Photo: Ginnette Riquelme / CIDH

Ayotzinapa: the aftermath of a drama

  • February 3, 2015

People & Protest

The shock of the Ayotzinapa drama still reverberates months later. Social movements are battling to make use of the space for action that opened up.

The disappearances of 43 students in the southern Mexican city of Iguala have shaken the country to the core. A radical movement of teachers and students sees this drama as the paragon of the Mexican political system marred by impunity, corruption and extreme institutionalized violence. The movement makes history when it sets fire on the gates of the national palace, an unprecedented action since the Mexican revolution in the beginning of the nineteenth century. But although the movement is unwavering and the international media attention unabated, some things in Mexico seem unshakable. A present-day visit to Iguala tells us that nothing has changed. The entangled power of drugs cartels and local politics carry on like never before.

As the July 2015 elections come into view, Mexico holds her breath. Meanwhile, social movements and local government in Guerrero have each other in an iron grip, neither willing to give way. Where is Mexico headed? From Iguala to Mexico City, we will examine the latest developments to try to find out.

Controversy surrounding the official investigation

In the night of 25 September, local police in Iguala open fire on a group of graduate students of the Rural Normal in Ayotzinapa, a historically left radical teachers’ college. Six students and bystanders are killed on the spot and forty-three are abducted in police vehicles. In response, thousands of Mexicans go to the streets to voice their anger over the structural violence that infests the country. Hence, the Ayotzinapa drama elicits the largest political crisis in recent Mexican history.

More than a month after the disappearance, the district attorney presents the results of the official Ayotzinapa investigation. A case is presented, based on an amateur video of three eyewitnesses, pointing to cooperation between Iguala police and the drug cartel Guerrero Unidos in the burning of the students in a garbage dump in Cocula. The parents of the missing students denounce this official version of the district attorney as an attempt to appease them: “The government has determined the death of our children without having found bodily remains.”

In the days that follow, evidence surfaces that makes the official story look very shaky. It was raining on the night of the supposed fire and the science doesn’t seem to add up as there could not have been enough necessary heat generated to burn all the remains. When a news report emerges which proves how the federal police orchestrated the attacks with the enthusiastic cooperation of the military, the district attorney ignores it completely.

The government is attempting to head off the political crisis by labelling the disappearance as a ‘local problem’, instead of admitting the true nature of the drama: the fine line between politics and organised crime.

Trying to keep it clean

The whole Ayotzinapa drama was an embarrassing affair for the PRD party. They are now being called the ‘drugs party’ thanks to the involvement of the mayor of Iguala, of the PRD party, who ordered the attack on the students. The rival party, PRI, hasn’t pulled any punches and tried to profit as much from this scandal as possible. But in today’s Mexico, nobody’s hands are clean. PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto has become embroiled in a scandal surrounding the ‘White House’, a seven million dollar country house he is accused of using to whitewash drugs money.

Progressive Mexico’s last hope, López Obrador of the Morena party, denies to have had any contact with organized crime or with the fallen Iguala mayor. The last remaining grain of hope in the Mexican political system slides away when a photo appears of the Morena leader that shows him smiling arm in arm with Iguala’s mayor.

In December a report is published which contains a list of 25 mayors and former-mayors in Guerrero who are accused of having affiliations with organized crime. This is no secret since the state of Guerrero is responsible for 80 percent of the poppy-seed production in entire Mexico. Certain municipalities were however suspiciously absent in the ‘black list’, spreading the implicit message that the missing names hold relationships at the highest political levels. The most influential narco politicians remain untouched.

The political controversies during the aftermath of the Ayotzinapa drama give the impression of a surrealistic theater. However, in this harsh reality some Mexicans have risen up to organize for change. Let us take a look at Iguala, Mexico-City and Guerrero as the main sites of action.

Organizing in the killing-fields of Iguala

The geographical location of Iguala makes it an important gateway for drug trafficking and the violence that this practice produces. After the massive disappearance, the city has been temporarily flooded by journalists and community police forces (the self-organized police of indigenous communities). Their presence gives the local inhabitants the necessary confidence to break their silence. Disappearances are nothing but uncommon in Iguala.

The hills that surround the city have turned out to be hiding countless clandestine graves. Several family members of disappeared people started organizing themselves into a committee with the slogan: “Child, we will keep on searching until we have buried you.”

From dawn till dusk members of the committee search the hills for their lost family members. Equipped with wooden sticks, they roam the hills that echo the memory of terror. Indiscriminatingly poking the earth, committee members await the moment for their stick to find loose earth as a signal of recent digging. When human remains are encountered, a flag is placed to identify the spot. This harrowing scene is practiced in dignity by people who can finally start to process the loss of their loved ones. Meanwhile, more than 250 inhabitants of the city have officially registered the disappearance of their family members and already 300 human remains have been found in the area, all thanks to the work of the committee.

Obstacles in Mexico-City

“Why do they kill us, if we are the hope of Latin America?” This slogan is continually heard during mass demonstrations in Mexico-City and leaves no doubt about the identity of the majority of the demonstrators: students.

The collective anger of the multitude that fill the streets after the Ayotzinapa drama, raises the hope that social change is near to come. However, as Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas wisely recounted some years ago: “La Señora sociedad civil es imprevisible” [Madam Civil Society is unpredictable].

After months of mass protests in Mexico-City some groups try to lift the protest movement to the next level by organizing a blockade of the international airport of Mexico-City. This action could have put the government under unprecedented pressure. However, the Interuniversitaria, the national assembly of 130 student organizations, pulls back on the evening before the proposed mass action.

Important unions remain absent during the demonstrations and although the strikes of education institutions nationwide are impressive, the longed-for national strike does not obtain wide support.

The movement has neither been able to use the impetus of the mass mobilizations to radicalize its scope of action nor to broaden its support base.

Students — misleadingly labeled as anarchists — are being locked up without due process: “Help, I’m being kidnapped!”, shouted UNAM student Sandino Bucio, who was picked off the streets in broad daylight by heavily armed men, later identified as undercover federal police. Bucio’s words echo through every student activist’s mind. State-repression against student organizations is reaching a new high, culminating in a new “freedom of movement” law, passed to ban demonstrations.

Although Bucio, the kidnapped student, is soon released, state repression has already done its work to weaken the movement.

Furthermore, it seems hard to overcome the geographical and cultural gap in the diverse Ayotzinapa movement. When a protest is organized in Guerrero to commemorate Lucio Cabañas, the famous guerrilla leader and graduate of the Normal Rural in Ayotzinapa, organizations in Mexico-City do not join the mobilization. Whereas Cabañas is a symbol of heroism in Guerrero, in Mexico-City he is associated with bloody violence.

Hesitant voices for autonomy

As one drives from Mexico-City towards Acapulco these days, you are certain to meet some Ayotzinapa students. With their young faces covered with colorful handkerchiefs, they await drivers that pass by the turnpike. The employees of the turnpike have been sent home and the drivers are asked for a voluntarily contribution to support the struggle. Several commercial buses are parked on the highway, seized by the student to be used for transport. This constant stream of money and free transportation are of utmost importance to sustain the movement in one of the poorest regions of Mexico.

Four months after the first protest, the Asamblea Nacional Popular (ANP) has become the strength of the movement, consisting of Ayotzinapa students, militant teacher organizations and the parents of the disappeared students. Since day one after the disappearance, the students have found loyal allies in the militant teachers organizations CETEG and CNTE. Roadblocks that temporarily paralyze traffic and demonstrations that turn out in heavy confrontations with military police, are not unusual. Together they turn Guerrero upside down.

The ANP demands the resignation of all politicians nationwide. Already 40 of the 81 municipalities in Guerrero are taken over by the ANP, spreading the message: citizens are taking back control over their communities. Often these actions imply a temporary symbolic take-over while government officials continue their work elsewhere. But sometimes power is indeed taken over by the communities, such as in Ayutla de los Liberes.

The basketball court in Ayutla is covered with people and excitement is in the air. It is Saturday afternoon. After many fiery speeches the assembly decides to set up a community council that aims to replace the municipal government.

Indigenous usos y costumbres will be the guiding principles of the new council where political parties are shunned. Throughout Guerrero, this political ideal, commonly known as ‘the fourth level of governance’, has gained wide attention among various political organizations in the state. Besides the current political structure in Mexico organized by federation, state and municipality, ‘the fourth level’ aims to strengthen the position of communities.

During the assembly in Ayutla, the idea to create an autonomous region is slowly gaining ground. This is an eventful development in Guerrero where extra-parliamentary politics have always been closely affiliated with institutional politics. Contrary to neighboring states Oaxaca and Chiapas whose historical struggles for autonomy are unmistakable, activists in Guerrero are starting to enter relatively unknown territory. As forerunners of the new trend, the ANP exclude gobernalistas, organizations that negotiate with the government, from the Ayotzinapa movement.

Not coincidentally, the new interim governor is currently pushing for negotiations with this movement to appease political tensions. This has resulted in divisions amongst activist groups in Guerrero, a tendency that might be deepened by the government plan presented at the end of November. The government announced to combat the regional inequality in Mexico by prioritizing aid to the southern states. Along with the recent labeling of Guerrero as “most dangerous state of Mexico”, government pesos will soon flood the state. This economic injection will be an easy seducer towards government collaboration.

Decentralization versus centralization

Six autonomous community councils are currently being set up in Guerrero. This development is part of a strategy to offer an alternative political possibility to the upcoming elections in July 2015. Since December, the ANP calls out for a general boycott of the elections and directs their actions to political headquarters and government institutions rendered with the task of managing the elections.

In Chilpancingo, the building of the Institute for National Elections has been closed indefinitely since a group of militant teachers broke in one day to ravish the furniture and decorate the walls with messages like: “No elections! Organize! Ayotzi is alive!”. As long as the students don’t appear, there won’t be elections in Guerrero, is the public outcry. However, the underlying goal to decentralize power is hard to miss. When elections don’t succeed, the community councils will gain legitimacy as well as space to properly develop as a new political structure.

“At all cost, elections will happen”, says the government. When some official election advisers side with the demonstrators by arguing that there are no safe conditions to hold democratic elections in Guerrero, the governor is quick to asks for their resignation. The election boycott not only worries politicians in Guerrero, but also stirs up higher political arenas.

Part of the ‘ten point plan’ of president Enrique Peña Nieto to appease the political crisis, is to transfer the control over public security from the municipality towards the state. As such, municipality police will be abolished. Another point in the plan bestows the federal government the possibility to infringe on municipal autonomy when the latter is suspected of holding bonds with criminal organizations. President Peña Nieto is using the Ayotzinapa drama as a justification to push through his agenda to centralize power.

By now, 22 municipalities in Guerrero are under state control, even though few people are convinced that their security is in better hands with the governor. The demonization of ‘the municipality’ and the forthcoming legislative changes might mean the deathblow for this administrative unit.

Whereas both federal government and the Ayotzinapa movement seek to do away with municipal power, their goals are directly opposite to each other.

Election time

In general, elections in Mexico are preceded by a rise in political murders. In the context of the current political crisis, elections will surely flare up trouble. Mexico holds her breath as inhabitants of Iguala continue in search for their loved ones while demonstrators in Mexico-City furiously try to revive the protests. But especially the ANP walks a fine line.

The teachers and students are as resolute to take back control over their communities as the federal government is committed to centralize  its power. The recent anger towards the military is alarming as well. Confrontations with the army have already taken place when militant teachers and students tried to invade military bases in search of the disappeared students. In a country that hasn’t been stirred up like this for years, the coming elections will show us if the roots of Mexican society are unwavering, or that change is on its way.

Merel de Buck

Merel de Buck is a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology doing research with indigenous and Afro-Mexican social movements in Guerrero.

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