Mexico's missing students: Will case prove a tipping point?

The disappearance of 43 college students in September has reverberated deeply in Mexico, bringing together disparate protest movements and raising hopes that leaders will finally have to address the ongoing corruption and impunity it exposes.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Tens of thousands of demonstrators march in protest for the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. The day before, federal police detained the Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who are accused of ordering the Sept. 26 attacks on college students that left six dead and 43 still missing.

The number 43 is cropping up across Mexico City these days: Written large on banners near Revolution Plaza and scribbled small on posters advertising office space for rent. In a public park, one wall bears the graffiti message: “It hurts 43 times.”

The signs all refer to the mass kidnapping in September of 43 students from a teachers college in the southern state of Guerrero. It is not the biggest or bloodiest crime in Mexico’s recent history, but it has struck a national nerve. It has exposed alleged connections between local officials, police, and organized crime. And many here hope it can be a turning point for Mexico, which has struggled to address the corruption and impunity that grip the nation, even as President Enrique Peña Nieto tries to highlight its economic promise. 

Since he took office, the international conversation about Mexico has changed markedly. From the start, Mr. Peña Nieto rallied politicians from rival parties to join a “Pact for Mexico,” enabling passage of landmark reforms including energy, education, and telecommunications. Homicides have fallen by 29 percent since 2012 according to government statistics, and after six years of headlines focused on beheadings and mass graves, suddenly the international media were heralding “Mexico’s Moment” for development and economic growth.

But the students’ abduction in Iguala, about 120 miles south of Mexico City, after a run-in with local police has drawn back the curtain once again, exposing the continuing grip of corruption and insecurity. Politicians have started talking about the need for a renewed “Pact for Mexico” that focuses on security, and protests have taken place nationally over the past month. The demonstrations are bigger, broader-based, and more enduring than Mexico has seen in recent years, says Lorenzo Meyer, a political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

There’s almost a sense of hope that this could lead to a real shift, says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who chairs the government department at the University of Texas Brownsville and focuses on organized crime. “Could it actually be that this is Mexico’s moment?”

'The hope of Latin America'

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters marched down Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard, banging empty plastic jugs, counting from 1 to 43 in unison, and chanting calls and responses, including one led by students asking, “why do you assault us? We’re the hope of Latin America.”

What is emerging, argues John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is an “explosive synthesis” of three previous social movements that were each "important but were left only partially resolved and still bubbling under the surface.” Victims of the drug war, a student movement that emerged during the 2012 presidential election, and opponents of Peña Nieto’s energy and education reforms have together rallied behind the mass disappearance. It is a “true bottom-up affair,” he says, that could “lead to long term social and political change.”

The missing students were stopped by police on the night of Sept. 26, and allegedly handed off to the criminal group, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of Iguala and his wife – who the attorney general says ordered the abduction – were detained by federal officers Tuesday after weeks as fugitives.

Peña Nieto has been criticized for his slow response to the case. Politicians are bickering over who should take the fall for the thriving links between crime and government that the kidnapping exposes: The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), to which the local mayor and governor belonged. Given that public security in Guerrero has been under federal control for years, says Mr. Ackerman, “it’s impossible for the federal government to avoid being called to account."

But some politicians are pressing for their peers to move beyond finger-pointing, with one congressman from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), José González Morfín, writing in El Universal this week that politicians and society need to band together to take action

There’s no room for haggling. If we really want to live in peace and liberty, if we want to erase injustice, and if we want to progress toward a more secure reality, its time to call everyone out of the trenches to fight for justice.

Mexico 'can handle a lot'

Back at the protest on Reforma Wednesday, a woman carries a sign that simply reads, “Because I have children.”

“I’ve tried to tell my kids in language they will understand that we’re living in a country where the government can be repressive,” says Marie Elena Ibarra, a mother of three. “You have to be careful. The authorities who are supposed to protect you – they can hurt you.”

Nearby, three young men hover over poster board, writing out their slogans for the night. Classes across the country have been suspended for between 24 and 72 hours this week, due to protests. 

Emilio Guerrero, who studies science at the University of the City, says he's protesting for justice, and because he often feels targeted as a student: “I don’t want to be afraid to go out; to study. But oftentimes I am.” 

Mr. Meyer says he sees "so much energy" coming out of the protests. But he is not optimistic. “I fear that there isn’t the structure or the institutions needed to fix these problems," he says. "There’s no clear path to seek change in the political class.”

Others share his skepticism. As demonstrators marched toward the city center on Wednesday, Roberto Morales, a trash collector from the state of Mexico, sat on a bench munching potato chips. He and his colleagues talk about the missing students frequently – he has four children around the same age, so it's been on his mind ­– but the politicians are corrupt and they stick together, he says. “My commentary won’t change anything.”

No matter one's stance on the probability of change, if Mexico returns to business as usual, it would be "disastrous," says Ackerman, the law professor. It would mean the implicit approval "of the most extreme form of impunity, which would send a message that absolutely anything goes." 

“Mexican society has proven it can handle a lot; it’s resilient,” says Ms. Correa-Cabrera. “It’s not just the recent violence, but decades of one-party rule. Several of the events that took place over the past eight years, I would have thought that that was enough,” she says.

“But, when is enough enough?”

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