On September 26, a group of students traveled to the city of Iguala in Guerrero, Mexico to protest against the corrupt and discriminatory government they planned to work for as elementary school teachers after finishing their studies. By the next day, three of them had been killed by the police, and forty-three had disappeared. The fate of those who vanished is still unknown but it seems likely that the police — who arrested a high number of protesters in a village close to Iguala called Ayotzinapa — gave the forty-three to one of the local cartels.
The disappearances of the students, who attended a college with a history of radical activism, have rocked Mexico. What began as an isolated incident in a rural town in one of the country’s poorest states has given birth to a nation-wide protest movement (and a stream of viral hashtags) that is strongest in the south-central region of the country.
A quick catalogue of this past month: on November 9, protesters burned the door of the National Palace in Mexico City. On November 11, protesters fought back riot police in Guerrero. On November 15, the same day that Supreme Court judges gave themselves a 6.5 percent raise, police shot a student in UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the same school of the 1968 massacred students). On November 16, the parents of the forty-three disappeared students held a remembrance with Zapatistas for the disappeared.
A few days later, on Revolution Day, thousands of riot police descended on protesters in Mexico City’s main plaza, tear-gassing them and detaining eleven students. “History does not repeat itself,” the prominent left publication Proceso remarked in response, “it worsens.”
From rural farmworkers, to students in Mexico City, to a teachers union in Oaxaca, a plurality of organizations and people are on the streets, all of them declaring “we are Ayoztinapa.” The truth behind this statement is that all of them live and suffer under the same oppressive network, built by a neoliberal government in coalition with the drug cartels.
There is no central organization, party, or current that is responsible for the demonstrations. Generally speaking, most mobilizations have been spurred by existing coalitions, including those built during the protests against election fraud in 2012 — such as the student movement #Yosoy132 — as well as social justice organizations like the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca.
These groups have placed the entire government structure on trial, rather than just a single figure. (A now-common hashtag is #FueElEstado — It was the state). Militant organizations such as the Frente Popular Revolucionario are also mobilizing in solidarity with the disappeared students and their families. (In various cities, friends and families of the disappeared are at the front of marches. Their calls for justice are generally of a less political stripe.)
Even in terms of class composition or political tendency, the movement is heterogeneous and varies by place. Those in Guerrero come from largely rural stock. In Oaxaca, conditions are similar but the social history is still distinct. In rural areas, the “middle class” or petit bourgeoisie is largely in favor of the government. In Mexico City, a wide array of actors make up the demonstrations: syndicalists and unions, students of varying class and racial backgrounds (we must not confuse educational access in Mexico with that of the US), left groups (from socialists to anarchists), social democratic parties, human rights organizations, and women’s rights organizations.
Hence, a “movement” made up of many movements. The one unifying demand is an end to the violence that has become a pervasive element of Mexico’s political landscape.
The protests today must be understood as part of a historical process that goes back to the creation of the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the formation of the contemporary Mexican state. From here, an understanding of the effects of neoliberalism help us understand how organized crime embedded itself within the Mexican state and was able to grow into an autonomous leviathan. Achieving this, we can then understand the interplay between anti-government resistance and state repression, and the possibilities for social transformation.
Decades of Repression
Lázaro Cárdenas, the famed Mexican general, created the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) shortly after the country’s revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century. He is often remembered as a populist hero who nationalized Mexico’s oil reserves — expropriating them from Imperial Yankee interests — who also gave birth to the ejido, collectivized farms that were parceled to the peasant class. Cardenas presidency also ushered in a remarkable economic boom known as the Mexican Miracle, catalyzed by the developmentalist model of Import-Substitution Industrialization.
Often overlooked, however, is that Cárdenas set into motion the tactics and tendencies that defined the autocratic party for the next several decades. For one thing, the PRI dominated elections at national and local levels through implied or direct violence. Its dominance wasn’t achieved by pure coercion, however. By using a revolutionary discourse and initiating seemingly revolutionary programs, the party was able to present itself as a popular force for some time.
But by the 1960s, cracks and contradictions had become visible. The vast majority of fertile land was transferred to private hands, and the ejidos were located on arid plots while farmers were given little assistance. When industrialization kicked into full gear, many left the countryside in search for better opportunities in cities like Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City. A student movement surged, born out of disillusionment with the supposedly revolutionary government and inspired by leftist movements blossoming throughout Latin America. With the Olympics around the corner, students seized the stage and began demonstrating in great numbers.
The PRI responded with violence. October 2, 1968 became synonymous with PRI-style repression. Undercover military forces in Mexico City gunned down hundreds of students, and their bodies disappeared, believed to have been thrown into the Gulf of Mexico. (Years later it was revealed that the CIA had played an active role in the massacre and that the president of Mexico himself was receiving money from the US government.)
So initiated the Dirty War in Mexico. The White Brigades, a right-wing paramilitary unit, was formed to help combat the surge of peasant and worker movements. The Federal Directory of Security, which carried out mass disappearances, was also created to put down the left uprisings. (Julian Slim Helu, brother of billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, helped carry out the purges as an FDS employee and would later become rich after the country’s neoliberal turn).
However, by the end of the century, neoliberal restructuring left the PRI government weakened, and the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) gained power. Over the next twelve years, the PRI made great effort to restore its image — and retook the presidency in 2012 — but the memory of repression stuck and has helped incite the current protests.
The Rise of the Cartels
It is impossible to analyze Mexico without discussing the emergence of drug cartels. And it would be a sin of omission to leave out the neoliberal repurposing of the state, a phenomenon that spurred and reinforced the growth of those same cartels. As the Mexican state relieved itself of social responsibilities in the 1980s and handed over the economy to international interests, the power of cartels mushroomed.
The vast unemployment and informalization that neoliberalism has wrought then spawned metastasizing cartels, who have offered an alternative to destitution. The cartels provide (criminalized) employment to the jobless in a booming market sector. The reasons to join a cartel should be obvious: social mobility for most Mexican people is highly limited. It is harder to imagine an assembly worker at a maquiladora becoming CEO of the enterprise (a position usually reserved to foreign nationals) than one becoming CEO of a cartel (who almost always come from working-class backgrounds).
In this social environment, narco organizations have grown enormously powerful, forming organizational structures and institutions that run parallel to the Mexican state. This in turn has allowed for the establishment of a certain counter-culture, to use South African sociologist Lucien van der Walt’s term, that promotes narco-culture. Best known are probably the narco-corridos, a sub-genre in which the singers praise the brutal activities of more or less famous cartel members. At the same time, they have been able to achieve a loose (if tenuous) safety within the state system by bribing sympathetic government officials at the local, state, and national levels.
The present relationship between the Mexican state and the insurgent narco cartels is thus complex. They both feed off each other (the Mexican state uses them to secure funds from the US government and at the same time grants protection for certain cartels at various levels of government), but the two forces are ultimately antagonistic because they seek control over the same territories and people.
Yet at this point, the Mexican state needs the cartels more than the cartels need the Mexican state. Indeed, the state’s constitutive feature — its monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence — has been called into question by the autonomy of the cartels, who have their own police and military forces.
Long enmeshed with the cartels, the government has lost control of them. Since then-President Felipe Calderon announced his “war on drugs” in 2006, 93.8 percent of crimes have not even been investigated, 22,322 officially recognized disappearances have been recorded, and 10.7 million households have had at least one crime victim. In 2013 alone, 123,470 people were kidnapped.
While the narcos offer social mobility or at least financial security, they fail by their very nature to offer a peaceful togetherness or even safety for individuals living in their territories. Their revolution (if we see the establishment of an effective counter-power as a revolution) was never meant to better the living conditions of the society as a whole, but to build an absolutely unlimited market in which the winner takes all.
The disappearance of the forty-three students is therefore about more than forty-three lives. It seems to be the final nail in the coffin of a state that tried to solve its own failure by handing its society to the next available force — the cartels. Their alternative social system was capable of covering up the fast growing tensions in the Mexican society, but the violence, inherent to illegal markets, created new ones.
A Callous, Blundering State
The government’s shoddy investigation into the disappeared shows how stopping or at least limiting violence is of no concern to them. Even worse, the thin results of the investigation point to the fact that the government and cartels are working together to cover up each other’s crimes.
Time and again, the state has revealed itself as profoundly apathetic toward the constituents it claims to serve.
When the disappearances were first announced, President Enrique Peña Nieto decided to take a trip to China to talk about a high-speed train contract bid. The state attorney general, Julio Murillo Karam, tried to mend broken relations with the masses, but was caught saying during a press conference, “Ya me cansé” (“I’m already tired [of these questions]”). This instantly became one of the most popular hashtags of the movement, and the mothers of the disappeared students replied, “Nosotros también ya nos cansamos” (“We also are tired of this”).
Former PRI congresswoman Rocio Marili Olguín Cuevas announced on Twitter that “sometimes I, too, think I am Ayotzinapa but then Chicharrito [famed Mexican soccer player] makes a goal and I forget all about it! !!! I don’t know if I should laugh or if I should cry. . . [those protesting the disappearances] should be killed so they don’t reproduce!!!” At this point, one hears Marie Antoinette’s famed, “Let them eat cake” on the tip of each official’s tongue.
It was also recently discovered that Peña Nieto’s wife, Angélica Rivera Hurtado, lives in a multi-million-dollar house with a rather suspicious history of owners. The Wall Street Journal uncovered that the home was previously owned by Juan Armando Hinojosa Cantú, head of a lucrative construction company that recently won multiple projects worth millions of dollars under Peña Nieto’s presidency and former governorship in Estado de Mexico.
The Wall Street Journal report is hardly the only media coverage that has emboldened protesters. Mexican media outfits such as Proceso and Jornada have been instrumental in distributing information and supporting social justice. Their constant fact checking of government statements has kept the PRI from rebuilding a system of power, like the one developed shortly after the revolution.
Aside from their critical analysis of the governments reaction to the protests, they have contributed to the search for solutions, to imagining a society beyond a corrupt government and violence-glorifying narcos. At a discursive level, these media outfits have been able to promote popular justice and demand social change. But despite the media frenzy and the uproar, little has changed in Guerrero or in Mexico since the protests began two months ago.
There is still no sign of the missing forty-three. The mothers of the missing have since moved to the Escuela Normal Rural “Raul Isidro Burgos,” where it all began, and the place they call “the cradle of social consciousness.” Throughout Guerrero, militant normalistas continue to be threatened by the Mexican military. In late November, ten bodies were found dumped on the side of a rural freeway. Following Peña Nieto’s national address in which he announced he would solve the problem by disbanding local police forces suspected of corruption and replacing them with federal ones, dissidents and normalistas stormed the gubernatorial palace of Guerrero.
What is incredible about the situation in Mexico is how sustained the agitation has been, unceasing for more than two months. The question now is whether the protests can bring about radical change. The current choice is between the plague and cholera — a government that does everything to stay in power or a system of cartels that is brutally repressive in its own way. Protesters are demanding something better.
Yet they will need a coherent political strategy and platform that aims to transform the state. Aside from the well-known Zapatistas, some autonomous left communities in Oaxaca, and some smaller revolutionary groups like the Frente Popular Revolucionario, most of the people on the streets just began to develop structures and are probably still searching for political cogency.
Large parts of the society are tired of the conditions they are living in, and only a radical movement that brings about structural change can end that suffering. But it remains to be seen whether protesters can form a force capable of making such systemic changes. After all, they’re not just fighting the government, but the cartels.