“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


by Alejandro Inzunza
Staff Writer

A monumental flag marks the entry to Tijuana’s new El Chaparral point of entry, a gleaming new facility from which southbound drivers and pedestrians enter Mexico from the United States. The new gateway is part of an ongoing binational effort that aims to modernize and expand the infrastructure of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the largest border crossing in the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan region and, at more than 56 million legal border crossings per year, the busiest land border crossing in the world.

Yet adjacent to this location lies one of the most striking consequences of the stringent enforcement of America’s immigration policy and of Mexico’s domestic neglect of its deported citizens. San Ysidro is the port of entry through which most deportations have taken place–as much as 20 percent over the last ten years–and the results are unequivocally visible in the surrounding urban area.

Under pressure from the political right, the Obama administration has now removed more than 2 million undocumented immigrants from the United States. The administration claims to be targeting criminals and other serious offenders, but this is highly contested. A New York Times analysis found that two thirds of deportations involved individuals who “had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” The report also highlights the administration’s tendency to file charges against deportees that bar them from entering the country for five years, and threatening those caught in the U.S. again with prison sentences.

It is estimated that 40 percent of all Mexican deportees are repatriated through Tijuana every year.The numbers have been so staggering that the daily arrival of deportees, in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) buses, overwhelms the local capacity to deal with the necessities of repatriation and exposes inherent shortcomings in the institutional will of the Mexican government to develop an appropriate solution. Shelters and charitable organizations that previously provided assistance to undocumented migrants seeking to enter the United States now focus their efforts on helping the daily waves of deportees. The lack of accessible housing, proper healthcare and nutrition, as well as proper assistance and documentation from both governments in the lead-up to deportation has led to an intersection of local rejection and federal negligence; deportees effectively become undocumented in their country of origin. With only distant hopes of being able to cross back into the United States and nowhere else to go, deportees are forced to wander and settle around the edges of the Tijuana River in a grim stretch locally referred to as “El Bordo.”

Spanish for “the edge” or “the border,” El Bordo spans two kilometers of the paved Tijuana River and is situated between the downtown area of Tijuana and the border fence of the United States. Filled with trash and flowing with sewer water, El Bordo is dotted with makeshift tents, dug-up holes and open manholes where people attempt to survive and make a living. Nicknamed “ñongos” by their inhabitants, these improvised shelters lack the most basic necessities and are usually built with the trash that’s available nearby. Although an accurate census often proves difficult given the transient status of the population involved, it is estimated that more than 4,000 people currently reside in El Bordo. A study by Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) found that 72 percent of deportees living in El Bordo had previously lived in California, most of them for more than six years. Deportees often arrive with no previous knowledge of the local area and occasionally without the ability to speak the local language. With no access to the financial resources they earned in the United States and unable to contact their families, deportees suddenly find themselves in conditions of extreme poverty that render them vulnerable to the local machinations of organized crime.

The harsh conditions also expose them to frequent human rights violations, often at the hands of local police. Deportees allege that they are constantly arrested or beaten for no reason and occasionally have their settlements burned.The police deny these claims but admit the periodic demolition of the shacks to clean up the paved riverbed and avoid the development of permanent settlements. They emphasize the health and crime risks posed by the deportees, many of whom were removed from American prisons, including a substantial number who have succumbed to drug addiction. The police claim that 75 percent of the crime in the surrounding area is connected to migrants, a claim rejected by COLEF.

The inhumane characteristics that define life in El Bordo are unacceptable and exemplify a myopic view of policy on both sides. Both Mexico and the United States need to reevaluate their domestic policies and deal in proper manner with the consequences of their current approach. The United States, while certainly legally empowered to remove undocumented residents from within its borders, should deal with deportees in a humane way that live up to the ideals of its nation. Due process, access to legal counsel in every case, and the implementation of policies aimed at easing the transition for deportees are essential. It is within the current administration’s power to relax the harshness of the current approach and salvage what remains of its initial promise made to the Latino population. Having removed more immigrants than any president in U.S. history, Obama is increasingly at risk of alienating Latino voters and eroding what has traditionally been one of the strongest bases of the Democratic Party. Given the uncertainty surrounding the prospects for immigration reform in the near future, the way and manner in which current immigration law is implemented is likely to define Obama’s legacy on the issue

Mexico needs to accept the responsibility it has to protect and properly assist its deported citizens by developing adequate institutional solutions to deal with their transition. After all, deportees are part of the population whose remittances constituted approximately 2 percent of Mexico’s GDP at an estimated $22 billion in the last year alone. As a starting point, Mexico should coordinate with American authorities and restore deportees to their original hometown where they can access social and familial networks that can mitigate the impacts of deportation. The Mexican government also needs to provide access to official documentation as part of the repatriation process to facilitate deportees’ reinstatement into the Mexican labor force. The government should also coordinate with the United States and manage the repatriation of citizens with criminal backgrounds through domestic judicial channels. Additional resources should also be devoted to provide proper housing in sufficient quantities and to implement harm reduction strategies that tackle the rampant drug abuse among recent deportees. Without efforts by both nations to address the current deportation regime’s failures, spaces like El Bordo will continue to exist and proliferate, and deportees will remain trapped between two countries, struggling to survive in the cracks beneath the shadow of the border.

Photo by Mike DuBose


Mexican Flag

By Jubilee Cheung
Staff Writer

Irving Tragen, a Berkeley law graduate, has taught courses, is an expert on labor law and has held diplomatic positions in Latin America. On Wednesday, May 7, he gave a lecture concerning the PRI’s role in Mexico’s move away from mercantilism, after the Mexican Revolution that spanned from 1910 to 1920.

The Mexican Revolution came about in response to unhappiness with the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, whose 31-year reign is sometimes referred to as the Porfiriato. Díaz distributed wealth and power among a very select few, and gave the people little ability to express their views and opinions. The rural peasant class, in particular, suffered under Díaz, whose government forcibly seized large portions of land and effectively deprived the peasant class of work. Díaz’s regime also saw to it that roughly 20 percent of all land in Mexico was given to foreign entities in what was likely a supreme act of commercialism; as the rest of the land that remained under local ownership mostly belonged to affluent families, the agrarian workforce suffered tremendously. Many were forced to live on plantations as a direct result.

In 1910, Francisco Madero issued a letter that called for reform, which rallied the rural peasants of Mexico to his side. Madero’s cause attracted the support of other rebel leaders, among them Pascual Orozco and Francisco Villa. Though Madero did eventually overthrow Díaz and attempt to establish a democratic government, he proved an ineffective leader and was removed from power himself. His death in 1913, suspected by many to have been an assassination orchestrated by rival Victoriano Huerta, led to a period of political and social unrest that would continue for years after.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was developed in response to the post-revolutionary instability. Control of the party was concentrated among the Central Executive Committee, although the PRI made a conscious effort to maintain the illusion that it was an institution of the people. Its elected leader, Lázaro Cárdenas, would take mercantilism to another level by expropriating Mexico’s oil supply, a fairly unpopular decision at the time. The expropriation of oil eventually led to labor unrest as the industry became less profitable on a local level. Cárdenas responded positively by nationalizing a number of operating oil companies. Cárdenas would go on to nationalize a number of other industries. The PRI was renamed Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) under Cárdenas, who, to quote Tragen, “focused Mexico on Mexico.”

Despite Cárdenas’s nationalization of foreign industries, the PRI (which has undergone a large quantity of name changes throughout its 71 years of existence) was, for the most part, heavily corrupt, and retained a shady reputation among the people. There were occurrences of fraud where elections were concerned, and officials utilized tactics rooted in blackmail, and bribery to control opposing parties. Tragen made personal note of the heavy corruption, recounting that people often carried extra cash to pay off the police that might pull them over on the streets; this was such a customary practice, he explained, that it was accounted for in determining the policemen’s salaries. The party would go on to maintain control of Mexico from 1929 to 2000. To date, Mexicans display mistrust in their government, with as few as 33 percent asserting that they place faith in it.

The corruption of the PRI has left a lasting impact on the confidence that the Mexican populace places in its government. The PRI has also since returned to power as of 2012, much to the concern of the people, a large number of whom fear a return to the corruption of the past. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current leader of the PRI, promises that such fears are ungrounded. Only time will prove the validity of this statement.

Image by Britt Reints