Tired and Angry, Mexico’s Protests Show No Signs of Abating

The fury over the killing of 43 students in Ayotzinapa has galvanized the country, and highlighted the rift between old-school leftists and President Peña Nieto’s economic reforms.


MEXICO CITY — Mexico is in crisis. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of furious protestors have taken to the streets of cities across the country.

The furor stems from the disappearance and all-but-certain killing of 43 male students of the Raul Isidro Burgos College in Ayotzinapa, at the hands of corrupt police allegedly working with a local drug cartel. The vicious crime and alleged grisly disposal of the students’ bodies has touched a nerve across a country sick of violence and corruption in daily life. And it has exposed the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto — eager to turn the country away from the drug war he inherited and towards ambitious economic reform agenda that depends on foreign investment — to an uncomfortable spotlight.

The roots of the protests predate the horror in Iguala and the Peña Nieto administration. They are, in a sense, the latest phase of the historic struggle between Mexico’s student left and the federal government, one that has been brewing for years if not decades. But this time the fury has moved out of the left-wing teachers’ colleges and restive southern states and into the rest of the country.

On Sept. 26 in Iguala, a city of 110,000 people located in Guerrero state, some 80 miles south of Mexico City, local police cars surrounded three busloads of students from Raul Isidro Burgos College. Eyewitnesses say the police then opened fire on the students, wounding many. Later that day, the students held a press conference on site to report the first attack, and an armed commando force attacked again. In all, six people were killed that night, with another student lying brain-dead in the hospital after taking a bullet to the head; 43 students never returned.

In the weeks since, roadblocks, university closures, and attacks on government buildings in Guerrero have turned into near-daily events. Protestors have occupied and burned down government offices, including the state capital and the Iguala City Hall. Students have taken over television and radio stations and blocked major roads in Guerrero and other nearby states.

But the forced disappearances have reverberated far beyond. Under a brilliant fall sky on Oct. 22, over 50,000 people marched by candlelight onto Mexico City’s Avenida Reforma to the capital’s central plaza and the Angel of Independence statue, chanting, "They took them alive, we want them back alive!" Leading the procession were the students’ parents, bearing life-size photos of their sons and wearing traditional straw hats and leather sandals. Young women in white blouses and ponytails from a rural teachers’ college in Chihuahua carried pictures of each of the missing, followed by a rowdy contingent of Mexico City university students and a stream of teachers, union members, human rights advocates, and citizens. When the crowd cleared, rooftop photos revealed giant letters on the ground that spelled out their verdict: "IT WAS THE STATE." That day proved to be a watershed moment, as the tens of thousands marching in Mexico City were joined by mass sister protests across the country.  

Government officials responded to the demonstrations. On Nov. 4, authorities finally arrested the former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, allegedly the head of the local drug cartel and alleged masterminds of the attack on the students. Pineda had been on the lam for over a month. Authorities say the Abarca ordered the police to detain the students after their demonstrations had interrupted a political event held by his wife. But there is no evidence to suggest this true. On Nov. 7, Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam held a press conference to reveal testimony from three members of Guerreros Unidos, a local drug gang, describing how they murdered and burned the students and disposed of their bodies. Murillo closed the conference muttering, "Enough, I’m tired," setting off a viral wave of criticism at the slow and detached justice system. The government has yet to produce DNA evidence linking the remains found with the disappeared, and their families remain in denial.

While the demonstrators seek justice for the 43 students, what’s also driving them is a deep-seated anger at the Peña Nieto administration. The 16 rural teachers’ colleges embody that clash of cultures. No matter what fallout results from Ayotzinapa, the ongoing demonstrations have revealed the vast gulf between Mexico’s radical grassroots and its government.

Founded in the 1920s, the colleges drew on the most radical ideals of the Mexican Revolution. "They had a specific profile in terms of the kind of training and their role in society as very committed to the peasant, social and popular struggles," especially the broad programs of land reform during this period, explains Cesar Navarro, a researcher in education and a graduate of one of the teachers’ colleges.

To this day, walking through the Ayotzinapa Raul Isidro Burgos campus is like walking into another era. A sign at the entrance identifies it as the "cradle of social consciousness," and classroom walls display giant portraits of Che Guevara and other revolutionary icons and slogans, painted in the muralist style of the 1950s and 1960s. Past the classrooms and dormitories lie the fields where students tend fields and livestock after class, performing chores required to forge a collective peasant work ethic and provide revenue for the school. Most of the school’s 520 students come from the surrounding area’s poor peasant communities, many of them indigenous. For their families, the college offers their only hope to pull themselves out of generations of poverty on hardscrabble farms.

But the revolutionary, peasant-oriented curriculum of the colleges has stood increasingly at odds with the Peña Nieto government’s plans to open Mexico up to foreign investment, particularly its energy sector. And to the government, the colleges are obsolete hotbeds of radical politics. The rural colleges have long been a force in Mexico’s student movements: After the massacre at Tlatelolco in 1968, in which anywhere from 150 to 325 student demonstrators in Mexico City were killed by military and police forces, the government permanently shut down many rural teaching colleges as part of a campaign to quell student activism.

Ayotzinapa and the other rural colleges have struggled to survive amid cuts to their public funding, number of teachers, and student scholarships. Since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, their students have been vocal opponents of his reforms, particularly a new education plan that establishes private financing mechanisms, competition for teaching jobs, and standardized testing. Two prominent members of Peña Nieto’s Cabinet — Attorney General Murillo and Miguel Osorio Chong — were instrumental in closing down the rural college in Hidalgo when they served as governors of that state.

With public pressure rising and the protests showing no sign of abating, the Ayotzinapa case will almost certainly continue to ensnare government officials — the only question is how far up the chain. The Guerrero state governor, Angel Aguirre, was the first political leader forced to resign as a result of the crisis on Oct. 23; some are calling for the resignation of Peña Nieto and Murillo. "This is the bad old Mexico, where local officials are inept, corrupt or in cahoots with organized crime; where life is cheap and justice elusive," the Financial Times warned on Oct. 28 — a far cry from the modern, business-friendly image Peña Nieto has worked so hard to project.  

Protestors are fed up. In demonstrations in Mexico City over the weekend, students carried signs reading "I’m tired," in mockery of Murillo. On the social networking front, their viral campaign features the Twitter hashtag #YaMeCansé hashtag — Spanish for "enough, I’m tired" — and have started a YouTube campaign of people posting videos declaring that they are "tired" of suspected collusion between the government and organized crime.

With that frustration heightened by longstanding grievances with Peña Nieto, it’s far from clear just how much worse things will get. "We’re here to demand justice — not just in the case of Ayotzinapa but for all of Mexico," said Cecilia, a teenager in Mexico City. "If there isn’t justice, this country is going to explode."

*Correction: Several changes have been made to better reflect the writer’s intent.

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