On Sept. 26, 43 students went missing in Iguala, a town in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero. An investigation concluded that local police had kidnapped them and handed them over to a local criminal gang, who killed them. Only last week did the authorities announce they had found what they think are the students’ charred remains.
Horrific violence is nothing new to Mexicans. By some estimates, the death toll in the war on drugs that began in 2006 has topped 100,000. Long before that, drug gangs were murdering with impunity, often with the connivance of officials at every level—including, at one point, the country’s drug czar.
Yet the Iguala massacre seems to have shaken Mexico out of apathy. The protests and rioting have spread from Guerrero—one of Mexico’s poorest and most violent states—to the capital, Mexico City. The “social indignation,” wrote Enrique Krauze (paywall), one of Mexico’s leading historians, is ”without precedent in recent decades.”
Though the Iguala atrocity is far worse, there’s a clear parallel with Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson, a white policeman, this summer shot dead Mike Brown, a young black man. There as in Mexico, an endemic but largely ignored problem—in the US case, police racism—suddenly became a national issue. And as with Ferguson, where three months later it’s still unclear whether Wilson will even be indicted, they raise the question: Will anything ultimately change?
The 43 dead were students at the Raúl Isidro Burgos school in Ayotzinapa, a neighborhood of Tixtla, a town in Guerrero. They had gone to Iguala for a protest march, where they clashed with local police and were arrested. At some point, the police handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos, a local crime syndicate.
The students—some already dead—were taken to a garbage dump outside nearby Cocula, where they were killed and burned, and their ashes thrown in the river, according to a subsequent investigation by Mexico’s federal prosecutor. (A Guerreros Unidos leader, later arrested, said he thought the students were aligned with a rival gang).
Federal police discovered mass graves next to the garbage dump.
Yet in a bizarre twist, forensic tests found that none of the more than 30 bodies in the mass graves were those of the missing students.
Protests began in the state capital, Chilpancingo…
…and extended to Guerrero’s economic heart, the seaside resort of Acapulco…
…and reached Mexico City.
Tens of thousands marched in the capital and across the country on Oct. 22. On Twitter, the movement acquired a hashtag, #FueElEstado—”it was the state.”
The youths disappeared a week before the Oct. 2 anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, during which police trapped students in a Mexico City square and gunned down dozens or hundreds of them. That was one of the flashpoints for a ”dirty war” the government waged against leftists in the 1970s, and there are annual rallies to commemorate it.
The last day of October is Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a Halloween-like festival when families remember dead relatives by building altars to them and dressing up.
It became a day of political protest too.
By mid-October federal police had arrested dozens of local police and members of the Guerreros Unidos, extracting confessions about their close ties. The gang’s leader, Benjamin Mondragón, killed himself as police closed in. A week later the governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, resigned and federal prosecutors were naming José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda, as the ringleaders of the killings. They had gone into hiding, as had the local police chief.
For Peña Nieto, the crisis is the severest test yet of his two-year-old presidency; for Mexicans, it’s a reminder of the issues he has neglected during an unprecedented, high-profile barrage of economic reforms. “Peña Nieto talked of all these ambitious reforms, but the question of public security was put to one side,” says Esteban Illades, an editor at Nexos magazine. “We haven’t had a serious discussion about security, rule of law, and drug-trafficking in the last two years.”
The federales have established a powerful presence in Guerrero. But while they may be cleaner than the local cops, they’re not much more trusted. Mexico has countless separate police forces at local, state and national level, which at times have fought all-out wars over territory and ties to officials or crime bosses.
On Oct. 27, federal police arrested four members of the Guerreros Unidos who led them to a new mass grave. On Nov. 4, they arrested Abarca and Pineda after raiding several houses in Mexico City. On Nov. 7, they announced they had fished bags of ashes from the river, but that extracting DNA would hard. The bodies were so thoroughly burned that many of their teeth had “turned to powder.”
On Nov. 9, demonstrators firebombed the front door of the Palacio Nacional, the president’s ceremonial residence in Mexico City. (His actual residence, Los Pinos, is some distance away and much better guarded.) Protest leaders have tried to distance themselves from such acts. ”People I’ve spoken to suspect they are infiltrators,” says Illades.
“There’s a difference between this and Ferguson,” Krauze, the historian, tells Quartz. “In Ferguson the indignation was very clearly pointed at the racist attitude of the police. In Mexico… there various protagonists—organized crime, the municipal police allied with them, corrupt politicians at local and state level—and there’s a kind of amalgam of things that is called ‘the state.’ So there’s a great but very diffuse anger at the state.” The Twitter hashtag, #FueElEstado, reinforces that.
Despite the momentum it’s achieved, Krauze is pessimistic about the movement’s chances of achieving change. Apart from its lack of focus, he says ”there’s no caudillo“—no strong leader—to the movement, ”and that’s important in Latin America.”
Illades is similarly downbeat. “These protests die out over time. The government lets the matter slide, and doesn’t talk about it… That’s how we deal with things in Mexico.”