Crisis in Mexico: Could Forty-Three Missing Students Spark a Revolution? / La pregunta de The New yorker


The New Yorker /



On Sunday morning, a heartbreaking headline appeared on the news Web site SinEmbargo, which is based here in Mexico City: “I Know My Son Is Alive and That He Will Be a Teacher.” The speaker was Manuel Martínez, the thirty-five-year-old father of a seventeen-year-old boy named Mario, who has been missing since September 26th, along with many of his classmates at the Ayotzinapa Normal teacher-training school. That night, according to witness testimonies and the confessions of those arrested in the case, six students from the school were murdered by municipal police and other gunmen, and forty-three others were “disappeared” in the small city of Iguala, in the Pacific-coast state of Guerrero.
The Martínezes are indigenous Huave from the impoverished seaside village of San Mateo del Mar, in Oaxaca. Martínez told SinEmbargo’s Humberto Padgett that he’d also studied at Ayotzinapa, twenty years before, and that his son had long dreamed of following in his footsteps. Like many other rural schoolteachers, Martínez built his little school with his own hands, out of planks and zinc sheeting. “All the rural schools are bad,” he said. “Here and in the country, education is in terrible shape. … In my school, we don’t even have electricity. The students live in the same conditions we do, or a little worse, because they live on just corn and beans, and from their tomato and chile harvests. … None of them owns a pair of shoes; they use huaraches or sandals.”

Martínez went on, “The authorities should pay for what they’ve done because they’ve done the very worse that you can do, to the most humble of people.”
The country has been seized by the story of the missing forty-three, though many refuse to believe the worst until it can no longer be denied—my dentist, for example, says that this is all just a student prank that went too far, and that the students will turn up any day now, sheepish and contrite. Meanwhile, concealed graves full of human remains keep turning up in the mountains and hillsides of impoverished Guerrero. One recently discovered grave held sandals and backpacks. Federal authorities discovered yet another grave on Monday, in the municipal dump of remote Cocula. There has been speculation that the grave could hold the remains of at least some of the students, but nothing has been confirmed yet. An announcement from the government could come any minute, or it might not come at all. Even if the government does announce that it believes it has found the students, it could take weeks before the independent Argentine forensics team working on the case can complete its DNA testing. That might be all the time that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government will have to prepare for the widespread social tumult and condemnation that a confirmation of the students’ deaths is likely to provoke.

Every day, here in Mexico City and around the country, there are marches and other civic actions, most of them peaceful. On Wednesday, students from Instituto Politécnico Nacional, a large university in Mexico City, took control of toll booths on the highways leading into the city and allowed traffic to pass without paying. In Guerrero, protestors continue to burn government buildings. There will be a march in Mexico City on October 31st, coinciding with the Day of the Dead holidays, and a “mega march” is scheduled for November 5th, the day that Mexico’s universities and colleges are planning a national strike.

Many in Mexico have wondered why the missing forty-three have inspired such outrage in a country that has long since grown anesthetized to mass violence. This past June, twenty-two young people were massacred in a Mexico State warehouse by soldiers who claimed they’d been engaged in a long gun battle. The victims included a seventeen-year-old girl who was shot in the head. Her mother, when she recovered the body, said a soldier’s boot imprint was still visible on her daughter’s face. The case would have been covered up had it not been for human-rights groups and some early Associated Press wire-service reports bringing it to light. Even then, the Attorney General’s office didn’t agree to investigate the case until three more months had passed. Two weeks ago, in the city of Reynosa, a young physician and mother named María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio was kidnapped. She had been writing for the site Valor por Tamaulipas (where people post information and warnings about local narco activities) as an anonymous blogger, but narcos discovered her identity. Her murderers posted photos of her corpse on her Twitter account along with a tweeted message: “Close your accounts, don’t put your families at risk like I did, I ask your forgiveness.”
In the past, government authorities and many in the complicit media have relied on a worn playbook: stigmatize the victims, depict them as responsible for their own fates, or point out ways in which they were not “ordinary Mexicans.” Some have been trying to do the same with the missing forty-three, but the accusations and insinuations don’t resonate. Most of the students were still in their teens, in their first semester at the school, and came from impoverished communities that a majority of Mexicans can identify with; they can’t credibly be criminalized as “guerrillas” or “narcos.”

The outrage has brought a few promising results. The governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre, finally stepped down last week after a month of angry demands for his resignation. And something about this particular crime makes it seem like something that has happened—is happening—before all of our eyes: the worst that can be done, to the most humble of people. Nearly everyone seems to feel a little responsible for it, if only for having voted for a Mexican politician in any recent election. The crisis of the forty-three missing students has exposed—in what is perhaps an unprecedentedly clear and dramatic way—the direct lines that connect the most corrupt local authorities to the most élite national politicians.

The now former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, who are accused by Federal authorities of having ordered the attack on the students, are currently on the run. The Mexican media, including the newspaper El Universal, have been reporting that Governor Aguirre and Maria de los Ángeles Pineda were lovers. The mayor’s wife, now known as Lady Iguala in the press and on social media, has two brothers who are thought to be leaders of the narco group Guerreros Unidos, which supplies a great deal of heroin to the United States. Lady Iguala was preparing to succeed her husband as mayor, and she was giving a big speech on the night that the missing students rolled into town. She allegedly used Guerreros Unidos money to keep local police on her private payroll. Governor Aguirre, according to newspaper accounts, used to send his nephew to Iguala to pick up money from his lover—so much money, and on such frequent visits, that the nephew became known locally as the Lord of the Suitcases, for the manner in which he took the money away.

On September 29th, shortly before he disappeared, Mayor Abarca met with Jesús Zambrano, a political godfather and one of the two national leaders of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD); the other is Jesús Ortega, who is known as Los Chuchos. The pair is credited with having led the party away from its traditional position of critical leftist opposition and moving it closer to the Partido Revolucionario Instítucional (PRI), Mexico’s governing party. Aguirre, though he’d once governed Guerrero for the PRI, was reëlected governor in 2011 in a last-minute political “marriage of convenience” with the PRD; he is a longtime PRI heavyweight and a friend of President Peña Nieto. Many other leading politicians have been connected to Aguirre or accused of having known what was going on in Iguala. According to widespread accounts, Peña Nieto’s government and his Attorney General’s office were informed, in 2013, of the problem of organized crime and political corruption in Iguala and in other parts of Guerrero but did nothing about it. In this way, the tragedy of the missing students has thrown a spotlight on Mexico’s decadent political culture and has brought up important questions about the country’s mainstream parties.


On Tuesday, as I do most mornings, I asked SinEmbargo’s director, my friend Alejandro Páez Varela, what was new that day. “We’re under attack!” he said. The site had become the target of a smear campaign mostly carried out on social networks. It has also received threats in person at its office doors, over the telephone, in e-mails, and in the digital forums on its own site. Most bizarrely, the Facebook page of a pop singer called Belinda, which has 7.5 million followers, was used to defame Páez Varela and other SinEmbargo journalists. (Belinda has said that her account was hacked.) An e-mail sent out last night by the site’s literary editor, Mónica Maristain, detailed the attacks: “We believe these episodes are part of the same institutional and social decomposition that the country is suffering from.” Officially, a hundred and two journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000. Of all the crimes committed against journalists in Mexico, ninety-eight per cent have gone unpunished. Between January and June of 2014, Maristain wrote, the group Article 19, which monitors press-freedom issues, has counted sixty-six physical attacks and twenty-eight threats against journalists in Mexico.
When I arrived at the SinEmbargo’s offices on Tuesday, Alejandro Páez showed me some of the posts that had been appearing on Belinda’s Facebook page, and some of the thousands of subsequent “bot” posts and tweets that echoed them. Many of the posts claimed that Páez was wanted by the city prosecutor’s office on rape charges. They were accompanied by photographs of Páez—some of which had been taken from the Internet, and others that were fake or doctored. One photo, which purported to show Páez being led away by police with a jacket pulled over his face, was included in a post claiming that he had been arrested at the SinEmbargo offices that very day. Páez also told me about some of the threats that had been delivered to their office in person by mysterious men who said they had come on behalf of a politician who was offended by photographs the site had posted. “Look around, it’s mostly young women working here,” exclaimed Páez, “and I feel responsible for their protection!” He told me that he was in the process of hiring security guards and having surveillance cameras installed.

Páez said that Peña Nieto had tailored his entire government to convince international and Mexican élites that his reforms—which are enacted by a corrupt Congress—have led to concrete advances for all Mexicans. Abroad, he has been applauded for his pantomime of a strong President; at home, he has shirked all the responsibilities of governance. The country seems out of control, said Páez, because the government doesn’t exert its lawful power. “Let’s face it,” he said, “You have to be a cabrón to govern this country.” In Guerrero, as in states and localities all over Mexico, organized crime, with the support of corrupted or helpless authorities, rules over Mexico.

The voids in Mexico’s government are all too obvious now. The country seems to be trembling at the edge of a terrible cataclysm or, for the hopeful, an inspiring transformation. “When a country has lost faith in all its institutions, it looks inward, or at itself in the mirror, in a search for solutions,” a prominent political reporter for a major daily newspaper told me recently. (He was fearful of repercussions should his name be used.) He thinks that is what is happening now. He points to the birth and growth of a large number of citizens’ groups (there has been increased participation in community self-defense groups, the student movement, and civic crusades against violence), and to the galvanized nationwide response to the tragedy of the missing students of Ayotzinapa Normal School.

The outcome of the national student strike will be revealing. How many universities, colleges, and institutes will stick with it, and for how long? Will it spread to other areas of society, to the high schools, for example, as the recent student strikes in Chile did, bringing about significant changes in that country? When masses of students boycott classes, it fills a country with an air of emergency and danger. The nation must ask itself what it will take to get them back into classrooms.

It’s also possible that the path to solving Mexico’s problems need not be so drastic. Flawed and abused as it has been, the country is still a democracy. It continues to have elections, which occur under the scrutiny of the international press (for whatever that’s worth) and election monitors. In 2000, Mexican voters finally put an end to seventy-one years of authoritarian and corrupt PRI rule, only to turn the government over to a rightist party, the National Action Party (PAN), which ended up, at the behest of the U.S., plunging the country into the narco war, the results of which we are all living with now. Mexicans now have another chance to politically reinvent their country. Now is the time for new leaders and even new parties to emerge from the civic movements and from outside the discredited political establishment. What many Mexicans have been telling me is this: It’s either now or never.