Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part Prospect Journal series on the unrest in Mexico. The first part can be found here.

By Alejandro Inzunza
Staff Writer

“Optimistic and encouraging” were the words Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto used to describe Mexico’s economic prospects in Shanghai this week. The president had arrived in China three days prior to participate in the XII Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) before heading to Australia to attend this year’s G20 Leader’s Summit in Brisbane. As the president embarked on trade missions during some of Mexico’s most tumultuous times in recent memory, one can’t help but wonder if the same words can be used to reference the nation’s sociopolitical future as well.

A Glaring Absence at the Summit

Polemically elected with 38 percent of the vote in 2012, President Peña and his administration have been the subject of widespread debate and domestic criticism since his electoral victory. A member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for over 70 years, and currently controls a plurality in both houses of Congress, Peña has pursued several ambitious reforms that have made him a divisive figure at home while earning him notable attention abroad. Although the president has made strong efforts to change how Mexico is perceived in the world, domestic woes are increasingly eroding the positive narrative of his administration.

During his first two years in office, economic growth has been stagnant and crime and extortion remain on the rise. A breakdown of official statistics reveals that a staggering 34% of Mexicans were victims of criminal acts in 2013 and that 94% of crimes go unreported.

Yet despite the president’s divisiveness, prominent supporters wonder why Mexicans have taken up protest against their federal government and are quick to defend it. After all, the ‘Imperial Couple’—the political couple alleged to be the authors of the kidnapping and possible execution of the 43 missing students—belonged to Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—a major opposition party on the political left—not the PRI. Controversial as they may be, supporters of the regime are right to point out the relevance of Jose Luis Abarca’s political allegiances and their connections to his alleged crimes. The PRD’s control of Guerrero’s governorship and state legislature raises questions about the nature of Abarca’s relationship with his former party and whether or not he managed to act without tacit or explicit support from its current members.

Calls for an investigation into Abarca’s political links can therefore be justified. Yet an investigation can only succeed if the process remains transparent, occurring under the watchful eye of the public and under supervision of external independent groups that can insure an impartial oversight. Although not investigating party officials risks permitting the guilty to evade justice, while fostering more unaccountability, a partisan inquiry can easily become a political persecution in legal disguise. While arguments that favor investigating Abarca’s links and party have merit, the claim that Peña and his administration are blameless rings hollow given the circumstances and nature of the regime.

Much of the current discontent stems from the belated and tone-deaf reaction of the president and his administration. The outrage over the fate and disappearance of the 43 missing students has only been amplified by the way in which the federal government has responded to the tragedy: Federal agencies took more than a week to get involved in the investigation, and the president himself took ten days to address the situation in a public manner. Peña has not yet visited the still-mourning state of Guerrero, nor commented on the issue in independent media outlets. While the president welcomed the parents of the missing students, he did so a month after the massacre had occurred. Additionally, his recent visit to China and Australia prompted critics to remark that the president was leaving the country during a time of crisis and seemed callous given the preceding events.

Peña’s guilt therefore lies not in his direct involvement but in the negligence that he and his administration have displayed in handling the aftermath. The president has displayed an inability to lead at a moment when the country desperately needs guidance and hope. Regardless of party, the nation’s highest office is the only unifying source of national leadership in the face of crisis and adversity. Enrique Peña Nieto has so far failed to exercise that authority, and through that failure has exposed a leadership deficit that only compounds the suffering of a nation in shock. To make matters worse, his attendance of the summit coincided with the release of controversial reports regarding the first family’s $7 million home.

Nicknamed Peña’s ‘White House’ in reference to its color, the stunning property is legally owned by Ingeniería Inmobiliaria del Centro, a company that was awarded lucrative contracts during Peña’s term as Governor of the State of Mexico. The company also forms part of Grupo Higa, a corporation whose construction arm was part of the Chinese-led consortium that recently won a $3.7 billion contract to build Mexico’s first bullet train. The contract was abruptly canceled after mounting criticism and suspicion surrounding the transparency and timeframe of the bidding process: the winning bid was the only proposal submitted.

Scandal over the house has only grown since the president’s spokesperson revealed that the estate actually belongs to Mexico’s first lady, former actress Angélica Rivera. The administration attempted to quell doubts through a press release stating the property is currently being paid for by the first lady, and that her long career has made her financially solvent and capable of affording such an estate. Ironically, this development has only raised further questions.

Rivera also owns a $2.2 million mansion adjacent to the ‘White House’ and is not, unlike the president, legally required to disclose her assets under Mexican law. Fresh revelations that the properties were actually donated to the first lady by Televisa—Mexico’s predominant media conglomerate—as part of her compensation package have only raised further doubts. Inquiries into the matter are currently hampered by government claims that the first lady’s financial information is classified.

Given that Mexico’s ‘White House’ is literally owned by a contractor that has benefitted under Peña’s rule, and was gifted to his wife by a media monopoly with links to his party, it is no surprise that the sumptuous estate is generating so much controversy in a country where half of the population lives in poverty.

Protests and Deja Vu

All of this brings us back to the protests currently stirring Mexico and partly explains why the current administration has become a target of social unrest. Sparked by the disappearance and likely murder of the 43 students, the demonstrations are turning increasingly violent. Furthermore, they have only grown in their frequency and size. Protestors have torched Iguala’s city hall, burned Guerrero’s state capitol, set fire to the PRI’s Guerrero headquarters, and attempted to set the National Palace aflame. Additionally, demonstrators have temporarily blocked major airports and roads.

It would be irresponsible, however, to simply reduce recent developments to some of the violent and controversial acts that have been committed. The vast majority of the demonstrations, while certainly disruptive, have been peaceful and civil. The disparity in the nature of recent events can only be understood as a function of the diversity present in the participants: primarily led by the families of the missing students, protests have been composed of students, teachers, rural workers, union members, activists, and other citizens who are fed up with the system or their government in general. They span a wide range of ages, political allegiances, and socioeconomic status.

It is no mystery then that different manners though which individuals express discontent have been present in the demonstrations, and that the most violent acts are the ones grabbing the headlines. It is worth mentioning that that the families of the missing 43 have denounced violence and called for peaceful discourse in the name of their children. Moderates have been quick to brand the violent acts as outliers or committed by agent provocateurs, with the intention of committing crimes that would in turn justify a government clampdown.

The reality of the situation is likely somewhere in the middle. The presence a large number of individuals who have come to see violence as the only means through which the system can change cannot be ignored. Many Mexicans are tired of the corruption and impunity that plagues the nation, and have long since come to see violence as the only method by which they can achieve what their institutions have proved incapable of delivering on their behalf. Although I do not share this viewpoint nor support those that do, it would also be irresponsible not to acknowledge its existence.

Social movements occur frequently in Mexico, but rarely result in meaningful long-term change. The ongoing protests, though large and consistent in their numbers, presently lack mechanisms that can ease the achievement of their goals. Despite the current momentum, a lack of unified leadership threatens to dilute the potential of the demonstrations to achieve lasting political and social change. It also allows independently committed acts—such as acts of violence—to be easily attributed to the movement and therefore undermine its legitimacy. An identifiable group of protest organizers could shape and organize the movement, offer a clear view of what it intends to do, and draw clear distinctions between the acts of protestors and those who would undercut its message through violence. Above all, a unified leadership is necessary for the development of social activism to converge into a political alternative that citizens can support. Although a large segment within the society rejects the effectiveness of current institutions, the only way capitalize on protests to institute change is for them to mobilize inside the political arena, and play the game.

Given the serious deficiencies in the answers provided so far by the federal government in the Ayotzinapa Case, the controversy surrounding the Peña Administration, and indignation over recent clashes between police and students inside Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), major marches are currently planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution this November 20. The parents of the missing students are calling on citizens to join in solidarity and to march with them toward the city’s central square. Separately, students are also calling for actions to block access to Mexico City’s International Airport to coincide with the demonstrations.

While calling for the demonstration to remain orderly and civil, President Peña has reminded the nation that the state ultimately has the right to restore order by force. The eerie message reminded many of former President Diaz Ordaz, the former PRI president that notoriously suppressed a student movement by force.

As calls for the president’s resignation build and are analyzed by the press, one thing undoubtedly remains clear: there is a deeply rooted discontent currently manifest in Mexican society regarding the state of the nation and its trajectory. In a country chronically afflicted by violence and unrest, Ayotzinapa has painfully struck a nerve. The protests reflect popular desperation, and stem from events caused by institutional decay. A growing number of Mexicans are exasperated by a system that, out of his own political ambition, Enrique Peña Nieto ultimately heads. The president must remember that not even the most ambitious reforms can flourish without order, the rule of law, and the consent of the citizenry. As his legitimacy slowly erodes, Peña is increasingly facing a situation that might prove to be the defining moment of his legacy.

Photo by Presidencia de la República Mexicana



“They wanted to bury us not knowing we’re seeds. We are all Ayotzinapa.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part Prospect Journal series on the unrest in Mexico. The second part can be found here.

By Alejandro Inzunza
Staff Writer

“I’m tired,” uttered a grim-faced Jesús Murillo Karam—Mexico’s Attorney General—in an attempt to cut off any further questions at his hour-long press conference regarding the 43 students missing since September 26 from just outside Iguala, a small city located 80 miles (125km) south of Mexico City. Perhaps realizing his poor choice of words, the attorney general agreed to take one more question and then proceeded to walk off stage. His words would quickly become the latest rallying cry of the increasingly violent social unrest currently stirring in Mexico.

Murillo had just informed the nation and international observers that three detained members of an organized crime ring known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) had confessed to the kidnapping and brutal execution of around forty individuals near Iguala on the night of September 26, the same day and location the students were last seen. In gruesome detail, he added that detainees calcined the bodies of their victims, crushed their bones beyond recognition, and dumped their remains—using black plastic bags—in a local river.

The attorney general showed videos of the detainees, and the locations where federal investigators found human remains that allegedly match the acts described in the confessions. Murillo took efforts to avoid presenting the findings as conclusive, and vowed not to close the case until the human remains could be confirmed by foreign forensic experts to be the missing students.

As of this week, federal investigators have unearthed 11 mass graves in the area surrounding the municipality of Iguala. They collectively contain up to 38 bodies confirmed not to belong to any of the 43 missing students. Due to widespread distrust of the government and a lack of appropriate technology, the charred remains discussed in Murillo’s conference will be sent to Innsbruck’s Medical University in Austria for DNA analysis and identification.

The Ayotzinapa Case—and its handling—has yet again demonstrated the endemic violence and systemic corruption that has plagued Mexico for decades. The crisis has exposed the flaws underlying the current administration’s optimistic narrative and challenged its legitimacy; it has shed light on the structural incapacity of local, state and federal institutions to address the corruption that rots their core; it has focused attention on the nation’s most open of secrets: the widespread infiltration of criminal organizations within police and government forces, and the collusion between organized crime and elected officials. Above all, Ayotzinapa has become the latest epicenter of institutional and political decay. Seldom does violence, morbid on its own, manifest itself in such a macabre spectacle and involve such intricate a web of participants.

The ‘Normalistas’

Founded in 1926, the all-male Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Rural College of Ayotzinapa is one of nine normal schools in Guerrero, one of the poorest and most dangerous states in Mexico. It was established to train students to be elementary school teachers and gives priority admission to those who cannot afford higher education. Chronically underfunded and characterized by its left-wing tendencies, the school has a long history of social activism, civil disobedience, and friction with authority. It’s small, mountaintop campus features murals of socialist leaders and revolutionary quotes, and provides tuition-less training for those that call it home.

“Normalistas,” as the school’s students are called, come from the most underdeveloped areas in the country to seek better opportunities. Given their economic and social hardship, students at the school seldom have access to opportunities other than rural fieldwork or manual labor. Many attend the normal school to pursue better job prospects in education, make a difference in their impoverished communities, or join the social movements for which the school is known. Students also often engage in illegal practices in the name of social struggle. Although they enjoy acquiescence from local residents, their tactics often put them at odds with local law enforcement and frequently alienate the local press. The student-teachers often hijack commuter and commercial transportation vehicles to use as their own transport by blockading roads and paying off drivers for their trouble. They also frequently loot commercial vehicles owned by large corporations to protest their disproportionate wealth and influence in government.

In 2011, two students died when state police dispersed a normalista blockade of a major highway after students set fire to a gas station. Police initially claimed they were returning fire, but retracted their story after a video proved the students were unarmed.

The ‘Imperial Couple’

Every October, normalistas head to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968. Seeking to raise funds and secure transport for their visit to the capital, dozens of normalistas headed to the small city of Iguala in the late hours of September 26.

That same night, Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca and his politically ambitious wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were hosting an event to celebrate Ángeles Pineda’s “accomplishments” as head of the Iguala branch of the National System for Integral Family Development (DIF). The event also served the couple’s political fortunes by positioning Ángeles Pineda as the presumptive successor to Mayor Abarca, ensuring the couple’s influence for years to come. Both officials had previous experiences with the normalistas. Students had previously protested outside Iguala’s city hall when news broke that local activists had been tortured and killed.

According to official accounts of what transpired that day, Normalistas planned to disrupt the celebration in addition to the other items on their activist agenda. When news that buses full of normalistas were on the way to disrupt his wife’s event, Abarca immediately ordered police to intercept the students and “teach them a lesson.”

Upon encountering the Iguala-bound buses, municipal police—aided by members of Guerreros Unidos—opened fire. Some of the buses tried to drive away, but police vehicles quickly caught up with them. Others tried abandoning the buses and fled the chaos by foot. Some managed to survive. The clash left 6 people dead—three of them students. Police managed to capture and detain at least 43 normalistas; all of which remain missing to this day.

What happened next is still contested and remains the source of much of the current social anxiety and unrest. According to federal investigators, police transferred the 43 detained students to members of Guerreros Unidos at some point during night of September 26. The gang members then allegedly received instructions to execute their captives and erase all evidence of their kidnapping. They proceeded to burn the bodies for approximately 15 hours in order to make identification impossible. Officials claim that the leader of Guerreros Unidos thought the students were members of a rival drug gang and ordered their execution to ‘protect the territory.’

Facing increased scrutiny over the events of that transpired on the 26, Mayor Abarca requested a leave of absence on September 29. He, alongside his wife and Iguala’s secretary of public safety, immediately went missing and ceased communication with government authorities. As details of their links to organized crime and their role in the events of September 26 became clear, the couple quickly became Mexico’s most wanted duo and the focal point of one of the biggest criminal and political manhunts in recent Mexican memory. Facing growing public outrage over his alleged links to the couple, criticism over the slow response of his administration, and claims that he was aware of when and how the students died, Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre has recently resigned.

Dubbed the ‘Imperial Couple’ by the press, Abarca and Ms. Pineda strikingly reveal the extent to which crime, corruption, villainy and nepotism have infiltrated Mexico’s institutions. Given their position, acts committed by and under them are of such nature as to be filed under state terrorism. The level of impunity and terror that defined their rule have sent waves through Mexico and alerted the shocked nation of the presence of a local failed state.

Investigations have revealed a shocking profile of Abarca’s crimes: rampant nepotism in his administration, money laundering, illicit enrichment, corruption, and ties to organized crime. Abarca is also being investigated for his participation in the kidnap and murder of local activists—the incident that prompted the normalistas’ protest last year. Witness testimonies claim the person who pulled the trigger in that killing was none other than Abarca himself. Maria de los Ángeles’ biography is just as alarming: she was one of the leaders of Guerreros Unidos and has direct family links to known members of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.

More than 70 arrests have been made in connection to the events of September 26. At least 30 of them have been police officers linked to organized crime. Both Abarca and Pineda have been branded the intellectual authors of the disappearance of the 43 normalistas. The couple was detained last week in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City. Both await prosecution.

Although the current administration initially tried to downplay the case as an isolated incident, Ayotzinapa reminds Mexico of the unspoken truth of which most of its citizens are aware: crime and corruption are a cancer of Mexican politics and they can be seen and felt everywhere. There is perhaps no location in the country unaffected by violence and no citizen in the nation that can deny the endemic corruption that hamstrings the entire sociopolitical system. Lacking workable institutions to address and implement change, the citizens of Mexico are taking to the streets to vent their frustration with the system and the individuals that simultaneously run and corrupt it.

Photo by jazbeck