On September 26, busloads of students from a state-financed, politically-charged teaching college in Iguala, Mexico were attacked by police and anonymous gunman. Six people died during the incident, and 43 students who were part of the convoy have not been seen since — inciting national outrage. Over a month later, the search for the missing students continues.
Due to increased pressure to find the bodies, recent bouts of civil unrest across the country, and a discovery that Iguala’s mayor was likely involved in the disappearances, authorities are desperately seeking answers to bring the case to a close.
But the disappearances are just the 43 straws that broke the camel’s back. Underlying the outrage and national demonstrations surrounding the missing students is a larger frustration with several, interconnected grievances with Mexico’s political and social fabric, from political corruption to gross human rights violations stemming from a militarized police force. Those grievances are fueling more than one political fire in Mexico.
Before September 26, the crime rate was already at the forefront of citizens’ minds: 72 percent of the population was concerned with political corruption, and 79 percent claimed that crime was a major issue.
And the disappearance of 43 students has only further undermined faith in the the country’s elected officials, especially since the mayor of Iguala who is currently on the run, Jose Luis Abarca, allegedly ordered the attack. Governor Angel Aguirre of Guerrero also stepped down over criticisms that he failed to sufficiently address corruption among police officers and politicians in the state — a major slight, considering that he is a member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. President Enrique Peña Nieto himself has been accused of lacking leadership on political corruption that can spur incidents like this; a recent Pew study found that 54 percent of Mexicans believe he has not adequately dealt with the problem of corrupt government.
But skepticism of political leaders is only one of the gripes people have in Mexico. Legislative reforms have had an adverse consequence on the population, exacerbating the violence that Peña Nieto’s reforms are supposed to thwart.
“People are jittery, nervous, and frustrated in some of the big cities because the only really successful program against the drug lords on the other side of the border was intercepting the flow of money back to Mexico,” said Michael Werz, a Senior Fellow for the Center for American Progress’ National Security Team. The drug lords “were losing cash because of successful interception on the U.S. side. They started to pay some of their peers in drugs, so drug usage in Mexico grew — and with that came drug-related violence.”
The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), under the U.S. Department of State, wrote that criminal behavior is also shifting geographically. While crime rates were particularly high in the northern region of Mexico, they are on the rise in the central part of the country — where Guerrero is located. “Armed robberies, [express] kidnappings, car thefts, carjackings, credit card fraud, and various forms of residential and street crime are daily concerns,” OSAC said in its 2014 Crime and Safety Report.
In Guerrero, the discovery of 12 mass graves in the search for the missing students has also fueled anger over the rise criminal activity. It is unclear who the bodies belong to, but none of the sites have turned up the 43 missing persons.
Making matters worse is the fact that Mexico also has a broken justice system that makes it extremely difficult to address new criminal trends. Adding to current anger is the thin line between violent crime perpetrated by organized groups and violence perpetrated by people charged with protecting civilians. Even though Peña Nieto’s reforms involved changes in law enforcement, those changes have contributed the militarization of police.
According to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, that militarization is two-fold. The last 20 years have seen the “active insertion of military police into police forces” in addition to “an increasing type of military training for police agents.”
The gendarmeria, a police force created by the Peña Nieto Administration, is actually comprised of 10,000 members from the the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Navy in Mexico. Since military officers are, by virtue of the job, trained to combat enemies with force, the increased militarization of law enforcement means that civilians are treated as if though they are enemies.
Just as officers are involved in the most recent disappearances, they are also tied to “systematic and widespread” human rights abuses. In 2012 and 2013, there were 802 and 619 complaints of human rights violations committed by federal police, respectively. Torturing civilians is common. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report also found that authorities are often involved in disappearances. And a coalition of human rights groups filed an official complaint to the International Criminal Court in September, which said military officers “arrested civilians in their homes without any legal warrant, subjected them to acts of torture in military facilities, forced them to sign blank sheets of paper that would be used for their self-incrimination or to incriminate others, and placed drugs and arms in their possession as ‘evidence.’”
They also kill. In what the Human Rights Commission in Mexico called “one of the most serious human rights violations that can be committed,” and a subsequent cover-up, soldiers brutally murdered 12–15 gang members — who had surrendered — in a warehouse. As part of the cover-up, the military said a shootout took place between 22 gang members and officers, but the Attorney General’s office refuted the claim. And to make sure that three women who survived did not speak up, prosecutors tortured them and allowed others to “beat, [asphyxiate], and threaten to rape them,” according to the commission’s scathing report on the crime.
Citizens also know that many authorities are in bed with organized crime groups. A whopping 62 percent of people who participated in the 2013 National Victimization Survey said they do not report crimes due to a lack of trust in authorities, and a general feeling that it was a waste of time to do so.
Overall, corruption and violent behavior permeates Mexican law enforcement because of a widespread culture of impunity that allows police officers and soldiers to act without consequence, Meyer said. Efforts to prevent this are generally focused on vetting individual officers, but that has not led to the behavioral shift citizens want to see.
“What we haven’t seen is progress being made on arresting and prosecuting soldiers or police involved in human rights violations. Regarding torture cases in mexico, I think they report 6 cases where federal agent has been sanctioned for torture in the last 10 years,” she added. “So there are very low conviction rates and weak internal control over police. There are internal affair units that don’t exercise the power that they could, or don’t have the skills to do so, or don’t have the political will to do so. So that’s the big challenge: until a solider or police feels like they’re going to really be investigated and sanctioned for doing something, they have very little incentive to change their actions,” said Meyer.
“I think what’s really needed in Mexico is looking at the institutions themselves: things like weak internal affairs units, and a culture within agencies that allows for pervasive abuses. They need to get to the structural problems.”
Beyond gripes with systemic injustice, and inciting rage over the 43 missing students, is a cross-generational vision for what Mexico could be.
“You have young people who don’t want to grow up in a country where you get killed for having an opinion, but at the same time you have a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who still remember the early 1970s when Mexico was becoming a middle-income country, was economically connected to first world, and was really on the path to becoming a prosperous society,” Werz told ThinkProgress.
Positive developments in recent years also upped the stakes. “If you go to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, the big cities over the last four or five years have undergone dramatic change for the better: much more investment in public spaces, security is much better in many places. So you can see that society is making progress, which raises expectations.”
Until those expectations are met, widespread outrage in Mexico is not likely to die down, even if the 43 missing people are found. In a meeting between Peña Nieto and the families of the students, the president said that there would be a renewed search plan. But father Meliton Ortega was not convinced. “We told the president we don’t trust your government. The promises aren’t enough.”
His response perfectly summarizes the national sentiment surrounding this case, and Werz agrees. “There’s a combination of anger that derives from these different angles, and at the same time, people know that it’s probably not going to change any time soon.”