Briefing: What's next for Mexico in case of missing students

The search for 43 college students who vanished in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, has dragged on for more than a month. How the crisis is resolved will have a profound impact on confidence in President Peña Nieto.

Daniel Becerril/Reuters
A girl in Chilpancingo, Mexico, held a candle during a protest for the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College Raul Isidro Burgos on Thursday.

The search for 43 college students who vanished in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, has dragged on for more than a month, capturing national and international attention. Dismay has intensified amid evidence that local politicians, police, and organized crime groups worked together to orchestrate the kidnapping. As Mexico tries to balance international aspirations with national expectations – including basic safety and human rights – how the crisis is resolved could affect confidence in the government, and shape concerns about violence and international investment.

Here are five questions that are central to the case.

Why were the students targeted?

On Sept. 26, a group of students were stopped by police on their way out of Iguala, a city of 130,000 people southwest of Mexico City. The aspiring educators were from the Raul Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, a rural teachers college that dates back to the Mexican revolution.

The wife of Iguala's mayor was giving a public presentation the same day, and reportedly believed the students were on their way to protest her event. According to Mexico’s attorney general, the mayor sent a message to local police to stop the students, who had commandeered three buses to take them home, a common practice. The police arrived and, according to witnesses, opened fire on the buses, killing three students and three bystanders. Forty-three students were then rounded up, taken into police custody, and transported to the outskirts of Iguala on the orders of a local cartel leader.

The mayor and his wife, who Mexican authorities have reported to have family ties to local organized criminal group, Guerreros Unidos, are both on the run.

This isn’t the first report of violence in Mexico, which has been plagued by a struggle against organized crime over the past decade. “What’s different this time – and it could prove to be a watershed – is that here we aren’t dealing with gang on gang violence, or drug dealers looking to expand their turf. These were students, apparently killed for being in wrong place at the wrong time,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas in Washington, D.C.

How has the government reacted to the disappearances?

President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized for his slow response to the mass kidnapping. He waited 10 days before publicly addressing the incident, and met with the parents of the disappeared for the first time on Wednesday. He has yet to travel to Guerrero state, where numerous mass graves have been discovered, and where protests calling for the return of the students have at times turned violent. The president said that those responsible for the disappearances will be found and held accountable, and more than 50 people are now in custody for the crime. But it’s a promise that may not hold a lot of clout in a country where upwards of 80 percent of crimes go unpunished.

President Peña Nieto has been criticized for focusing more on Mexico’s economic message and reforms than its security challenges. In the process of searching for the students, at least 11 clandestine graves have been identified near Iguala – none of which, so far, have held student remains.

The governor of Guerrero state stepped down and was replaced this week by a leader with alleged connections to the Colombian guerrilla group FARC.

“The government has let the story spin out of control and has not gotten on top of it in an effective way,” says Mr. Farnsworth.

After a meeting at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, this week, Emiliano Navarrete, the father of missing student José Ángel, said, “We had to come speak with the president to demand, not as a favor, but to demand as Mexican citizens with rights: Why is the government acting this way?”

How does this fit into Mexico’s struggle against organized crime?

Former President Felipe Calderón made fighting Mexico’s drug cartels the cornerstone of his time in office from 2006-2012. He sent the military into rural towns and urban areas across the nation to battle drug cartels and organized crime head on, leaving a death toll of some 60,000 people in his administration’s wake.

The conversation about crime has changed significantly since Peña Nieto took office, but many insist his policies have changed little since the Calderón administration.

The disappearance of the students in Iguala has emphasized a number of deep-seated challenges Mexico faces in overcoming crime and violence: police, government officials, and crime syndicates all played a part in the kidnapping. Judicial and police reforms have made little headway on a national level, with implementation incomplete and inconsistent between states. The vast number of clandestine graves discovered during the search process raises questions of impunity: If the bodies don’t belong to the students, then who are these victims?

The question of 'who' reaches far beyond Iguala. A recent infographic by El Universal, using data from the national police, shows some 243,000 bodies were found in clandestine graves between 2006 and 2013.

Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, says the recent mass kidnapping has the potential to be a “turning point” for Mexico. This case “represents the limit of the government’s security strategy.…The current crisis should be treated as an opportunity to modify the state’s approach and involve society in the process,” says Mr. Tirado.

Will this jeopardize the affects of Mexico’s economic reforms and political achievements made over the past two years?

Mexico has been lauded for sweeping reforms of its banking, telecommunications, and energy sectors passed during the Peña Nieto administration. The international community has pounced on the message of “Mexico’s Moment,” with impressions of Mexico outside the country often more positive than they are at home.

Some question whether this case could affect levels of foreign investment.

“It’s too early to say if it will change investor confidence in Mexico,” says Farnsworth.

For one thing, most current investment is taking place in Mexico City or in the north. But, the government’s response could impact investor confidence over time: “If Peña Nieto looks away and hopes the situation will resolve itself, that’s not giving confidence,” says Farnsworth. “Outside the country, people are looking for a response that says ‘we understand this is serious and here is concretely how we will handle it.’ ”

One way Peña Nieto can show the international community he’s prioritizing security in Mexico is to skip the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in China next month, Farnsworth says: “It shows people you are dealing with security and prioritizing a domestic issue over the international economy.”

What’s at risk moving forward?

Publicly, the families of the disappeared are devastatingly hopeful their children will still return home alive. Further protests are likely, and Tirado, the security expert, says the case could create a serious divide between citizens and the government. “This could steepen violence – not only in Guerrero,” he says, referring to violence with “more political character, via insurgents or guerrillas.” Guerrero has a history of guerrilla groups.

The government announced this week it would strengthen social, economic, and infrastructure projects in Guerrero, to repair the state’s “social fabric.” 

“Social dissatisfaction and uncertainty will be hard for the government to contain," says Tirado. "Mix that with the reemergence of armed guerrillas and it could paint an even more difficult picture for the administration.” 

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