Carlos Jasso / Courtesy Reuters A man holds a candle with a photograph of one of the missing 43 trainee teachers during a protest at the Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, November 17, 2014.

March on Mexico

Enrique Peña Nieto's Challenge—And Opportunity

Last Thursday, tens of thousands of Mexicans took to plazas and highways across the country to rail at the government. It was the largest, although certainly not the only, protest in recent days. Most demonstrations have been peaceful, but others have included burning an effigy of the president, open fighting with police forces, occupation of government buildings, and destruction of police cars and stations. Even by the standards of Mexico, where it is relatively common for mass protests to block traffic and force the closure of offices and factories, this wave of mobilization is impressive and, for the government, ominous.

The protests are, in part, a response to the massacre of 43 teaching college students last September in the city of Iguala, 115 miles south of the capital. The students were on their way to a protest when local police fired guns into their buses, corralled 43 of the students, and then handed the victims over to a local drug-trafficking gang, which executed them. According to reports, the gang members were acting under the direction of the mayor, who ordered the killings in order to stop the students from protesting at an event where his wife was scheduled to speak.

As shocking as it is that an elected mayor would cooperate with a gang to murder a group of students, what really sparked the outrage was the government’s slow and bumbling investigation, which was initially hindered by a lack of cooperation from municipal and Guerrero state police. The students’ bodies still have not been definitively found. The scouring of nearby hills and farms, however, did uncover several other unexplained mass graves, containing dozens more bodies.

On November 7, when Mexico’s attorney general ended a press conference about the killings with the words “Ya me canse” (That’s enough, or I’m tired), public frustration boiled over. The video clip and phrase instantly went viral on social media, and protests erupted around the country. Ever since, handmade signs and graffiti saying “Mexico is tired!” and “I’m tired of this government” have been a common sight at protests.

The Peña Nieto government seems to be facing its worst crisis yet, one likely to persist as police clash with a small minority of protestors who attack property, set fires, and throw Molotov cocktails. The breadth of the public outrage, however, is uncertain, and, thus far, the movement has no clearly defined, practical demands for the government. Mexico’s leaders would do well to consider the protests as an opportunity to fortify and speed the government’s longstanding efforts at judicial and public security reforms, because the larger problem—the lack of rule of law in Mexico—is indeed urgent.

AROUND THE CORNER

Less than two years ago, Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the presidency exuding optimism and promising structural change. He vowed to help Mexico turn a corner by shifting focus from crime, violence, and the bloody war against drug cartels to modernizing the economy and a raft of major reforms in the public education, energy, and telecommunications sectors. Peña Nieto celebrated the country’s prospects as a rising economic power and as a regional and global leader. In turn, Mexico joined the Pacific Alliance, an economic pact with its Latin American partners, and is negotiating membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States. The international and U.S. press welcomed Mexico’s new spirit, and hailed Peña Nieto’s reform measures.

Meanwhile, the government did put forth some security sector reforms, including the creation of a rural paramilitary gendarmerie force. For a while, it seemed like Mexico City might get away with ignoring the violence and mayhem that prevail across much of the country. In early 2014, a movement of vigilantes, or community self-defense forces, emerged from communities across the state of Michoacán to drive a brutal criminal drug-trafficking organization, the Knights Templars, out of the region. The self-defense forces claimed to be doing the job of the police and the government, which had been corrupted by criminals and could not be trusted. Others insisted, however, that at least some of the self-defense forces were, in fact, a rival criminal organization.

While the self-defense forces blocked roads, seized and detained suspected criminals, and exchanged fire with cartel members and others, the government and police wavered in their response. At one point the federal government assumed control over security in Michoacán, tacitly admitting that the state government was too ineffective and corrupt to do its job. After months of tense coexistence, the government struck a deal with the self-defense forces, offering to integrate them into the local police systems. This effort has been a partial success; some forces have disbanded, but many continue to patrol, impose roadblocks, and exercise the rule of law as they see fit. Lately a number of self-defense forces from around Guerrero have been patrolling campuses and blocking roads in support of students and the protests, purportedly to protect them from the police.

The fury and frustration compelling protestors in cities and towns across Mexico is largely the same as that driving rural communities to form their own paramilitary defense forces. Mexicans are dismayed that, for all the talk of Mexico’s reforms and its ascent as a new power, in much of the country, corruption and impunity still prevail. In the last eight years, there have been about 100,000 killings and abductions associated with the drug cartels’ wars and operations. Criminal elements and political and business leaders appear as intertwined as ever, and now even mayors believe that they can use their criminal connections to massacre a group of protestors.

To add fuel to the fire, a presidential scandal is currently unfolding that involves a luxury mansion that was built for Mexico’s first lady, and given to her as a gift by a company that has won several large public-works contracts from the Peña Nieto government. In recent days, the first lady has apologized and promised to sell her share of the house, and the president has released his own financial records. Regardless, the scandal reinforces the perception that, in Mexico, there is a cozy relationship between the political and business elites and the gangs. And then there is the multitude of victims, many of whom can be found decaying anonymously in mass graves.

SLOW MOMENTUM

Although Thursday’s protests were the largest Mexico has experienced in years, Mexicans—especially in the capital—are accustomed to them and so the impact of these particular marches, sit-ins, and events is uncertain. This is especially true given the provenance of the students. It is, of course, outrageous that a mayor should order the killing of unarmed student protesters. However, the teaching college the students attended is also disparaged by many Mexicans as a center for indoctrination in revolutionary Marxist ideology and for preparation for a career as a protestor and agitator. For many Mexicans, the students’ association with that school and the fact that they had commandeered the convoy of buses they were riding to the protest somewhat taints them as victims. Some groups active in the protests, including students’ associations, unions, and left-wing community organizations, have ideological positions and political agendas about which many Mexicans are skeptical.

Further, both the police massacre of the students and the active vigilantism have occurred within two exceptionally poor and ineffectively governed states, Guerrero and Michoacán, in a backwater region known as the Tierra Caliente. The area is mountainous and largely agricultural, dotted with hundreds of towns and communities that are isolated from the outside world by geography and indigenous ethnicity. The region is not representative of broader Mexico, particularly the urban areas in the center and north of the country where most Mexicans live. Most recognize that state modernization and the evolution of Mexico’s political culture will take considerably longer in that region than elsewhere, even under effective reform programs.

Furthermore, Mexico’s overall murder rate has dropped since 2011, and rates of crime—especially murder—have fallen in some major cities, such as Juarez, which were previously racked by spectacular violence. To be sure, statistics on crime and violence are suspect in Mexico and are open to political and special-interest manipulation. But last week’s protests do not reflect a sense of sudden crisis. They are more the boiling over of long-held disgust at the perpetuation of collusion between organized crime and the police and government despite eight terrible years of conflict. There is a profound lack of confidence in the state.

Thus far, the protests have not coalesced into a movement with clear leaders or spokespeople. Protestors do not advocate a particular set of policies or laws, beyond the general demand that Peña Nieto resign. Unless they develop a more coherent program, they are unlikely to have a significant impact. Most Mexicans recognize that what is needed is structural reform from the bottom up and, perhaps more importantly, a change in the country’s political culture. Considering Mexico’s regional diversity and decentralized political system, achieving police and judiciary reforms and the institutionalization of not only the law, but the practice of the law, will take decades. Further, although Peña Nieto’s popularity is dropping, at last count, he still has the support of roughly 47 percent of the country—an enviable level compared to most Latin American (and U.S.) presidents.

Still, it would be a mistake for Mexico's government to shrug off this movement or to denounce it as the work of radicals, as some pundits have suggested. An arrogant, dismissive, or aggressive response is likely to deepen public resentment and increase the size, number, and ferocity of the protests. A better response would be to use the moment as leverage to seek the passage of ever more-ambitious judicial and police reforms in congress, and to speed up the reforms that are underway but have been stalled because of financial shortfalls and institutional resistance. For example, states and municipalities should be forced to stop dragging their feet on vetting police officers for ties to organized crime. The government could also speed up the implementation of the recently passed National Code of Penal Procedure, designed to standardize judicial and penal processes across the country, and increase the related funds. If the government is agile and proactive, it can use the protests to reinforce and expand such measures these.

The citizens of Mexico demand a greater commitment from their government to anti-corruption measures and security reforms, and the urgency of their demand is increasing. Mexico’s elites must recognize that it is at their own risk that they continue to ignore the misery and anarchy in regions such as the Tierra Caliente. Much of the country is dynamic, modern, and ready to compete and succeed in the twenty-first century, as Peña Nieto has assured them it can. But as long as there are ministers, governors, mayors, police and army commanders, and others who act as if they are above the law, and view corruption and crime as regrettable but necessary and traditional elements of their operations, Mexico’s progress will continue to proceed two steps forward, and one bloody step back. 

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