The disappearance of 43 students whirls Mexico into a political crisis, but the social movement that has risen up in response could change it forever.
By Maggie Blanca and Jeremy Crowlesmith
The political and humanitarian crisis in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero marks a new low in a country marred by corruption and drug violence. More than a month after the disappearances of 43 students there is still no sign of them, while official government search efforts are laced by ambiguities to say the least.
At the same time the disappearances have stirred up a hornet’s nest that has taken the form of an unparalleled and broad social movement in all corners of Mexico.
Mexico, with Guerrero at its epicenter, seems torn between despair and hope. Despair from the horror of the atrocious events in Iguala, and hope from the structural change promised by the societal response. Which social and political processes have erupted, exactly, and what does this mean for the possibilities of social change in Mexico?
A breeding ground for revolutionaries
The entrance of the Rural Normal school in Ayotzinapa welcomes her students with murals of Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels, and Carlos Marx. The disappeared students come from a school with a history of left politics embedded in a special national education program set up to train primary school teachers. Started in 1920, this program has the express goal of social emancipation of the poor. The school has produced two of Guerrero’s most important guerrilla leaders in the seventies and, unsurprisingly, has gained the reputation of being a breeding ground for radical activism.
Contemporary students are the children of farmers and indigenous families living in the poorest and most marginalized areas of Mexico. The school’s position as a hotbed of activism has not gone unnoticed and has constantly forced students to face state repression in the form of chronic underfunding, police violence and criminalization.
On September 25, a group of Ayotzinapa students went to the nearby town of Iguala to organize transport to the remembrance protest of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. For lack of money, the students appropriated three buses on the fateful night; in response, the mayor of Iguala gave orders to stop the buses “no matter what.” Enforcing the orders, the local police opened fire on several buses, killing six students and bystanders and leaving 25 wounded. The night deteriorated into a head-hunt for the fleeing students, 43 of whom were eventually abducted in police vehicles never to be heard of since.
The response of the government was riddled with exceptional incompetence, as the following events reveal. The day after the drama, the responsible mayor of Iguala requested a leave of absence and went on the run. Meanwhile, the governor of Guerrero and the president of the republic have been involved in a ping-pong game of finger pointing to avoid responsibility. The respected human rights center Tlachinollan, located in Guerrero, has pointed out the serious deficiencies in the official investigation and the search for the students. Consequently, the parents of the disappeared students have announced to only trust the findings of a foreign team of investigators. Mexicans have lost all trust in the authorities to bring the crisis to a just end.
Spray paint on the wall in Mexico-City reading ‘narcoestado’, or drugs state
A public secret revealed
The Iguala events have irrefutably revealed ties between powerful drug cartels, the local police force and the responsible mayor. The interwoven nature of local governments with organized crime is no secret. But the revelations brought to light by the recent events have forced the government to break with their policy of official denial. As president Peña Nieto stated at a press conference, “the Iguala events have revealed the naked truth.”
Ayotzinapa has become the paragon of institutional ties with drug cartels and represents the sickness that has been ailing Mexican society in the form of corruption, extreme violence and impunity for years.
The movement that has risen in response to the Iguala events breaths a certain sense of relief. A family member of an Ayotzinapa student who disappeared a few years ago, relates how the movement has helped her: “Without Ayotzinapa our voices would still be shrouded in silence.”
Where people used to whisper, they now openly agitate against the narcogobierno [drugs government]. This sea change must not be underestimated in the context of the extreme violence and repression which would normally make a public expression of this nature a dangerous act. Ayotzinapa has finally laid bare this public secret.
Thousands protests in the streets of Acapulco on October 17
The perfect storm?
The disappearance of the students has mobilized and brought together diverse local groups from all social strata and regions of Mexican society. Committees of support have been set up in the most remote corners of Mexico, the Zapatistas have held a silent march in Chiapas and famous Mexican actors have declared their solidarity. However, the heart of the movement is located in Iguala, in the Asamblea Nacional Popular (ANP) headed by the parents and schoolmates of the disappeared students.
The strength of the Ayotzinapa movement is based in the coalition of student and teachers organizations. This coalition seems to be the recipe for a perfect storm. Both are at the forefront of the struggle and are flooding Mexican streets with staggering numbers, of which the 50.000 strong demonstration on October 22 in Mexico City has been the largest so far.
In Guerrero, epicenter of the struggle, highways are blockaded daily, government buildings are torched and radio stations occupied and taken over. Students and teachers of leading universities have called various strikes, and there is talk of a general strike to come. To top all this off, teachers associations have set themselves the goal of taking over all of Guerrero’s town halls. At the time of writing the count is set at 22 out of a total of 81.
In recent Mexican history, teachers and students have been the vanguard of social struggles, which has given them an important symbolic value. It also provides the current movement with the needed practical experience and organizational structures to build upon.
Roots of the movement
Mexican universities are well known for their militant and radical student movements. The latest revival took place in the form of a national movement called #YoSoy132 (#IAm132). The movement started during the presidential election campaigns of 2012 when the students agitated for the democratization of the media because of their their partial reporting, which favored erstwhile presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The movement is organized horizontally and made up of 130 local and autonomous assemblies spread all over Mexico, coordinating in its national Interuniversitaria, which has now taken up the cause of the Ayotzinapa students.
Just like #YoSoy132, the radical teachers organizations besmirched the start of the presidential term of Peña Nieto with large-scale protests when he announced controversial neoliberal reforms in education, energy and telecommunications. The democratic section of the national teachers union CNTE, well known for their role in the Oaxaca uprising of 2006, has led the protests against the attempt to privatize Mexican education.
In Guerrero, these militant protests were led by the teachers organization CETEG, which has united the forces of farmers, indigenous people, students and community police, thereby broadening the struggle against the entire neoliberal offensive of the new government. Besides the education reforms, they protested the privatization of the energy sector, destructive mining projects, repression of political activists and the lack of public security.
The Interuniversitaria, CNTE and CETEG are the motor of the current Ayotzinapa movement.
Banner reading “We are all Ayotzinapa”, “Don’t forgive, or forget”, “Punish those responsible”, “Alive they took them, alive we want them back”
Insecurity unites a diverse movement
“Alive they took them, alive we want them back.” Recurrent in all protests, this slogan expresses the most important demand of the movement: the unharmed return of the students and the punishment of all those responsible for their disappearance. Banners and social media also often show the hash-tag ‘#AyotzinapaSomosTodos’ [#WeAreAllAyotzinapa]. This sends the clear message that this ‘could have happened to anybody in Mexico’. This sad reality of the structural insecurity caused by the deep ties between the corrupt government and organized crime speaks to a diversity of Mexicans and is the glue that binds the Ayotzinapa movement.
A current in the movement articulates Ayotzinapa as a systemic problem. It is mainly the radical teachers organizations which are determined not to settle for the usual course of events in Mexican political crises, namely a reshuffling of the political cards and then back to business as usual. The protesters’ response to the resignation of Guerrero’s governor says it all. “It will not solve anything,” was the loud response after which the mobilization and protests continued with unrelenting zeal. Indeed, the appointment of an interim governor of Guerrero was answered immediately with the demand for his dismissal since he was not chosen by el pueblo, the people, but by the federal government. On their own terms, the Ayotzinapa movement demands the dissolution of the municipal, state and federal governments. As they say in Mexico, “The cob must be stripped of all its corn.”
The broad coalition that makes up the Ayotzinapa movement has its internal complexities and tensions. The issue of insecurity speaks just as well to people who want a properly functioning liberal democracy as to radical groups that would like to see far-reaching political change. This is evident from the following examples.
A few days after the disappearance of the students, shopkeepers and merchants of Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo joined the protest demanding the resignation of the governor. The extreme violence in the region has been seriously affecting commerce in Chilpancingo, leading to this groups’ participation. Under a similar pretext of insecurity, 200 striking police officers in Acapulco joined the struggle. While the middle classes focus on the issue of insecurity, a group of socialist students of the Ayotzinapa movement choose a more fundamental focus.
The students have decided to temporarily occupy two mega-stores in Chilpancingo to hand out food and basic supplies. Electronics and luxury items remain untouched, which makes it different from ordinary plundering, but rather sends a clear political statement that inequality is at the root of the problems in Mexico. This message also resonates in many of the highway blockades, where the Ayotzinapa movement gives civil vehicles free passage but denies it completely to the trucks of multinationals like Coca Cola and BIMBO, symbols of the inequality of the capitalist system.
The different currents that feed the Ayotzinapa movement are its strength because of the broad support. At the same time, the divergent currents carry with them the risk of fragmentation.
From de-escalation to militarization
During the first month of protests, the government was surprisingly peaceful in its response. Even when more militant actions occurred, like setting fire to government buildings or occupations of town halls, the authorities did not intervene. The government seemed to be hoping for a fiery but short lived movement that would burn out by itself. Besides, this de-escalation strategy was at the time the only realistic course of action since a new victim of state violence would only have heightened the flames of discontent.
However, the government did employ its usual tactic of discrediting the students and teachers by labeling them as dangerous and radical vandals. More recently they have even stooped to the level of accusing the Ayotzinapa students of being allied to a drug cartel. Strikingly enough, these accusations have not had the sought-after effect on the people.
On October 29, more than a month into the protests, the first violent confrontation with the military police forces took place when teachers of CETEG attempted to occupy the Casa Guerrero, the White House of Guerrero. Meanwhile, the government is taking over control of the cities of Guerrero as well as twelve municipalities. A large-scale militarization of the region is taking place, denounced by the teachers organizations as an attempt to suppress the movement. Now that more and more anger is directed towards the president himself, the chances of a violent intervention are growing by the day.
Self-organization: leading by example
The long-standing community police forces of Guerrero are an inspiration to the Ayotzinapa movement. When people speak of real solutions to rising insecurity, they are quick to refer to the self-organized community police, “where the people do it themselves.”
Indigenous communities, mostly, have organized their police groups based on their own culture and organizational structures. The police are directly responsive to the community which governs and controls their activities. The areas where the community police is active are seen as the safest places in Guerrero.
UPOEG is one of the community police organizations which has gained a lot of respect by immediately organizing search parties for the disappeared students, coordinating their efforts with the parents. As such, UPOEG is filling the void left by the government and shows the power and possibilities of self-organization. Besides its policing role, UPOEG is also putting forward a plan to create a ‘fourth level of government’ next to the existing federal, state and municipal structure of Mexico. This would take the shape of a ‘council of community leaders’ with the aim of pulling political power to the bottom of Mexican society: the communities.
Self-organization in Guerrero is referred to by the Ayotzinapa movement as an example of what another Mexico might look like.
Satirical version of Time Magazine cover depicting president Peña Nieto as Death, with the accompanying text “Slaying Mexico”
The importance of international pressure
The fear that political instability will disrupt Mexican commercial interests makes the country highly susceptible to international pressure. This was apparent when the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 during the implementation of the NAFTA free trade agreement. The pressure exerted on Mexico as a response to the international solidarity movement was of crucial importance in the course of the Zapatista struggle.
The Mexican government does not want to lose her image as ‘stable’ and ‘open for business’. The protesters in Mexico are well aware of this fact. They have made a satirical version of the cover of the influential Time Magazine and spread it far and wide via social media. The image parodies an edition of Time with Peña Nieto ‘Saving Mexico’ on the front cover. The parody depicts the president as Death with a scythe in his hand, accompanied by the text “Slaying Mexico.” This is a firm call for international pressure.
International intellectuals supported the struggle with a critical open letter to president Peña Nieto signed by Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco and more than two-thousand other academics.
Once more, it is of crucial importance that the eyes of the world are turned to Mexico to restrain its government from using all-out repression against the Ayotzinapa movement. The course of struggle is unclear, and a burst of violence lurks in every corner, just like the possibility for social change. One thing is certain: a diverse group of Mexicans is envisioning Another Mexico, which now more than ever, is possible.
Maggie Blanca is an independent journalist and PhD student in Cultural Anthropology.
Jeremy Crowlesmith is an independent journalist based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, with a background in student organizing and independent media.