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Mexico’s Barbarous Tragedy

The massacre of 43 students from a teachers college in Ayotzinapa has horrified Mexico. Social indignation has reached a boiling point in protests across the country. The demonstrations are both natural and justified — and certainly without precedent in recent decades. Everyone knows that the students had nothing to do with the gangsters or the drug trade. Everyone knows that this was truly a Massacre of the Innocents.

The crime, committed in Iguala, a city in the heart of Guerrero state, was carried out by a criminal gang called the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), which operates in the Iguala area and controls the municipal police. The criminals surely acted in collusion with the town’s mayor and his wife, who have now been caught, holed up in a poor area of Mexico City, after more than a month on the run. Some of those already arrested have confessed to a macabre sequence of kidnapping, torture, execution and the burning of bodies.

Students at the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, a small teacher training college, wait to unload donated goods.Keeping Mexico’s Revolutionary Fires AliveNOV. 2, 2014
Guerrero is rich in tourist beach resorts (like Acapulco or Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo) and natural resources like gold, but there is a huge economic divide in the state. Seventy percent of its inhabitants live in poverty. The state has been a violent, ungovernable place since colonial times, and it was a principal theater of all our national wars in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the city of Atoyac, near Acapulco, there was a massacre of peasants in 1967. For me, as an adolescent, and for many Mexicans, it was the end of innocence, the resurgence of underlying violence, the return of “Barbarous Mexico” (the title of a book written by the American journalist John Kenneth Turner in the early 20th century).

That massacre unleashed the Mexican Left, encouraged by the victory of the Cuban Revolution. Much of their activism emerged from the Ayotzinapa teachers college, the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos. Founded in 1926 and still closely linked to its Marxist roots, the school’s heroes were Marx and Lenin, and in the 1970s Che Guevara. One of its students was the guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas, who in the late 1960s, together with Genaro Vázquez Rojas, declared war on the Mexican state — with broad social support.

In those days, Cuba provided material support for revolutionary activism in many Latin American countries. But not in Mexico, the only nation in Latin America to rebuff American pressure to break relations with Cuba. In exchange, the Castro regime neither encouraged nor supplied Mexican revolutionaries. President Luis Echeverría (1970-76) opened Mexico’s doors to refugees fleeing military terror in Chile and Argentina, while at the same time he unleashed terror at home (especially in Guerrero) to wipe out leftist guerrilla movements. Guerrero then subsided into an illusory calm, punctuated by scattered but bloody incidents of violence.

An ominous new protagonist entered the picture in force at the turn of the century. Guerrero had always been a center of marijuana production, but the newer, more organized drug cartels found the state an ideal site for their business, with its rugged and often impassable hills and old culture of violence. The citizens of Guerrero, meanwhile, were full of lingering resentment over the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) of the 1970s — and often quite as poor as people living in the most impoverished zones of Africa. At the same time, Mexico’s nationwide problem of political corruption became especially acute in Guerrero. In many towns, mayors and their colleagues took bribes from the narcos, associated with them, or, as in Iguala, were even themselves the drug lords.

The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which has governed Guerrero since 2005, has done almost nothing to break the old links between politics and crime. In fact, the mayor of Iguala and the governor of the state had the support of all of the party’s national leaders. The centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won the presidential election of 2012 with the promise of returning peace and security to the people. But the government has been, at the very least, inattentive and inefficient. The army has a major garrison near Iguala but, inexplicably, has done nothing to inhibit the alliance of criminals and politicians.

The state of Guerrero produces 98 percent of the heroin-yielding poppies in Mexico; production has grown exponentially. President Obama recently quoted a report by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency of a “324 percent increase in heroin seizures at the Mexican border between 2009 and 2013.”

But why kill innocent students? For the simple reason that their political demonstrations, civic protests and revolutionary idealism are bad for business. A man who has been arrested for his involvement in the tragedy added another reason: “Because they are unruly.”

The strong involvement of local government and social forces has brought gains against narco-violence in Monterrey, Tijuana, and even heavily plagued Ciudad Juárez. But in Guerrero, with its low level of education and high incidence of poverty, a similar process is very unlikely. The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has passed important economic reforms. These will do little good, however, unless the problem of security is faced head-on.

The tide of criminal violence in Mexico must not only be contained; it must be stopped and pushed back. The citizens of Mexico, feeling deceived by all political parties and all politicians, have been roused to fury by the events in Iguala. They demand not merely a few arrests, but the detention of all those responsible from top to bottom. Above all, they demand that every possible step be taken to refute those who would say that the country is spiraling out of control or has become a virtual narco-state.

It is no exaggeration to say that the viability of democracy in Mexico depends on the outcome.

This article was translated by Hank Heifetz from the Spanish.

The International New York Times

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