Mexico’s Abducted Students: Where Does the Country Go From Here?

by Claude Denis

How does one write about Mexico today?

The country is in full crisis mode after 43 students from the Ayotzinpa teachers’ college in rural Guerrero were kidnapped by the police on September 26, and six other people were killed, as they were organizing to travel to Mexico City for a demonstration commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. As I write this in a Mexico City café, they are presumed to have been assassinated, victims of a network of corrupt municipal officials, local police and narcotraficantes in the town of Iguala.

In the following days, mass graves were found in the mountain near the town, leading to an awful dilemma: hoping that the students, known as “normalistas,” were still alive, you had to wonder who else might be in those graves. By October 14, federal authorities announced that the remains in the first two graves are indeed not the students—but an independent international forensics team wasn’t quite ready to arrive at the same conclusion.

There is no political solution in sight, and it is hard to see what anybody in the international community could do to make a difference.

Among Mexicans, a massive reaction of revulsion may be the beginning of a popular movement that would tell the country’s leaders that enough is enough. As well, the students’ disappearance and the obvious involvement of local politicians and police are making waves internationally, not only as a media story, but as raising the question of how the international community should deal with Mexico. A group of European parliamentarians, for instance, are calling on the EU to suspend trade talks with the Mexican government until it does a better job of ensuring the safety of citizens.

In another case, the U.S. Congress is calling for a full investigation into what looks like a massacre committed by the Mexican army, putting in question future support for the country’s military. The evening before the students’ disappearance, the army admitted that it was prosecuting an officer and seven soldiers for the killing of 22 ‘delinquents’ back in June, at Tlatlaya, in the state of Mexico. The killings were initially presented by the authorities as the outcome of a shoot-out between criminals and soldiers ; but it now looks as if the presumed criminals had surrendered, were lined up against a wall and were shot at close range. The officers and soldiers have been charged with disobeying orders and with indiscipline—ludicrous charges in the face of the crime’s gravity, but also revealing given the Mexican army’s traditionally extreme emphasis on discipline and obedience.

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And on September 22nd, a federal deputy (equivalent to a Canadian Member of Parliament) from Jalisco and his assistant were kidnapped. Their bodies were found the next day, incinerated in the deputy’s vehicle. The motive for the assassinations is unclear, as the deputy was reputed to be an honest man dedicated to community service. But some time ago, he had purchased his van from another deputy and had not yet changed its plates; that other deputy has links to narcotrafickers, and the going theory is that this is a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, in the past several months,more deputies have been kidnapped and released, and have received death threats; and a deputy’s brother with links to narcotrafic has been decapitated.

These are merely highlights of three weeks in the life of Mexico’s struggle with violence, narco cartels and public corruption.Things like this have happened before, triggering the same reactions of horror and the same calls for politicians finally to get serious about the violence. The overall statistics are absurd: since the ‘war on the drug cartels’ began in 2006, there have been something like 100,000 killings and 30,000 ‘disappearances’.

The Ayotzinpa students’ mass abduction by local police (who then turned them over to narcos) could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There are demonstrations across the country, university campuses are being closed, major roads are being blocked, municipal offices are being occupied. But Mexico’s governments have weathered such crises before. Now as before, suspects are being sought and arrested; entire police departments are being suspended and replaced by the army; the state governor, the President of the Republic, the Secretary of Gobernación (Interior) are being pressured for answers. Then what? Investigations will continue, new events will occupy the front page of newspapers, the protest movement will weaken and linger.

There is no political solution in sight, and it is hard to see what anybody in the international community could do to make a difference. The bottom line is that a large segment of Mexico’s governing class is implicated in and/or benefits from the mayhem, leaving Mexicans with no one to turn to. Asking politicians and their parties, the police hierarchy or the generals, to clean up the country amounts to asking them to clean themselves out of power.

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For a real reckoning to happen, something on the order of the Arab Spring would be needed: Mexicans rising up and, starting with municipal councils and mayors and going all the way up to the presidency, telling all elected officials to get out of the way. Then, the hard work would begin of rooting out the cartels from the nooks and crannies of Mexican society.This, of course, is also not about to happen—although several city-hall occupations are pointing in that direction.

As I spend time in Mexico, what seems to me most remarkable is that for all the horrific violence and the profoundly dysfunctional character of the country’s public institutions, Mexicans are incredibly resilient. The country is not collapsing. While some parts are hyper-violent, others, including Mexico City, are quite peaceful. For the most part, people go about their business—which is also part of the problem. Although they react strongly to iconic horrors, Mexicans have learned to live with the ordinary chaos, and this is not helping them finding a way out of it.

How, then, does one write about Mexico? With a heavy heart, recognizing at once that this situation cannot go on, and that it will likely go on.

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