The Disappearances That Broke the Camel’s Back

The Peña Nieto administration is eager to move on from the country’s latest security crisis, but Mexicans are refusing to let the government off the hook.


MEXICO CITY — Traditionally, November 20, the Día de la Revolución (Revolution Day), has been a day when Mexico City residents converge in the city’s main square, the Zócalo, to commemorate the heroes who, 104 years ago, liberated the country from colonial oppression. Yet on Wednesday evening, one night before the annual celebration, Mexico City officials ordered a hasty dismantling of the grandstand and other installations that had been erected in the Zócalo for Revolution Day events. Only the faces of three revolutionary heroes — in the form of light displays attached to government buildings — were left behind.

Officials moved quickly as word of a mass demonstration — the latest in a weeks-long movement demanding accountability for the 43 students from Ayotzinapa "disappeared" in the state of Guerrero on Sept. 26 — gained steam on Twitter and other social media outlets. 

On the evening of Nov. 20, thousands of people took to the streets. Groups of marchers assembled at three key landmarks around the city — the Angel of Independence statue on Avenida Reforma, the Monument to the Revolution just off that same avenue, and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. (Plaza de las Tres Culturas carries particular symbolic significance; in 1968, an unknown number of student protesters were killed there by military police, just days before Mexico City hosted the Olympics.) The marchers on Thursday set off with a common end point: the Zócalo.

On Nov. 8, the square had become the site of the first aggressive acts of the sustained protests in Mexico City: A small group of protesters set fire to the doors of the Palacio Nacional, the symbolic seat of the presidency. The incident came on the heels of a Nov. 7 press conference in which Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced that three gang members confessed that they had participated in kidnapping, incinerating, and disposing of the 43 students’ bodies. Murillo made no mention of the local government officials who had been implicated in abetting the crime or systemic official corruption that has crippled rule of law across the country. Towards the end of the press conference, someone asked the attorney general if he would take additional questions. Murillo then uttered the words that seemed to sum up the government’s arrogance and ineptitude in handling a crisis it helped to engender: "Ya me cansé," or "I’m tired."

The government had hoped Murillo’s press conference would convince parents and the public at large that they could begin the work of grieving and, in short, move on. To emphasize this point, President Enrique Peña Nieto refused to cancel state visits to China and Australia later that week. But even in a country where grave human rights violations are widespread, the attempts to whitewash the complicity of the state in the disappearances struck a nerve. In fact, Murillo’s very claim — that the students had been killed by narco thugs — was called into question by the students’ parents, who said that they wouldn’t believe the attorney general unless he presented physical proof. For the most part, the country stood behind the parents. The supposed confessions of the three men who had been arrested in the Ayotzinapa case did not provide closure or send Mexicans into quiet mourning. It sent them into the streets. 

For over four hours on the evening of the Nov. 20, marchers streamed down Avenidas Reforma and Juárez, slowly making their way to the central square. Demonstrators, with placards featuring the likeness of Peña Nieto, called for their leader’s resignation and even accused him of having blood on his hands. Some carried bullhorns or flowers, while a few used spray paint to scrawl messages of resistance on phone booths, walls, and sidewalks along the way. As they went along, the crowd chanted a variety of protest slogans and counted aloud to 43 — one for each of the missing students. By 8:30 p.m. the Zócalo was at capacity. The crowd was peaceful, with chants of "No violencia, no violencia" ("No violence, no violence") carrying across the square. Along the entire route, no uniformed police or military had been observed, though a helicopter circled once over the Monumento de la Revolución a few hours earlier. But on the far side of the Zócalo, in front of the Palacio Nacional, a robust contingent of riot police was visible. A protester warned other marchers against advancing toward the Presidential Palace, suggesting a violent confrontation was inevitable.

He was right.

A small but infuriated group of protesters (that the local media would later take to referencing as "anarchists") hurled insults, garbage, plastic and glass bottles, and Molotov cocktails at the riot police. After an hour spent as the targets of rage, the security forces began advancing toward the crowd. As police surged — coming at the protesters with teargas, shields raised — protesters began to scatter. Covering their faces with bandanas and scarves, the crowd tried to remain calm and not stampede, though one man shouted urgently for an ambulance as he held up a protester whose bloodied face appeared to have been hit by flying shards of a glass bottle. Police eventually managed to take control of the plaza and the crowds dispersed. In the end, 11 people were arrested — a sliver of the thousands who peacefully participated in the demonstration.

Though public demonstrations are a regular occurrence in the country — and in the capital, in particular — the Nov. 20 march seems to have been a turning point. The thousands-strong showing of outraged but mostly peaceful citizens signaled that the public isn’t going to let the Peña Nieto administration sweep Ayotzinapa under the rug and move on.

In the days since the march, protesters have kept the pressure up. In response to the detention of 11 protesters, another demonstration took place the day after the march, with participants blocking Reforma, one of the city’s principal avenues. Tweets outlining concrete actions that protesters could take to support those who were arrested went viral. Organizers have scheduled another protest for Nov. 25, as well as a nationwide strike on Dec. 1, the second anniversary of Peña Nieto’s swearing-in.

The demonstrations, it seems, will continue until the government responds convincingly, not only what happened to the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, but the broader failure to ensure security across the country. The attorney general may be tired, but in a country that has long been plagued by official corruption and impunity, the organized demonstrations demanding reform may only be beginning.

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