“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 Angela Luh
Staff Writer

Demonstrations for Hong Kong’s monumental student protest movement, dubbed “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Revolution,” have entered a sixth week since the first wave of protests sprung up at the end of September. The movement’s call for democracy within the ballooning apparatus of power by socialist China has elicited widespread media attention and overseas support. While Occupy Central has established visible rapport with many global citizens, some scholars and politicians caution that implementing democratic reforms in Hong Kong, whose laws remain largely under the control of the National People’s Congress in China, requires a “progressive approach” and that radical, quick-fix movements may do more harm than good. Indeed, as the protests have progressed, internal divisions within Hong Kong in support and in opposition of the movement have grown, and the number of street protesters has dwindled from thousands to hundreds.

Background on Occupy Central

The protests were sparked by Beijing’s decision in September to revise the nomination process for the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE), the head of its leadership. The plan, approved by the National People’s Congress, designates a 1,200-person nominating committee to select candidates for the CE and reduces the number of eligible candidates for the position, but will, for the first time in Hong Kong’s history, allow the CE to be chosen by popular vote. Currently, however, the committee consists of only 7 percent of the total Hong Kong electorate and is generally pro-Beijing, allowing China to prevent CE candidates who harbor democratic sentiments. The Chinese government can also veto candidates they dislike, prompting criticism from Hong Kong voters, claiming they can only vote for candidates chosen by Beijing.

Hong Kong protesters are demanding the right to freely vote to nominate candidates in the 2017 CE election. They have also demanded the resignation of current executive, C.Y. Leung, who has lost favor with a number of Hong Kong citizens with his criticism of the protests; many view him as a pawn of Beijing.

The response from China has been that of unyielding non-concession. Chinese President Xi Jinping maintained Beijing’s stance on Hong Kong’s position as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), which prohibits voters from nominating CE candidates. The Central Government Liaison’s office backed his assertion with a statement that declared Hong Kong’s electoral rules well within Beijing’s jurisdiction.

Tensions over the restrictive electoral reforms culminated on September 28, with the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” civil disobedience campaign. Initiated by Hong Kong University Law Professor Benny Tai and widely supported by Hong Kong students, the protests dramatically escalated within days, with thousands occupying the streets to protest the proposed election rules. Hong Kong’s officials reacted to the movement by sending out police to disperse the masses, but excessive use of force, including the use of tear gas and batons, only served to galvanize the protesters, triggering more demonstrations against C.Y. Leung and the Hong Kong government.

Changing Currents in the Protests

Six weeks into the protest, the movement has lost much of its momentum.

The protesters have continued to demand the resignation of Hong Kong’s legislature to trigger a public referendum on electoral reform. While C.Y. Leung’s popularity levels have fallen through the ground, the likelihood of generating a public referendum is very little, since it is prohibited by Hong Kong Basic Law.

Furthermore, domestic opposition towards the movement is growing. The counter-movement is made up of pro-Beijing party line and business owners who have faced business deficits since the street occupations started. Hong Kong’s economy, which depends heavily on tourism and business, has taken a hit since protests began. Many mainlanders and counter-protesters perceive the protest as a violation to social order, law and economic prosperity. In addition to censoring much of the news associated with the protests, China has used evidence of Hong Kong’s faltering economy to dissuade sympathizers. In an October poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong, 54 percent of interviewees opposed Occupy Central, with only 27 percent in support of it.

Student leaders are planning to send representatives to Beijing this week during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. As negotiations with the Hong Kong government have proven ineffective, the movement leaders hope that seeking direct talks with mainland Chinese officials will prompt a more substantial response.

The Future of Hong Kong-China Relations

Hong Kong remains limited in its autonomy as a SAR under the “one country, two systems” principle. Hong Kong’s courts maintain relationships with China’s Central Authorities and falls under common law jurisdiction within socialist China, limiting its ability to maneuver policy decisions, particularly as it holds much less leverage today than it did years ago.

Once a crucial gateway for trade, investment and capital for China, Hong Kong is now much less important to China, with major Chinese cities becoming central hubs for trade and investment. Hong Kong’s share of China’s total GDP has declined by nearly 12 percent in past decade. The roles have reversed in this imbalanced relationship, with Hong Kong becoming increasingly dependent on China for trade. China’s imports constitute less than 2 percent of the total share whereas Hong Kong’s exports to China exceed half of its total exports.

Despite its diminishing role as a trade and investment center, Hong Kong is still a critical player in China’s economy. Hong Kong is more reliable than the mainland for equity financing and is crucial for investment in and out of China, accounting for two-thirds of foreign direct investment into China last year. Hong Kong is also the global center for renminbi trading, with huge sums of liquidity flowing through it every year.

Thus, a crackdown on Hong Kong is unlikely. It is more likely that China will wait for the protests to lose traction among Hong Kong citizens before it makes any compromises. Beijing’s growing economic leverage over Hong Kong may only increase its influence in the region.

As was the case in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, China has proven that it can continue to stake its political influence in areas under its claim by guaranteeing economic growth and political stability. With many East Asian economies depending on trade and investment with China, Beijing can stifle support for pro-democracy protests and prevent them from entering China.

While China is unlikely to make concessions to Hong Kong protesters because it would show its weakness in regards to governing its other claims (Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan), China would benefit from economic stability in Hong Kong. Therefore, China and Hong Kong need to address the issue of political gridlock in the legislature, which prevents the government from making efficient and effective policy changes. The Hong Kong government must also clarify how the Legislative Council should be elected in 2016, define the composition of the 1,200-member nominating committee for the CE election and make changes to increase the representation of Hong Kong voters in the body. Both sides will need to concede a little and reach an agreement on the CE election in order to set a precedent for future political reforms.

Image by Oneris Rico


Protestors in Taipei
A Taiwanese protestor holds a sign featuring a “V for Vendetta” quote, which reads “The country belongs to the people. People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

In the first part of this series, I reviewed the current situations in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In this second installment, I will provide a brief update on the status of each of these countries as well as present information about a new protest movement in Taiwan that emerged in mid-March. Additionally, I will discuss why the U.S. should be focusing more on these countries due to both economic interests and human rights violations, and attempt to explain why I believe the U.S. and Western media focuses so heavily on the Ukraine crisis when it really should provide more coverage of other equally important movements. Although there is definitely some coverage of other conflicts, Ukraine is always on the front page of the news.

Since the publication of Part I in early March, the protests have continued in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In Ukraine, Russian troops took over the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine at the end of March, and 97 percent of voters in Crimea supported secession from Ukraine to Russia in a referendum held March 16. As Ukraine awaits presidential elections scheduled for May 25, it has just launched its own anti-terror operation against armed pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on April 13. In Venezuela, violence abounds as the death toll has risen to 41 and about 650 people have been injured since early February. Since the beginning of March, additional groups of people, including doctors, medical students and mothers, have joined the student protests against the Venezuelan government’s handling of commodity scarcity issues and the economic crisis. Students also set up tents outside of United Nations offices in Caracas on March 26 to complain that not enough international attention has been paid to the Venezuelan crisis. In Thailand, a Constitutional Court decision on March 21 that nullified the February general election bolstered a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in Bangkok. Most recently, protestors started targeting government buildings on the outskirts of Bangkok.

One additional protest that is personally important to me as a Taiwanese American is the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan that lasted from March 18 until April 10. Tensions over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that was signed between China and Taiwan reached a boiling point when the ratification of the CSSTA was pushed through Congress and passed in 30 seconds without a line-by-line review of the clauses. President Ma Ying-Jeou and his pro-China Kuomingtang (Chinese Nationalist Party) faced heavy backlash from students and supporters of the pro-Taiwanese-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The predominantly student protestors stormed the Legislative Yuan (parliament) and refused to leave for 24 days until Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng conceded and made promises to create an oversight mechanism to make the CSSTA review process more transparent and democratic. Within the three weeks that the students stormed the Legislative Yuan, protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their displeasure against not only the CSSTA, but also the Ma administration in general, with about 350,000 people participating in a rally outside the Presidential Office in Taipei.

Individually, the Venezuelan, Thai, and Taiwanese protests each have an impact on U.S. economic interests. First, Venezuela, which is perhaps most directly linked to the U.S. economy, is one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, the U.S. is Venezuela’s most important trading partner for both imports and exports; 500 U.S. companies are represented in Venezuela. However, relations between the two countries are only becoming more strained as President Nicolás Maduro keeps blaming the U.S. government, specifically Secretary of State John Kerry, for inciting protests and a “Ukraine-style coup”. This is problematic for the U.S. because even if it wants to improve relations with Venezuela, enduring accusations from President Maduro prevent the U.S. from taking even the slightest actions that would make the U.S. appear to be imposing its will on Venezuela. With the International Monetary Fund recently releasing its World Economic Outlook that states that Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink 0.5 percent, the U.S. is virtually powerless and must sit idly by as the Venezuelan economy declines while its government fails to answer the demands of the people.

Next, the U.S. is Thailand’s third-largest bilateral trading partner and has more than $13 billion in direct foreign investment for Thailand. The Department of State also notes that the U.S. supports many other aspects of the Thai government, such as law enforcement, science and technology, wildlife trafficking, public health, and education. Similar to the situation in Venezuela, the protests in Thailand have caused the Bank of Thailand to cut its economic growth projection from 3.7 percent to 3 percent. A country that relies on tourism for 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product, Thailand has steered tourists away from its country due to its inability to control the protestors. Furthermore, both Western and Asian corporations may begin to think twice about basing their operations in Thailand due to its ongoing risky conditions. Although the U.S., as in the case of Venezuela, has little direct leverage in this situation, it can take advantage of the fact that it is one of the key investors in Thailand and use this as leverage to ensure that human rights are being protected during the protests. Cutting off aid to Thailand could be devastating for the Thai economy. Moreover, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “it is critical that U.S. officials not ignore Thailand while it goes through this crisis” and should “engage the business community, the military, and other sectors of the society.” The protestors’ desire for anti-democracy is an unprecedented theme that has gone unnoticed. The lack of coverage of these protests has reinforced that this region does not seem to be a priority to the U.S. despite CSIS recommendations.

Lastly, although the Taiwan protests have stronger and more direct implications for the Taiwanese economy than for the U.S. economy, the protests ultimately affect China, which in turn affects the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of State, Taiwan is the United States’ 11th largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s largest foreign investor. Whether the treaty in question is ultimately ratified or not by congress will either expand economic ties with China or keep the economic situation the same in Taiwan. The most important issue here is the fact that since Taiwan is still technically owned by China, China has the final say in controlling the extent of foreign trade Taiwan is allowed to engage in. If the CSSTA is sent back to China for renegotiations and China wants to force the CSSTA to be ratified by Taiwan, it could threaten Taiwan by not allowing it to sign free trade agreements with other countries. President Ma believes that if the CSSTA is not passed, “it will have a grave impact on [Taiwan’s] international image,” which would result in a long-term threat to foreign trade.

Collectively, the three conflicts in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan highlight various human rights and due process issues. The peaceful protests in all three countries are often met with police force. In Venezuela, police have retaliated with buckshot, tear gas, and water cannons, while in Taiwan, police officers have used batons and physical force to try to drag and remove the protestors. Protestors have demanded an end to police brutality, yet it seems that these demands for a respect of human rights, especially the rights to life, physical integrity, and free speech, are not being met by the governments of these three countries. In addition, the belief that the Thai general election in February was rigged and the corresponding refusal to vote by many citizens threaten the future integrity of free and fair elections in Thailand. The undemocratic passing of the CSSTA without an article-by-article review coupled with a lack of transparency and responsiveness to the people’s concerns threatens democracy itself in Taiwan.

The economic interests the U.S. has in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as the growing human rights concerns in those countries, should make the conflicts within these countries a priority to the U.S., yet the U.S. and Western media only focuses on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia. One possible explanation for this is that the U.S. is stuck in a Cold War mentality, where it still sees Russia as its biggest enemy and will always support the side that is against Russia. Even though the media believes it may be more interesting for readers to have alarming front cover news about Ukraine day after day, it is unfair to other countries that have just as important conflicts. Another explanation is that the media might think that since Americans in general do not care about the news, it is easier to focus on one news story at a time rather than change headlines every day. Less coverage may also seem to indicate to readers that the U.S. will not intervene in these conflicts so the American public will not be as upset with the U.S. government, which has a historic reputation for sticking its nose in other countries’ business. A final possible explanation could just be that the media does not like reporting on conflicts until something drastic actually happens, such as violence and bloodshed or a President being ousted or impeached. For example, President Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted in Ukraine, but President Maduro of Venezuela and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand are still in power despite mass demonstrations. However, just because a ruler has not been ousted does not mean that the situation is more stable by any means, and the media should still monitor these conflicts and update the public.

Why does the Western media insist on focusing on one conflict for headlines day after day when they could just as easily view these conflicts as a collective problem of democracy and middle class revolt throughout the world? There is growing global unrest, better coordinated with the advent of social media. The unparalleled situation the world finds itself in should garner more recognition from both the international community and from Western media, especially considering the economic and human rights ramifications these conflicts have. Society today relies heavily on media to give us real-time updates on events happening halfway across the globe. By favoring certain news stories over others because they are more convenient to cover, media outlets fail in their duty to provide fair coverage of world news. This failure ultimately causes the public to be grossly uninformed about important current affairs that affect U.S. interests.

Image by billy1125