Fall from grace

Protesters demand President Enrique Pena Nieto’s resignation as the political crisis in Mexico deepens following the disappearance of 43 students.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

Masked protesters confront the police at the Guerrero State capital of Chilpancingo on December 14 demanding that the government find the 43 students who have been missing since September.

Masked protesters confront the police at the Guerrero State capital of Chilpancingo on December 14 demanding that the government find the 43 students who have been missing since September.

THE disappearance of 43 students on their way to a protest meeting in late September has triggered a national outcry in Mexico that threatens the Enrique Pena Nieto government. After riding high in opinion polls and being toasted in the financial capitals of the world, Pena Nieto now finds his popularity taking a beating. He is now dubbed the most unpopular Mexican President in recent history. Pena Nieto won the elections two years ago with a comfortable margin. Under his leadership, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) took control of the government after more than a decade in the opposition. The PRI ruled the country for most of the 20th century.

Mexico has been witnessing unprecedented demonstrations in all its major cities since September. In late November, demonstrators even set fire to the main gate of the presidential palace. The popular demand is for the resignation of the President and new elections. Demonstrators have blocked highways and attacked the offices of the country’s three main political parties. On November 20, demonstrators burned an effigy of the President in Mexico City’s Central Zocalo square chanting “Pena Out” and carrying banners which described Mexico as a “narco-state”.

A Mexican journalist, Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, said that the reach of the drug cartels extended to the highest public office in Mexico. “They control banking and everything else because they have invaded society. This is the problem with Mexico, the rise of organised crime which is very powerful and is integral to its institutions,” he said. According to the American journalist John Gilber, who authored the book To Die in Mexico , $25 billion in illicit drug money enters the Mexican and global financial system every year.

The current crisis erupted when students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa situated in the State of Guerrero were arrested on the orders of the Mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca. The police surrounded the bus in which the students were travelling and then opened fire. Three students were killed immediately and several were wounded. The remaining 43 students went missing.

The Mayor, according to reports, had not taken kindly to the political activism of the students. The teachers’ college had a reputation for being a bastion of left-wing student movements. The police force, apparently hand in glove with the local drug mafia, handed over the students to a gang working for one of the notorious Mexican drug cartels, the “Guerreros Unidos”, allegedly at the behest of the Mayor and his wife, who had political ambitions of her own. From the evidence that the Mexican authorities have provided so far, the students were brutally killed and their bodies incinerated in a wooded area. DNA tests have conclusively identified the remains of one of the students. The Mayor and his wife were arrested only in November after a nationwide hunt for them. According to reports, the Mayor ordered the arrest of the students to prevent them from interrupting a speech his wife was scheduled to deliver at a political event.

Backed by public opinion, the parents of the students have been demanding definitive answers from the President. Pena Nieto finally met them 33 days after the incident was first reported. One of the relatives of the disappeared students asked the President to explain why the army had not bothered to attend to the injured students despite it being in the vicinity. In the five-hour meeting with the President, the parents and close relatives of the missing students accused the Central government of being complicit in the killings. They demanded answers for the undue delay in nabbing the Mayor, which could have been done on the first day itself.

Pact for Mexico

The Mayor belongs to the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), the third largest party in the country. The main opposition party is the Authentic National Party (PAN), which was in power at the centre for most of the last decade. The three major parties in the country had joined hands in a “Pact for Mexico” that provides a blueprint for the overhauling of the country’s economy. All the parties have agreed to the implementation of a neoliberal agenda in the form of transforming Mexico into an engine of growth for the entire region. The state oil company, PEMEX, has been partially privatised and there is an ongoing effort to curtail trade union rights. The pact has proved unpopular among large sections of the Mexican population. The slaughter of the students has further fuelled public anger and contributed to the current political turmoil.

On the emotive issue of the students’ disappearance, Mexicans were particularly angry with the government for not taking action against the Mayor of Iguala for the previous killings he is accused of. In 2013, the federal authorities allowed the Mayor to carry on in office despite credible reports that he had personally participated in the killing of agrarian activists. In June 2014, according to reports in the Mexican media, the military executed 22 young men in Tlatlaya, which is not far from the site of the latest student massacre. A military battalion is posted in Iguala just metres from where the students were first fired on and later abducted to be tortured and killed.

The federal government has refused to open an investigation into the role of the military in the disappearance of the students. Many Mexicans feel that if the current government had investigated the 2013 killings properly, the latest heinous incident would not have happened. Human rights organisations in Mexico have estimated that more than 200,000 people have “disappeared” since 2006. The government has admitted to only 26,000 disappearances.

The country’s Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, told a press conference in late November that the 43 missing students should be presumed to be dead. His conclusions are based on confessions from arrested gang members and the uncovering of the mass grave near Iguala. Students and activists want definitive proof that all the 43 missing students are dead. The government has been able to provide incontrovertible evidence regarding only one of them.

Sorry track record

The Mexican government has a sorry track record as far as investigations into crimes are concerned. Statistics reveal that only around 6.2 per cent of all crimes are investigated. The numbers of kidnapped and “missing” persons have risen sharply in recent years. When the authorities were searching for the 43 students, they stumbled on hundreds of unmarked graves containing bodies of the “missing”. Among the bodies was that of a Nigerian Catholic priest who was kidnapped earlier in the year.

The President has announced a 10-point plan to reform the country’s security and justice system. This includes the removal of police powers from the local authorities and an overhaul of the judicial system. Over 1,800 municipal police forces would be effectively disbanded and put under the control of the State governments and the federal authorities. Corrupt local governments would be removed from office and the economic disparity between the northern and southern part of the country would be remedied, Pena Nieto pledged.

In a televised address to the nation in late November, the President also promised transparency in awarding government contracts. The President’s wife had come under the scanner after it was revealed that she had received a big loan from a businessman who was awarded a contract to build a high-speed rail line. The United States has announced that it will provide $68 million in aid over the next five years to support efforts to reform the Mexican judicial system. The Barack Obama administration has been uncritical of its neighbour’s human rights policies.

Pena Nieto’s pivotal role in privatising the oil sector has been well appreciated in the corridors of power in Washington. Big Oil has already rushed into Mexico hoping to make a killing. The U.S. has further increased its involvement in the so-called war against drugs in Mexico. Billions of dollars have been given to the Mexican government for its war against drug cartels.

There is close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican intelligence agencies, with the U.S. sometimes deploying its military personnel inside Mexico to fight drug lords. Many of the Mexican drug cartels have close links with politicians in their own country, cutting across the political divide, as the recent incident involving the 43 students illustrated. In November, three American citizens were killed in the Mexican border state of Tamulipas, allegedly on the orders of the Mayor of Matamoros. Both Mexican and U.S. officials have been linked to Mexican drug cartels. Recent investigations have also revealed deep-seated corruption on the U.S. side of the border.

The nationwide protests show no signs of subsiding as the year comes to an end. Andres Lopez Manuel Obrador, the opposition leader who lost the elections to Pena Nieto in 2012 on the PRD ticket and has since formed his own party, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA), has denounced the President “as the representative of the Mafia in power”. Obrador refused to acknowledge the results of the 2012 elections, claiming they were rigged. He has called for fresh elections to be held to “create a new form of politics that permits the rebirth of Mexico”.

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