Protests, unrest a sign of Mexico healing from bloody drug war

Maria Telumbre, center, carries a poster of her missing 19-year-old son to the Basilica of Guadalupe for a special Mass, in Mexico City last month.
Maria Telumbre, center, carries a poster of her missing 19-year-old son to the Basilica of Guadalupe for a special Mass, in Mexico City last month. The Associated Press

Mass killings are nothing new to Mexicans, who have endured years of violent wars between drug cartels. More than 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2013, according to Human Rights Watch.

And those are just the cases that have been documented. New mass graves are being unearthed often. Many more people have disappeared.

Another mass grave was turned up recently. It contained what the government believes are the burned bodies of 43 young men, students at a rural teaching college, who had come to the city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero reportedly to collect money and steal buses to get to a demonstration. They were rounded up by police allegedly at the request of the mayor of Iguala and turned over to local gang lords for disposal. Another six students were shot before the kidnapping.

Even before Mexico Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced the discovery of the students’ remains left in a dump earlier this month, there was a growing wave of public fury over the missing students. As McClatchy Newspapers’ Tim Johnson reported last week, Murillo Karam didn’t help matters by cutting off questions with a dismissive, “ya me cansé” – “I’m tired of this.”

Although more than 70 people have been arrested so far, including the mayor and his wife, it is not justice enough for the tens of thousands of people participating in continuing mass protests. They want the conditions that allowed this tragedy to happen – widespread public corruption with impunity, local officials working with and for gangsters, innocent people murdered – to end.

Though the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, there have been some extreme acts – the blockade of Acapulco’s airport, the burning of government buildings, and rock throwing. Those are, of course, the incidents that make the evening news, and it has helped paint a picture of a country on the brink of anarchy from a populace that can’t take it anymore.

But what’s happening in Mexico is more complicated than those images imply – and much more positive.

Andrew Selee, a Mexico expert at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., explains that things have actually been improving in Mexico in recent years. This incident notwithstanding, the violence has ebbed in once hellishly dangerous cities like Tijuana and Juárez, and measures begun by former president Felipe Calderón – judicial reform and cartel crackdowns – are being continued by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Conversely, those improvements may well be a root cause of the public outrage. Mexicans had begun to shake off the despair. Then, this “massacre of innocents,” as some have called it, occurred for no other reason than that the mayor of Iguala apparently was worried they were going to disrupt a speech by his wife. It isn’t quite the watershed moment for Mexico, though it could be one of them.

“This is the latest round where citizens are rising up and it’s a moment of calling national attention on the issue of public security and justice. But it’s not the only one,” Selee said.

The murder of 14 people, mostly teenagers, at a boy’s birthday party in Cuidad Juárez in 2010, was another case in which citizens said “basta ya” – “enough.” But there have been others, such as the unprovoked slaughter the same year of 72 Central and South Americans heading for the U.S. border.

This is, however, a significant moment for Peña Nieto, who has become the focus of the public’s anger because of his campaign promises to clean up corruption. Though this is a case of local corruption, not federal, Peña Nieto hasn’t addressed the public adequately. Worse, he has come off as a remote monarch. When the mass graves were revealed last week, he was in China with his wife – and her entire team of stylists.

Peña Nieto needs to take charge of his country’s discontent and use this moment to accelerate reform and build on the public safety successes. Judicial system improvements, things we take for granted in the U.S. like plea bargaining, are in the works. But the country needs more reforms before it will have the strong rule of law that it needs to emerge as a civil, 21st-century democracy.

The federal government has made strides in public safety, breaking up cartels and arresting some of the worst criminals in Mexico. Among them was Sinaloa cartel’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, who was arrested in February, and Juárez drug lord Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, arrested in October.

There’s still a ways to go, as the murder of the students shows. But there are clear signs of a country healing. Protests and demands by Mexicans for justice show that they believe there is, at last, a chance of actually receiving it.