The disappearance and presumed death of 43 students from Iguala, Mexico is symptomatic of a much more serious problem.
According to the government, the students, who have been missing since late September in the State of Guerrero, were killed and burned by members of the gang, Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). It was the police, themselves, in the town of Iguala who handed over the students to the gang. The Guerreros Unidos are among the major traffickers of poppy and marihuana in Mexico.
The young students aspired to become teachers in rural areas in the State of Guerrero. They traveled to Iguala in order to raise funds for their schools. According to Mexican Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, the Mayor of Iguala and his wife instructed the local police to attack the students to prevent disruption of an event organized by the wife. These same students had come to Iguala before to protest the assassination of the leader of the Farmers’ Union, presumably at the hands of the Mayor, himself.
The fact that these events happened is not mere coincidence. The Mayor’s wife, Maria de Los Angeles Pineda, is the sister of two deceased gang members in Guerrero and she is thought to be the main coordinator of the United Warriors gang in the town of Iguala. Her husband and mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, is a member of the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica whose candidate for president in the 2006 and 2012 election was the former mayor of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Guerrero is among the poorest states in Mexico and has one of the highest rates of homicides in the country. A mixture of violence and politcal corruption made drug trafficking flourish. 98% of the total poppy grown in Mexico comes from the state of Guerrero. According to Mexican intellectual, Enrique Krauze, the Federal government has looked the other way in the face of this phenomenon and the army that holds a major military base near Iguala allowed these events to unfold without interference.
On November 7th, the attorney general gave a press conference during which he responded to reporter’s questions about the murders. He described how the victims were shot dead and their bodies later burned by members of the gang. Mr. Murillo, the Attorney General (AG) also announced the arrest of 72 people, including the Mayor of Iguala and his wife. Families of the victims did not believe Mr. Murillo’s story. The situation became further inflamed when Mr. Murillo, apparently tired of answering questions, commented he was tired and fed up. (“Ya me canse”). The suspicion probably was that the attorney general wanted to put an end to the story and to the protests that were erupting in various cities and towns across the country.
Indeed, a few days later the families were proven to be right when tests failed to confirm that the bodies found were those of the missing students.
The events in Iguala and the AG’s insensitive attitude unleashed the most serious mass reaction since the revolts of 1968. In Mexico City, the National Palace’s main entrance was set on fire. In Acapulco, the most important city in the State of Guerrero, the airport was seized by a group of teachers and students. Likewise, the Revolutionary Institutional Party’s (PRI), headquarters, was set on fire in Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero. Five hundred students and faculty from the University of Guerrero marched in support of the students. The Congress building in Guerrero was also attacked.
All this was aggravated by the attitude of Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto who became a target as a result of his poor judgment. Despite the crisis, he went ahead with his plans to travel to China and Australia instead of canceling or postponing his trip.
The Iguala case is among a series of violent incidents that have plagued Mexico in recent years. This is a crisis of the Mexican state, as there are key areas in Mexico where state agents join hands with gangs and cartels in the perpetuation of criminal activity. The fact that the Mayor of Iguala was openly connected to the drug gangs without consequences reflects a situation of chaos and dysfunction that reminds us of the Wild West.
A 2013 investigation by Human Rights Watch found that in 149 of 250 disappearance cases, there was “compelling evidence” that state agents were involved.
The attitude of annoyance and denial on the part of the attorney general and the president are indications that the people in charge of the Mexican government believe the issue will resolve itself and that nothing is required of them to ameliorate the problem. However, this does not seem to be the attitude of Mexico’s Defense Minister, Salvador Cienfuegos who responded to the crisis by stating “the development and progress of the nation is at risk”. He went on to say “indolence, insensitivity, silence, excessive violence, and complicity obstruct and limit the true essence of justice”.
Pena Nieto’s predecessor, President Felipe Calderon used the military to fight against the cartels in an effort to weaken and eventually to eliminate them. However, Peña Nieto prefers to protect the population from rampant crime without fighting the drug cartels.. While the president has received accolades for his attempts at economic reforms, these accomplishments are now being overshadowed by the resurgence of narco-trafficking and all the criminality, corruption and disruption it brings with it.
Therefore, Peña Nieto’s more “humane” approach towards the gangs and the cartels has led many Mexicans to feel they are living in a constant state of anarchy and insecurity. While the president and other high level Mexican officials are “fed-up” with the problem it needs to be confronted head on or the cartels will only be emboldened, the connection between state actors and criminals will deepen and the situation will worsen.
While the president and attorney general have expressed exasperation, the Mexican people are speaking up. These demonstrations, contrary to the rebellions in Chiapas in 1994, are not against free trade agreements, globalization or neo-liberal economic policies. These are people who demand security and dignity. These are people that do not believe the government can guarantee their security. Mexico is at a crossroads and it is certain more demonstrations are to follow, as the Mexican people demand more accountability and transparency from their government.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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