Anger boils over in Mexico

November 12, 2014

Héctor A. Rivera reports from Mexico City as demonstrations escalate over a deadly police crackdown on student activists--and the government's callous attitude since.

MEXICO IS being shaken to the core by large protests and student strikes over the disappearance of 43 students after their bus caravan was attacked by municipal police from the city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero, 120 miles south of Mexico City.

The missing students were part of a group from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa, who were apparently returning to their campus on September 26 after a day of canvassing and protests when police opened fire without warning on their bus caravan. At least six people were killed or died from injuries on the spot. Police corralled 43 students and hauled them away in trucks--they have not been heard from since.

The mass mobilization to demand that the 43 students be found and freed reached a new stage last weekend in Mexico City, in Guerrero and around the country. Large and angry protests followed a press conference where the federal government's attorney general claimed that two people in custody had confessed to taking part in the massacre of the students and the incineration of their bodies.

Students in Mexico City show their solidarity with the 43 disappeared students
Students in Mexico City show their solidarity with the 43 disappeared students (Héctor A. Rivera | SW)

On Saturday, November 8, in Mexico City, tens of thousands of people marched from the General Prosecutor's Office (PGR, the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Justice) to the Zócalo, where police clashed with protesters after a group of people slammed metal barricades into the doors of the National Palace and then briefly set fire to them.

The next day, supporters returned to the Zócalo to welcome the "43x43 Caravan"--representatives of 43 organizations who traveled from the city of Iguala to demand justice for the 43 students. All along the way, people showed their solidarity by cheering them on and giving them food and drink.

Outside of Mexico City, protests and vigils took place over the weekend in many cities and towns. Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero, has seen some of the largest protests. For a second time in a month, protesters set fire to the State Congress, along with 14 vehicles, including a pickup truck belonging to the federal police. Around the city, protesters also took over supermarkets and redistributed food and other merchandise to people in the street.

Meanwhile, the interim governor of Guerrero, Rogelio Ortega Martínez, was out of town for the weekend on a trip to the state of Tabasco. A few days before, police announced that they had finally detained the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, a member of the one-time radical Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), who went into hiding after the students were abducted amid allegations that he personally ordered police to attack their bus caravan because he feared they would disrupt a speech being given by his wife.

AS THE 43x43 Caravan arrived at the Zócalo in Mexico City, one of the marchers' main slogans was; "Karam, if you are tired, then resign."

This was a reference to the press conference on the preceding Friday, November 7, presided over by Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. After claiming that the confessions of two detainees indicated the students had been massacred--but providing no conclusive proof--Murillo Karam briefly took questions, then abruptly stopped the press conference with the words "Ya me cansé." ("I'm tired of this").

Within hours, people around the country and the world were flooding social media with the hashtag #YaMeCanse. Along with "We Are All Ayotzinapa" and "It Was the State," "Ya Me Cansé" has become a slogan of the moment--expressing the message that people in Mexico are tired of inept politicians, corruption and impunity for a murderous government.

Soon after the press conference, a flash protest was organized through social media at the headquarters of the General Prosecutor's Office, which Murillo Karam presides over--ahead of the demonstration of tens of thousands that began there the next day. Protesters painted on the walls of the building the slogan: "I'm tired of being afraid."

The attorney general's press conference was a deep disappointment to the bitter families of the 43 students who have been demanding information and action since the student teachers disappeared six weeks ago.

Murillo Karam's account of the investigation by his PGR included testimony from two people in custody, who say the 43 student teachers were abducted by the municipal police and then turned over to the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos. According to the PGR report, the two detainees confessed to killing "a large number of people."

In their video testimony--played live at the press conference--the two men say they unloaded a large number of bodies from a dump truck and a pickup truck at the open-air dump in the town of Cocula.

Fifteen people were already dead by the time they were unloaded, purportedly from asphyxiation, according to the account. The witnesses claim the rest of the people were killed on the spot, and their bodies were buried under wood, tires and other objects, doused with diesel and set on fire. Supposedly, the fire burned for 15 hours. Afterward, the ashes from the fire were stuffed in black plastic bags and disposed of in the nearby San Juan River, according to the account.

Murillo Karam made sure to repeat that these were preliminary findings. He said that remains found in a black plastic bag in the San Juan River had been submitted for analysis to the University of Innsbruck in Austria. But he concluded that it would take some time for the remains to be identified, and therefore the PGR still considered the students to be "missing." After taking a few questions, he shut down the press conference.

For their part, the parents of the 43 missing students held their own press conference at the campus of the Rural Normal School at Ayotzinapa. They rejected the attorney general's allegation that the 43 students were certainly dead since the government hadn't produced conclusive evidence.

They also rejected the testimony of the two witnesses in custody and said they would only believe forensics experts from Argentina, who have been investigating the case on their behalf. According to La Jornada newspaper, the forensics team has conducted numerous tests on material from the area where the PGR says the students' bodies were burned, and have found no DNA evidence to connect the remains to the 43 missing protesters

The parents demanded that the government devise a new plan to search for answers about students--and to stop looking for unmarked graves, since numerous "discoveries" in the past six weeks have found the remains of other victims of violence, but not the students.

AS THE attorney general's press conference was getting underway, a delegation of student representatives from Rural Normal School at Ayotzinapa was meeting with other students in a packed auditorium in the School of Economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

Progress reports from representatives of different schools across Mexico City were interrupted so everyone could listen in to press conference. For about 30 minutes, the entire auditorium stood in silence listening to the chilling details presented by the Murillo Karam.

After the press conference ended, the students from Ayotzinapa delegation pointed out that the attorney general could have released this information a week ago since it wasn't new. They told the assembly that they wanted definite proof about the missing students, not testimony that might be the result of forced confessions or perjury.

They thanked the students for their support thus far, and also encouraged them to think about the next steps beyond justice for the missing students. As one put it:

As cold-blooded as this might sound, we've had to ask ourselves before: "And if they are dead, what are we doing to do?" Now the PGR announces that this might be the case.

So in this month and a half, we've tried to articulate a movement at the national level that doesn't just see this as Ayotzinapa. This isn't just the problem of 43 missing persons and three extrajudicial killings. This isn't a problem that's exclusively about organized crime. We're trying to build a movement that sees this as the problem of a country that has seen these injustices for a very long time.

After the press conference, the General Assembly of students in the School of Economics called an emergency meeting to discuss the way forward. A professor, speaking on behalf of the economics faculty, told students that they didn't believe the government. "The government has lied and fabricated evidence and coerced testimonies so many times before," the professor said. "Why would we believe them now? We've had it. We want them all out!"

Coming out of this assembly, the economics students were determined to continue fighting over the long term, because nothing would change if the government didn't change. The students are discussing how to continue building the movement for a potential strike later this month--there have already been several since the students disappeared--and how they can continue to organize over the winter break.

THE CASE of the 43 missing students has produced a crisis for Mexican politics and society. A month and a half after the police attack, the chant "They were taken alive, we want them back alive!" continues to ring across the country and around the world. The protests have grown exponentially, and there is a different political mood in the streets.

Last weekend's huge protests followed even bigger demonstrations in October, including a mega-march on October 22 that drew more than 150,000 people to Mexico City's Zócalo. More schools and universities have also become involved in the wave of protests, with general assemblies called to discuss what action to take. On November 5, students began a 72-hour strike--the third such action in a period of a month--that brought more than 130,000 people into the streets in Mexico City. Though not as large, strikes have also taken place at private universities.

The demands of the protests have also begun to shift from a focus only on the return of the 43 students. Now, demands are being raised for the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The state and local governments in Guerrero itself have been controlled by the PRD--its apparent complicity has exposed how the party, once known as a courageous opposition to the decades of rule by the PRI, has become embedded in the national political establishment and penetrated by organized crime.

But anger is also focusing on the federal government, now controlled by the PRI--for its inept handling of the case. The central government is losing further credibility with wide layers of Mexico society, which has led many political commentators to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Peña Nieto and his PRI government.

It's important to remember that the Mexican government, whether controlled by the PRI or not, has been able to withstand other crises before this--such as the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in southern Mexico during the 1990s or the stolen federal election in 2006 that denied the presidency to the progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD.

However, the case of Ayotzinapa comes at a time when other struggles are emerging or re-emerging. The self-defense groups of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico have taken up arms once again. Just in the northern state of Sonora, there are three major struggles underway--most prominently, the fight for water being waged by the Yaqui Indians. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, students at the National Polytechnic Institute are still on strike against the PRI's neoliberal education agenda.

The chant "¡Que se vayan todos!" ("Throw them all out!")--which became popular in Argentina in the early 2000s and in Spain over the last few years--has become widely adopted in Mexico. The protests around Ayotzinapa have not yet spread from their student base to the working class on a mass basis. Peña Nieto may not be on the verge of resigning in the next few months, his government is facing a deep crisis--and growing anger.

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