006. But the tragedy of Ayotzinapa is different. Rarely has the collusion between local authorities and the cartels been so obvious and the consequences so dire. Unsurprisingly, the events surrounding the case have captivated Mexico and the international community for weeks.

Since coming to power in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto has sought to keep his focus on economic growth rather than the violence that the country has become known for internationally. In the aftermath of this incident, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have sunk to the lowest point of his presidency amid criticism of the government’s sluggish response. He has decried the incident as “outrageous, painful, and unacceptable” but human rights groups say his short statements about the case have been vague and lacking in specific plans for action. He has also been criticized for taking more than a month to meet with the families of victims and for traveling to the APEC summit in China this week as the crisis simmered. Calls for his resignation are getting louder and more widespread.

From the time the war on drugs started, and its massive, hemorrhaging failure became apparent, there have been protests, marches, and calls for action. This time around, the protests’ significance has moved beyond a dull weariness and discontent to raw expressions of pain. This has happened in part because of who the victims are, students from a poor rural town and a university with a strong tradition of activism for social justice (and a strong tradition of having this activism criminalized by the government). This reputation appears to be why the mayor sent police forces to detain them in the first place. According to Mexican media, citing documents from the investigation, José Luis Abarca ordered the police to “teach them a lesson.”

Federal law enforcement officials describe Abarca and his wife as themselves the embodiment of a corrupt political class, allegedly running illegal activities from city hall. The New York Times reports:

Federal officials said Guerreros Unidos regularly paid off the mayor for his cooperation and that of the police force, which acted as muscle for the gang. The mayor received up to $220,000 every few weeks, the officials have said, while his wife was described as a top operative of the gang. It is an offshoot of the larger, better-known Beltrán Leyva crime group in which Ms. Pineda Villa’s brothers—two of whom were killed in 2009—have acted as leaders.

And then there are the national politicians. Peña Nieto isn’t the only one under fire. After meeting with the students’ families, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam fended off questions from reporters at a press conference on Nov. 7, saying, “Enough, I’m tired.” This moment, ironically, provided the perfect hashtag and rallying cry #YaMeCanse (#EnoughI’mTired) to channel Mexico’s frustration.

Murillo Karam explained himself on Monday, saying that he “was also tired of this brutal violence,” had been sleeping four hours a day for the past month, and at the time of the conference had been awake for 40 hours. But it was too late. The protesters on the street have adopted the poor turn of phrase as a rallying cry.

Protests against narcoviolence and against the government’s ineptitude and dishonesty have never been so heated or widespread. They’ve also never had such a strong presence internationally, including in New York and Paris, aided by social media. In Mexico, the anger is spreading quickly. Last Thursday protesters blocked access to the attorney general’s office. On Saturday, they set fire to the doors of the National Palace in Mexico City. On Monday they blocked access to the Acapulco airport. On Wednesday they set fire to the state congress building in Guerrero.

With the protests focused on the victims—the names and faces of “the 43”—the families of the disappeared students have become a political force with unprecedented agency. The students’ families met with Peña Nieto on Oct. 30—what was supposed to be a short, symbolic gesture but turned into a six-hour ordeal. They took control of the meeting and made explicit political demands of the president, who agreed to better support for the families of the missing, renewed search efforts, and to create a panel of officials and parents to keep the investigations into the case honest and on track.

Some precedent for these events was established in March 2011, when gang members murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of renowned Mexican writer Javier Sicilia. Sicilia led demonstrations in more than 40 Mexican cities where hundreds of thousands protested the rampant violence and corruption, providing a venue for victims and victims’ families to voice their pain publically, with intention and direction. Now, Ayotzinapa has taken what Sicilia built and put it at the service of the parents of the 43 students—members of the poor masses who suffer the brunt of Mexico’s violence rather than the cultural elite.

The violence in Mexico—a disturbingly bland phrase—is reaching the limits of normal human experience and of the language we use to describe it. The violence in Mexico cannot tell you that in Mexico every day is the day of the dead, and the day of the disappeared, and the day of the mutilated, and the day of the bereaved. Ayotzinapa and its unique convergence of events, actors, timing, and place speak to this. Mexico is tired—exhausted, even. Now is precisely when its people will fight back the hardest.

Special thanks to Humberto BeckLorena Marrón, and Rafael Lemus for assistance on this post.

See more photos of the protests in Mexico here.