The informal nationwide civic movement that has emerged in Mexico in response to the disappearance of forty-three students is propelled by people and groups with all kinds of agendas and ambitions. The informal nationwide civic movement that has emerged in Mexico in response to the disappearance of forty-three students is propelled by people and groups with all kinds of agendas and ambitions. Credit Photograph by Alejandro Acosta / Reuters
This is the fourth part in Francisco Goldman’s series on the recent upheaval in Mexico. He has also written “The Disappearance of the Forty Three,” “Could Mexico’s Missing Students Spark a Revolution?,” and “The Protests for the Missing Forty Three.”
In mid November, three caravans converged on Mexico City, led by family members of the forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School whose abduction, in late September, has led to nationwide protests. One caravan was coming directly from Guerrero State, where the students disappeared, another from the state of Chiapas, and another from the city of Atenco, in Mexico State, the site of the most notorious act of violent government repression committed by Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s current President, in 2006, when he was governor there. The plan was for the caravans to come together and for the travellers to lead a giant march on November 20th.
The kidnapping is now known to have been carried about by the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, on orders from the city’s mayor. According to the government, the police handed the students over to a local narco gang, which murdered them and burned their remains in the Cocula municipal dump. This scenario is still awaiting forensic confirmation, and the families of the missing students, and many others, do not accept it. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive!’ remains one of the most common chants at the marches. “It was the state!” and “Peña Out!” are also staple slogans.
As the caravans approached Mexico City, President Peña Nieto, along with members and supporters of his PRI government, began issuing statements and warnings that seemed to signal an aggressive new strategy to counter the protests. On November seventeenth, Beatriz Pagés Rebollar, the PRI’s Secretary of Culture, published an editorial on the PRI’s official website.* “The chain of protests and acts of vandalism—perfectly well orchestrated—replicated in various parts of the country, demonstrate that the disappearances and probable extermination of the 43 normal-school students were part of a strategic trap aimed at Mexico,” she wrote. “All these activists and propagandists have the same modus operandi.” Pagés included opposition media on her list of these activists and propagandists, accusing them of fraudulently confusing Mexicans into believing that the students’ disappearance “was a crime of state, as if the Mexican government gave the order to exterminate them.”
Two days later, Carlos Alazraki, a veteran PRI insider and an advertising executive who has worked on the election campaigns of several of the party’s Presidential candidates, published an editorial entitled “Open Letter to All Normal Mexicans (Like You)” in the newspaper La Razón. “46 days ago, two bands, students and Iguala narcos, got into a brawl,” he wrote. “There are varying versions of what happened. . . . That one [band] were guerrillas, the other narcos. One or the other wanted to run the whole region.” Since the start of the “narco war,” in 2006, equating victims’ criminality with that of narcos has been a routine pro-government strategy. Such insinuations characterized many of PRI supporters’ early responses to the crime in Iguala. Alazraki closed, “Dear comemierdas. I curse the hour in which you were born. You’re murderers. You hate Mexico. And to finish, let me remind you that violence generates violence. Don’t be shocked if the federal government responds.”
The day before, in Mexico State, President Peña Nieto said in a speech, “There are protests that are not clear in their objectives. They appear to respond to an interest in causing destabilization, generating social disorder and, above all, in attacking the national project that we’ve been constructing.” Just a few days before that, he’d warned that the state is legitimately empowered to employ force to impose order.
Peña Nieto often speaks like an actor playing a stereotypical President on a television show: talking about the legitimate use of force as though phrases like that have a magical power to insulate him from the squalid realities of authoritarian power brutally and lawlessly wielded, and of a government hopelessly compromised. (Jon Lee Anderson recently wrote about Peña Nieto.) When a President like that speaks of the legitimate use of power and describes protesters as threats to a “national project,” what people hear are threats to wield that power violently and arbitrarily.
In the late afternoon hours of November 20th, people began to gather at various spots in Mexico City to meet the three Ayotzinapa caravans for the march that would converge in the Zócalo, the main plaza of Mexico City. That night, I went to the march with some friends and neighbors. By the monument El Ángel, I saw an elderly woman holding a hand-drawn sign that read, “Yes, I’m afraid! I tremble, sweat, turn pale, but I march! For Ayotzi, for me, for you, for Mexico.” As Ayotzinapa family members and students and other members of the Guerrero caravan were led to the front of the march, people chanted, “You’re not alone.” In the Ayotzinapa group was a young woman who held a swaddled baby and sobbing as she walked forward. There were machete-wielding peasant farmers from Atenco mounted on horseback. I saw many middle-class families, including children. Raucous contingents of university students joined too, of course. It seemed as if every imaginable group and sub-group, large and tiny, that exists in Mexico City was present. For a while, we marched between a contingent from a capoeira school and a marijuana-legalization group. I saw a nearly seven-foot-tall young man with long, blond hair, marching in the nude and holding up a sign that read “Sweden is Watching.” Many protesters shouted counts up to forty-three, followed by “Justicia!” “#YaMeCansé” was scrawled on countless signs, followed by whatever that marcher had “had enough” of. For instance, “#YaMeCansé of the war against those of us raising our voices. The criminals are the politicians!” Many chants were inventive or cheerfully obscene or sexual. The larger contingents, from universities and secondary schools, used rope barriers to cordon themselves off from infiltrators. People shouted at marchers wearing masks to uncover their faces. The masked marchers were presumed to be possible members of anarchist groups, or even provocateurs who would provide the police with a justification for responding with violence.
Usually, the main significance of a march is simply that it took place: that people took the time to walk in protest or support of something, because it felt like the right outlet for their indignation or approval. But sometimes a march makes concrete a moment of collective cultural expression that can be harder to put into words. This march was an expression of Mexico City—of a way its residents like to think of themselves—in full flower. But it was also a manifestation of a discernible change that seems to be taking place throughout Mexico. When a friend said that he “could feel Mexico on the move” at the march, he didn’t seem, to me, to be exaggerating. We didn’t reach the Zócalo until about three hours after the first marchers. By then, the podium where the Ayotzinapa family members had addressed the rally was dark and empty, and I saw no sign of the giant effigy of Peña Nieto that had been set aflame, photos of which were featured, the next day, in media reports all around the world.
As had occurred at the end of the previous march, a small group of anarchists (or perhaps government provocateurs) clustered in front of one door of the National Palace, apparently battling a line of armored riot police. From the distant, opposite end of the vast plaza, we could hear and see explosions and flashes, presumably from Molotov cocktails, perhaps also from tear-gas canisters fired by police. A dark mass of thousands still mulled in the Zócalo, many slowly moving toward the streets exiting the plaza. The reporter in me wanted to get a closer look at the conflagration, but the people I was with didn’t want to go any nearer. I left them waiting, and I’d walked perhaps fifty yards when I suddenly heard loud bangs and screams and sensed panic surging through the crowd. I turned around and walking back, as swiftly as I could, to where I’d left my group. When I reached them, Nayeli, a twelve-year-old girl who is our upstairs neighbor, grabbed my hand. All around us, people were now running out of the plaza, faster and with growing panic. The situation was rife with all the danger of becoming a stampede. We made our way through the darkened streets, navigating down the blocks that seemed emptiest, until we finally found a taxi.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I began learning about what had happened that night in the Zócalo and the surrounding streets, including those we’d fled through. A large number of Mexico City police had suddenly emerged from the shadows on the Cathedral side of the Zócalo and charged the protesters. All around the plaza, they blocked off streets, trapping thousands inside a circle that, it turned out, we’d just escaped. Eventually, eleven protesters were arrested, but many more were beaten, clubbed, and kicked. It seems that none of the eleven who were arrested were among those who’d been attacking the palace, hurling Molotovs, or otherwise battling the police. Some were arrested while fleeing the plaza, and others in the streets around it. Witnesses used smart phones to film some of the arrests. Most of the arrested were university students. Most had begun to run from the Zócalo, like so many others in the crowd, swept up in the panic. A thirty-one-year-old named Liliana Garduño Ortega, who had been photographing the protest, fell down in the stampede. The next moment, police began clubbing her and kicking her in the head, and then arrested her. Hillary Analí González Olguín, a twenty-two-year-old university student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was also beaten and arrested after falling down. An art student named Atzín Andrade, twenty-nine, had become separated from his friends and was waiting for them by a flagpole when police grabbed him. Luis Carlos Pichardo, a fifty-five-year-old filmmaker, and Laurence Maxwell Ilaboca, forty-seven, a Chilean doing postgraduate studies in the Department of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM, were among the arrested. None of the eleven had any previous record.
The Mexico City police turned them over to federal authorities, and they were formally accused of attempted homicide, criminal association, and rioting. They were then transferred to federal prisons in Veracruz and Nayarít. According to their lawyers and human-rights groups, the eleven were beaten, tortured, and denied due process. José Alberto, a twenty-one-year-old merchant, didn’t even know that there were going to be protests in the Zócalo that night when he arranged to meet his wife, Tamara, there. They became caught in the crowd that was charged by police. Both were beaten (his beating was especially bad) by at least ten police; he was taken to a police bus, beaten some more, and received ten or fifteen shocks, he said, from an electric prod, after which he lost consciousness. He was found lying unconscious in Corregidora Street in the early morning hours, and was then taken to a hospital.
The day after the march, President Peña Nieto thanked Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ánhel Mancera, and his police for their coöperation with federal authorities in upholding order in the Zócalo.
A few days later, an old friend of mine, Paloma Díaz, contacted me because one of the eleven, Atzín Andrade, is one of her students at La Esmeralda, the public national arts university. She drove me out to the campus, south of the city. Paloma and the school’s director, Carla Rippey, whom I’d never met, were close to the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the years he spent in Mexico City in his youth; probably there is nobody now living in the city who knew him better. Bolaño wrote infatuated infrarrealista poems for a teen-aged Paloma; in “Savage Detectives,” Rippey is the inspiration for the character Catalina O’Hara, a beautiful United States-born artist living in Mexico.
Bolaño was a leftist who disdained the established left, its orthodoxies, politicians, and political parties. In the early nineteen-seventies, he led a group of poets who believed that life in Mexico and in the rest of Latin America was so violent and absurd that poets needed to subvert reality and realism—as well as élitist literary hierarchies—even more than the surrealists had. That attitude has been very much in the air since the Ayotzinapa incident. Indeed, in Reforma earlier this week, the anthropologist and writer Roger Bartra, who is relatively conservative among Mexico’s most prominent public intellectuals, christened “the heterogeneous and radical protest movement that has unleashed massive marches in Mexico City” as “the infrarrealista left.” He chose that name, he writes, “not pejoratively,” but “because this left seems to flow beneath political realities, carving tunnels to topple the government and undermining the cement of a system it considers corrupt and repressive,” just as, he writes, Bolaño and his compatriots sought to “subvert a literary order they considered oppressive.” Mexico’s most lauded group of young journalist-writers—a group (nominally led by Diego Osorno) who have stripped away the reportorial clichés of the narco war and brought its previously hidden human realities to readers—also refer to themselves as infrarrealista journalists.
The protests over the missing Ayotzinapa students, Paloma told me, were the first in recent memory in which students of the highly selective Esmeralda had fully participated. In the past, she said, postmodern ironies and theorizing have engaged them far more than political involvement. She added that it was amusing to see art students who have devoted their nascent careers to conceptual performance and technological videos struggle to paint posters and banners, many of them reading “43 + 11.” Rippey said that the arrest of the easy-going Atzín Andrade—who had been attending his first-ever protest march and who was being held in a federal prison on charges of “attempted homicide”—had driven home to the students that what had happened to him could happen to any of them. Rippey said that it was important, too, to temper her students’ passions. “This is a free public university,” she said, “and that was a great accomplishment. There are things in Mexico to be grateful for.”
Frida Mendoza Chavez, a bright and energetic twenty-four-year-old student leader, told me, “As a student at this school, I belong to a structure that the government created and that allows me to believe in a sense of community inside of it. Allowing us to have that place in society also provides us with critical criteria to support institutional legality. From here we have a right to say that we can’t permit any more societal injustice, any more injustice toward humanity. But real reforms have to come from the trenches, where we know where we stand as a country. How can they come from the corridors of power? How can [the President] clean up anything when he himself is a product of corruption and impunity?”
Mendoza’s eloquent speech (“That came out sounding good!” she exclaimed happily) reflected what, to me at least, is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of this so-called “Mexican moment.” The informal nationwide civic movement that has emerged is, undoubtedly, infrarrealista in many ways; it is propelled by people and groups with all kinds of agendas and ambitions, including the most intransigent or irrational ones. But, from what I’ve observed, it is incorrect to portray it—as the government’s supporters, and some eminent intellectual observers, do—either as a movement for radical or violent Communist revolution or else as an unfocussed mass of rabble-rousers who think that merely marching constitutes a movement.
In recent days, a group of Mexican artists released a video called “What’s Happening in Mexico. Why We Say #YaMeCansé,” which powerfully condenses the causes and aims of the emerging movement. A written statement accompanying the video describes it as a response to “the critical situation in which the lives of so many Mexicans have fallen, who have to deal every day with the impunity, impotence and danger that comes with living in a country that doesn’t provide security, governed by a state that, far from preoccupying itself with imparting justice, colludes closely with organized crime and, on top of everything else, is determined to hide the truth of these facts.” The artists suggest the creation of a “Citizens Institute empowered to audit the state and begin creating the conditions that can bring justice to the citizens of Mexico.”
Nearly a year ago, in February, after Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán, the drug lord at the head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, was captured, Edgardo Buscaglia, a Mexican security expert and senior research scholar at Columbia Law School, commented, “El Chapo and his people in Sinaloa had hundreds of Mexican politicians in their pockets. Let’s see if they arrest any of them now.” Of course they haven’t. Buscaglia said that as long as the chains of complicity between politicians and narco lords weren’t interrupted, the narco war could be considered lost. The Ayotzinapa tragedy made those chains starkly clear.
Meanwhile, the clearest example of corruption in Mexico at the moment seems to be President Peña Nieto himself. He cannot credibly explain how a relatively young civil servant from a middle-class family has managed to accumulate as much wealth as he has. The most publicized (though not the only) evidence of this wealth is the seven-million-dollar mansion that the President says belongs to his wife, a soap-opera star who hasn’t worked since 2007. (A Peña Nieto spokesman has claimed that the house was not as expensive as reported and that the President’s wife earned enough to afford the house.)* The title on the house is owned by a construction corporation that has won contracts (some of them controversial) from Peña Nieto’s administrations during both his governorship and his Presidency. Last week, when given an award by the Committee to Protect Journalists for his lifetime contribution to the freedom of the press, Jorge Ramos, the Univision broadcaster, spoke about Peña Nieto in a way that no broadcaster, and very few Mexican politicians, has dared. “Can you imagine what would happen here in the United States if a government contractor secretly financed the private home of Michelle Obama? Well . . . that is what’s happening in Mexico and, believe it or not, there’s not even one independent investigation being held to look into this matter,” he said. “That’s not saving Mexico. That’s corruption.”
On November 27th, Peña Nieto announced ten measures intended to pull Mexico out of its current crisis. He suggested disbanding the country’s municipal forces and uniting them under the control of state police. He suggested a national emergency telephone number. He revived the idea of strengthening the anti-corruption prosecutor. The proposals, however fell flat, and were mostly derided in Mexico and abroad. If state police are corrupt, too—and so are the federal police—what good can it do to put them under the same command? As the popular radio host Sopitas commented, “If first you don’t effectively clean up corruption, uniting the police is the equivalent of institutionalizing the narco police.” Others said that a national emergency number, because of organized-crime corruption, would only serve to alert narco groups of actions being taken against them. Peña Nieto’s measures admitted no culpability on his government’s part, and no member of his cabinet was made to resign over the handling of the crisis. No concrete anti-corruption measures were taken against top-tier politicians. Then again, how can Peña Nieto take on government corruption and impunity when he has become the most obvious symbol of those ills?
On Saturday, November 29th, a federal judge freed the eleven people arrested on November 20th, saying that there was absolutely no evidence to support the charges against them. It was a sharp rebuke to the government, and a victory for all those who had protested and denounced the arrests. On December 1st, the second anniversary of his Presidency, Peña Nieto was greeted by a poll that showed his approval rating at thirty-nine per cent, the lowest for any Mexican President since 1995, following Mexico’s disastrous peso devaluation. That night, there was another massive protest in the capital. To avoid the police trap provided by the geography of the Zócalo, the usual direction of the march was reversed, to proceed from the Zócalo to El Ángel. It seemed that it would be easier for crowds to disperse from the multi-spoked traffic rotary surrounding the monument, with streets leading into a busy commercial and tourist zone. Violent anarchists, about thirty in number, showed up again, providing police with pretexts to attack non-violent bystanders. A smart-phone video shared on social media shows a police commander using violent language and ordering his men to grab anyone they see running. A number of people, including women, were beaten. Maps of the surrounding streets, marking in red areas that protestors heading home should avoid, circulated on Twitter. A crowd of about a hundred protesters was about to be engulfed by police when a group from the city’s human-rights commission showed up and formed a human cordon to protect them. The protesters chanted against violence while the human-rights workers walked them to a subway station.
* A previous version of this post misstated Beatriz Pagés Rebollar’s position. This post has also been updated to include the response from President Peña Nieto’s spokesperson to allegations regarding the purchase of the President’s home.