International Politics

Could the 43 Kidnapped Students Be Mexico’s Undoing?

Gruesome violence by drug cartels and collusion with the government is nothing new. But the mysterious case of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa may be the final straw.

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If you’re an avid news reader, you’ve probably seen something about Mexico—the protests that have been gathering strength across the country and indeed the world in recent weeks, or about the events that sparked them, the disappearance and alleged murder by a drug cartel of 43 students from a rural teacher-training school. Like me, you might have winced, then shrugged. Narco violence has been roiling in Mexico for a decade, and although innocent people do get caught up, it mostly seems like bad guys killing other bad guys in a war for control of the unimaginably lucrative drug trade (in 2012, the New York Times reported that the Sinaloa cartel had annual revenues comparable to Facebook’s, but you really, really don’t want those guys getting hold of your personal data). 

The disappearance of the 43 student teachers, however, has had an impact far beyond any previous gruesome acts. In mid-November, Mexico’s fresh-faced president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was finally forced to return from his trip to China and the G20 summit in Brisbane in order to address the crisis, but not before he was made uncomfortably aware of how many Mexican expats there are in Australia, when they coordinated protests in several cities during his visit. When he got home, Peña Nieto attacked what he called “orchestrated efforts to destabilize the country,” ahead of massive protests in Mexico City on November 20. During a demonstration earlier in November, protestors set fire to the door of the president’s ceremonial residence: There couldn’t be a better symbol of a government, quite literally, feeling the heat. 

To try to understand why this particular act of violence matters so much, I turned to my friend Adela Ramos, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a native of Mexico City. The first, fierce instruction she gave me was this: “Don’t say they’re dead.” Adela’s not naïve. Her refusal to accept the government’s version of events is a central part of the protest. On November 7, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam laid out that story in a long and gruesome press conference, claiming that three junior members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel had confessed to murdering the students and incinerating their bodies in a mass grave, then dumping the remains in trash bags in a river. Case brutally closed: another instance of violence in the lawless hinterland. Right?  

Well, until DNA tests from overseas labs came back and reported that the remains they discovered were probably not the missing 43. At the end of his press conference Murillo sighed “Ya me cansé,” a phrase meaning, roughly, “I’ve had enough. I’m done with this. I’m tired.” He meant it literally: He was done answering questions. This official shrug of dismissal infuriated those who were listening, and his phrase has since become a rallying cry, a hashtag, and an encapsulation of the frustration that Mexicans feel at the corruption that seems to run top to bottom through their country. 

Here’s the short version of what happened on the night of September 26, in the historic town of Iguala in Guerrero state, about halfway between Acapulco and Mexico City. Some 60 students from a rural teacher-training school had arrived in the town, where they had commandeered local buses in order to travel to a protest in Mexico City (more on that in a moment). Before they could leave, the local police opened fire on the buses, killing and injuring some of the students and arresting the others. It soon emerged that they were acting on the orders of the mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, who was giving a speech and apparently feared the students would disrupt it. The next day, one of the students turned up dead with the mark of the narcos on his body—his eyes and face missing, which is their gruesome way of erasing a victim’s identity. That left 43, from whom nothing has been heard since.

But Adela says that all this language about giving orders and handing over—it’s all missing the point. It’s missing the point to focus on the mayor’s wife and the deep narco ties of her brothers, or on the fact that she and her husband went on the run for a month after the students disappeared. She makes a wonderful cartoon villain (The New Yorker’s Francisco Goldman reports that she’s also having an affair with the Guerrero state governor, who was forced to step down after the crisis)—but this story isn’t about her. “The lines between government and cartel are completely blurred,” Adela says. This is about a kind of corruption that goes far beyond politics or money—it’s moral and spiritual.

But here’s the twist: Whoever’s responsible for this crime didn’t realize, or just didn’t take seriously, the people they’re dealing with. This is the part Adela has to explain in detail, because like most of us, when I hear the word “student” I think of what that means in Europe or America: somebody innocent, basically. Somewhat removed from real life. Privileged, maybe. Vulnerable. I assumed that the case of the 43 was shocking for the same reasons that, say, the Virginia Tech massacre was shocking. But being a student in Mexico is not like being a student in the U.S., especially not at a school like Ayotzinapa. 

“Rural schools in Mexico are leftist,” Adela says, meaning that they don’t align with the agenda of the state or federal government, and believe instead in self-determination. “They’re very much a combination of activism and education,” where teachers follow the principles of Paulo Freire’s classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a Marxist rethinking of education that aims to empower the student rather than imposing knowledge and rules from above. In poorer communities in Mexico, teachers, and those studying to be teachers, are intensely politically engaged, and are regarded as intermediaries between citizens and government. “They speak for the people,” Adela says. The 43 students were not working toward a degree in order to escape their communities and hightail it to a well-paid city job; instead, they would stay and teach children like themselves. Teachers are poor, but they’re powerful.

Ayotzinapa Normal School was built in the late 1960s, when two-thirds of the population of Guerrero state was illiterate. It’s done battle with the local government ever since, because it does inconvenient things like educate villagers about their land rights, and teach a curriculum that refuses to gloss over the uglier moments in national history. Moments like October 2, 1968, the night of a notorious massacre that today stands as a symbol, Adela says, of “what the government is capable of doing to students” and has become a “national day of mourning for center-left people.”

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the tail end of what’s known as the “Mexican Miracle,” a period beginning in the 1940s of internal investment, restricted imports, and inward-looking development, which was accompanied by heavy-handed government led by the centrist PRI party (also Peña Nieto’s party). By the end of the 1960s, that miracle was looking more like a mirage, at least to the students at the public universities who saw themselves graduating into a rocky economy presided over by an oppressive regime, and who drew inspiration from similar student movements around the world. But Mexico was gearing up to host the Olympics in October, and deeply concerned with how it looked to the outside world, so ten days before the games began, the government moved to crush the crowds gathered in the “Square of the Three Cultures” in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City. On the night of October 2, tanks and soldiers surrounded the square, cut the power, and fired down from the roof of the surroundings buildings on the peaceful gathering below. Although it’s estimated that more than 300 people died, in an eerie coincidence (though most likely nothing more), the official death toll from that night was 43. 

October 2 doesn’t mean much if you’re not Mexican, so this historical connection tends to get left out U.S. media narratives, but it helps explain the timeline of the Ayotzinapa kidnappings, and the buses. The students were on their way into Mexico City to join a demonstration commemorating the 1968 massacre, and had stopped in Iguala to ask for money and support for their journey. This wasn’t a field trip; everyone would have known where they were going and why. This was a story about protest from the beginning, and about power, and even potentially about revolution. No wonder Peña Nieto looks scared.

The stories about the 43, who are all young men aged between 18 and 20, tends to leave out their parents, who look like the kind of people who show up in the news only to illustrate silent, stoic endurance of the latest natural disaster. But these men and women are educated and articulate, and they have vivid memories of 1968. “They know that this is wrong,” Adela says. “They did not budge.” They’ve fought to keep this story alive, by refusing to participate in the dehumanizing of victims (something the narcos take literally: their signature mark on a victim is to remove the eyes and face). As soon as the kidnapping was reported, the parents made posters bearing their sons’ faces and full names, and they talked to anyone who would listen about who these young men were, refusing to let their status as victims obscure their personalities and their stories. The authorities all assumed that “they’d go into mourning and stop making noise.” And they didn’t.

The word you see over and over again when you start to read about Mexico’s narco violence is “impunity.” More than a hundred journalists have been killed since 2000, and hundreds more threatened or attacked, and 98 percent of those attacks have gone unpunished. The death toll from the violence is hazy but mind-blowing—60,000 according to Human Rights Watch, back in 2012. It’s a terrifying situation, and it’s understandable that plenty of Mexicans would choose the illusion of stability over the reality of a failed state. However, the Ayotzinapa story and its fallout are making it clear that the stable Mexico being sold to America, Europe, and China isn’t the real story, and even if it’s not a dictatorship in the old Latin American style, it’s a lie all the same. “The promise we have to make to ourselves is that we’re not going to forget this,” Adela says, “and we’re not going to stop protesting until something changes.”


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