Ayotzinapa rumbles across Mexico

December 1, 2014

With another day of action coming on December 6, Héctor A. Rivera reports from Mexico City on the spreading student movement and its spreading reverberations.

ANGRY PROTESTS continue to grow among students and others in Mexico more than two months after 43 student teachers--known as Normalistas--from the Rural Normal School "Raúl Isidro Burgos" at Ayotzinapa were abducted by municipal police in the city of Iguala in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.

On the night of September 26, police intercepted a bus caravan of students from the Ayotzinapa teachers' college and opened fire, killing two students and injuring 17 others. During the attack, 43 students were loaded onto police pickup trucks and taken away--these students haven't been heard from since. Police also killed three other people thought to be students from Ayotzinapa during the course of the night.

The morning after, when the Normalistas returned to the scene of the attack, they found the lifeless body of classmate Julio César Mondragón. According to autopsy reports, he had been flayed alive.

The families of the missing 43 and their fellow students from the teachers' college have been demanding information and action from the federal and state governments--all the more urgently as various "discoveries" of unmarked graves or supposed evidence of their deaths have turned out to be false.

Demonstrators gathered in the Zócalo in Mexico City to demand justice
Demonstrators gathered in the Zócalo in Mexico City to demand justice

The case of the 43 missing students has spawned a national movement for justice and an international campaign of solidarity. As the protests have grown and strengthened, Ayotzinapa has more and more become a catalyst that has brought out all sorts of social grievances.

In addition to demanding the return of the 43 missing students, mass demonstrations are now calling for the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--the slogan "¡Fuera Peña!" has been widely adopted in protests across Mexico and in Mexican communities in the U.S.

On November 20, tens of thousands marched in Mexico City in the second mass protest of the month, along with numerous smaller actions organized by students. The demonstrators gathered at three starting points and converged on the city's central square, the Zócalo. There, the march ended with the burning of an effigy of Peña Nieto, before police moved in and forcibly removed protesters.

In the two months since the attack on the bus caravan, Ayotzinapa has rapidly evolved into one of the biggest crises of the legitimacy that the Mexican government has faced in the recent past. This has led some commentators to ask if "the next Mexican revolution" is imminent, as Al Jazeera asked.

While this would be a highly desirable outcome, the Mexican state is resilient and has survived even bigger challenges to its rule. The student struggle for the missing 43 and the wider social movements that are starting to move into action around it face important organizational challenges if they are going to build a fight that can threaten Peña Nieto and his PRI government.

THE BIGGEST challenge to the Mexican state in the recent past began 20 years ago this year with the Zapatista uprising that began on January 1, 1994.

That day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) launched an armed offensive and took control of several towns and cities in the southern state of Chiapas. In its "First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle," the Zapatistas called for a revolution against the Mexican government that had just signed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Although the uprising took the Mexican state by surprise, the Zapatistas were outgunned militarily. But the widespread support for the EZLN--as a worldwide symbol of the discontent with neoliberalism--pushed the Mexican government to opt for negotiations rather than an all-out crackdown.

For its part, after its First Declaration, the Zapatistas refrained from calling for a revolution against the government. In ensuing declarations, they raised opposition to the idea of taking power from the state and instead focused on initiatives to advance indigenous rights in Mexico and autonomy for Zapatista communities in Chiapas.

The government survived other strong opposition movements without being toppled. In 2006, mass demonstrations erupted against the theft of the 2006 presidential election won by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), running for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). There were huge protests and mass encampments set up throughout Mexico City to stop Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN) from taking office and force a recount. But Calderón was able to weather the storm and get himself sworn in.

Just last year, hundreds of thousands of teachers--organized in the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the left wing of the national teachers' union--took militant action in strikes, protests and occupations in an effort to Peña Nieto's neoliberal education reform repealed.

As in other cases, the government used a carrot-and-stick strategy against the teachers, threatening to use violence to clear out the teachers' encampment from the Zócalo in Mexico City, while at the same time initiating negotiations to tweak the education reform.

It will be important for the movement mobilizing around the attack on the Ayotzinapa students to learn the lessons of this history in building a stronger opposition to Peña Nieto.

BECAUSE OF the barbarism of the police assault against the students, the government is under enormous national and international scrutiny. This will make it harder to use all-out repression to crush demonstrations, as the government has in the past--if it tries, it will pay a higher political price.

Ayotzinapa has exposed the violence and corruption of the Mexican government at all levels to an international spotlight, but all this is well known in this country. An opinion poll conducted by Mexican daily newspaper El Universal in Guerrero state found that 74 percent of people don't believe the government's version of what happened in the attack on the students.

According to the same poll, 90 percent of people don't trust municipal police forces; 85 percent don't trust judges; 79 percent don't trust the federal police or the state governor; 80 percent don't trust the office of the federal Attorney General; 75 percent don't trust the President; and 61 percent don't trust the army. That survey was limited to Guerrero, but no one thinks the numbers would be much different elsewhere in Mexico.

Though the government has been mostly on the defensive and conciliatory, even expressing sympathy for the families of the missing students, the tone is beginning to change. In mid-November, after returning from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in China, Peña Nieto warned in a press conference that the state is prepared to use force to establish order.

The detention of protesters and bystanders after the November 20 demonstrations illustrates the change in attitude of the government. The 11 people arrested, mostly students, were sent to maximum-security prisons outside of Mexico City. Human rights organizations accuse the government of denying them due process and access to a lawyer.

Subsequent speeches by the president and statements by the Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong also sought to drive a wedge between "peaceful protesters" and radicals who are supposedly taking advantage of the pain and the grief of the families to advance a violent cause. According to Peña Nieto, these protesters want to "destabilize and, above all, attack the national project that we are pushing forward."

But such statements ring hollow as the demonstrations gain strength in Mexico City, throughout Guerrero and beyond. A few weeks ago, chants of "¡Fuera Peña!" or "¡Que se vayan todos!" would have been thought of as daring. At the mass march on November 20, however, "¡Fuera Peña!" was one of the main slogans of the demonstration along with the call for the return of the 43 missing students: ¡Vivos se los llevaron y vivos los queremos!" (They were taken alive and we want them back alive)

Why this shift? First of all, the government's handling of the Iguala case has been grossly incompetent and at times downright obstructionist.

Further, Peña Nieto's administration has tried to blame the attack on organized crime and the power-hungry mayor and his wife who ruled Iguala. But for most people, the Iguala case proves what everyone already believed--organized crime is in cahoots with the government at all levels. Thus the slogan "Fue el estado" (It was the state) represents the widespread acknowledgment that this crime was committed on behalf of, and in coordination with, the state.

All of the main political parties have lost credibility in the eyes of most Mexicans. The PRD, once the opposition party represented by AMLO, has shifted into complete accommodation with neoliberalism and is implicated in Mexico's crime cartels. In Guerrero, the governor, now resigned, and the Iguala mayor, who is under arrest along with his wife in connection to the attack on the students, are both PRD members. The recent resignation of Cuahutémoc Cárdenas--the founder and moral voice of the PRD--sunk the party further into crisis.

The PRD and the PAN have signed on to the PRI's "Pact for Mexico," making all three main parties complicit in a package of highly unpopular neoliberal structural reforms. The PAN continues to be associated with Mexico's disastrous "war on drugs. The PRD hoped to perform well in next year's midterm elections, but the Iguala case has dashed those hopes.

Thus, the main political parties don't seem to offer an alternative for change in the eyes of the protesters.

Beyond the parties, there is a general lack of trust in Mexico's governing institutions like the Supreme Court--no surprise, considering that its president has the highest salary among state officials in Mexico and the Supreme Court continues to act on behalf of the president and his political agenda.

The National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) is another politically bankrupt institution--its president, Raúl Plascencia, lost a reelection bid in November. Victims of human rights violations claim that the CNDH has given preferential treatment to police officers, politicians and the military.

As the Guerrero polls showed, there is somewhat more confidence in the Mexican Marines and the Army among the public at large. But their reputation is on shaky ground, especially since an Associated Press investigation revealed that the government attempted to cover up a prisoner massacre carried out by the Army. As for the police, it has long been one of the most corrupt, mistrusted and hated institutions in the country.

WHILE THE slogan "¡Fuera Peña! has been adopted widely, the movement today faces real challenges it must overcome to make such a demand into a serious threat to the regime.

The first and most important challenge is to get the majority of labor and social movement organizations to organize around bringing down the PRI government.

It's a positive sign that more civil society organizations have been drawn into the demonstrations, along with members of some unions, especially in Mexico City, such as teachers from the CNTE, workers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, members of the Mexican Electricians Union, and workers represented by the Telephone Workers Union. Still, there has not been strikes or workplace action as part of the struggle for the missing students.

Students organized through the Inter-University Students Assembly--representing more than 100 schools--continue to be the strongest base for the mobilizations, organizing student strikes and coming out in force for protests. The challenge for the student movement is to replicate an inter-university structure at the national level, since the Inter-University Students Assembly is mostly based in Mexico City.

The question is whether labor and civil society organizations will build on the anti-government sentiment galvanized by the Ayotzinapa struggle. This will become important in the coming weeks as students will go on winter break from December 12 through January 6.

Protests in solidarity with the struggle at the international level will be important in adding legitimacy to the demands of the movement in Mexico and keeping the spotlight on the government to hamper it from using repression against the protests.

The next major protests are set for December 6. This day and the weeks surrounding it will be decisive for the movement in testing its ability to draw in larger forces, especially unions--and in giving force to the demand "¡Fuera Peña!"

Further Reading

From the archives