The fate of 43 college students missing and presumed killed and burned to ashes in a mass abduction in September has bred ire and indignation in many corners of Mexico.
Thousands of demonstrators, teachers, students, working class people, professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, old and young sympathizers, have poured into the streets of several cities in Mexico and have blocked major intercity highways, while setting fires that damaged the door to the national palace in Mexico City and regional political party offices and the state congress building in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, where the students attended school.
Social media has lit up with related hashtags, including #YaMeCansedelMiedo (“I am tired of fear”), a play on a remark by the attorney general who cut off a question at the end of an hourlong news conference on the students’ case by saying, “Ya me cansé” — “I’m tired now.” (He later defended the remark by saying that he was tired because he had not slept in over 40 hours.)
And just a few days ago, a pacific demonstration in downtown Mexico City ended up with the burning of a Peña Nieto 10 feet tall piñata, and police forces detaining and beating up civilians, some of which claimed to be totally innocent, and were out on the street just because they live or work in the neighborhood.
Two weeks ago, President Enrique Peña Nieto was in China on a trade mission, even as the instability troubled the international business community he has aggressively courted. The question that awaited his return on that night of Saturday November 15th, was: What now?
Will the case prompt Mr. Peña Nieto to throw his weight behind efforts to address corruption, impunity and the rule of law with the same vigor he applied to his bold economic policies?
Mexico has seen these convulsions over sensational crimes before, with only modest changes in their wake. In 2011, galvanized by the kidnapping and murder of the son of a poet, Javier Sicilia, tens of thousands of protesters marched under the banner and hashtag #HastaLaMadre — roughly, “We have had it!” — and eventually Felipe Calderón, then the president, held a nationally televised meeting with relatives of the tens of thousands of people abducted and murdered during the drug war in his term.
That meeting gave rise to an underfunded office to address the needs of victims of violence but little else.
Andrew Selee, a Mexico scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said isolated areas like Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey received more attention after mass killings, resulting in some drops in crime. But politicians have been unable to carry out effective anticorruption measures and a broad retooling of institutions.
“Politicians of all parties have a great opportunity to make transparency and fighting corruption a banner that they all want to march behind, but it is an open question if that will happen,” Mr. Selee said. “Historically, there is a lot of tolerance for corruption in all the parties; no one wants to offend an ally or friend. But the political class risks losing more credibility with citizens if they don’t come out clearly to do something.”
A general tolerance for corruption may explain the muted reaction from opposition parties to revelations about a private $7 million house Mr. Peña Nieto’s wife is buying on credit from a company whose owner won large government construction contracts from Mexico State when Mr. Peña Nieto was its governor.
The owner of the house also has a company that was a partner in a Chinese-led consortium for a bullet-train contract Mr. Peña Nieto abruptly canceled before his trip, bowing to complaints that the bidding process was not transparent.
“One of the consequences of this scandal is it undermines the legitimacy of the government right at a moment that requires strength and credibility,” said Luis Carlos Ugalde, director of Integralia, a political consulting firm, and the former president of Mexico’s election commission.
But the shocking reports about the students in Iguala, who the authorities said were swept up by the police on orders of a mayor, turned over to a drug gang and killed and incinerated, strike at the frustration and contempt many people hold toward corrupt politicians and the police.
The street protests, largely organized by students and teachers’ unions, may be written off as more of the same, with violent anarchist groups in the mix, but the public venting is spreading to some normally quiet sectors like the members of the Roman Catholic bishops conference and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, both of whom made statements last week calling for dialogue, transparency and concrete actions. “We think it is necessary to move from protests to proposals,” the bishops conference said in a statement.
Alfonso Zárate, a political analyst, said: “It seems encouraging to me that the voices of complaint are multiplying. Corruption was seen for a long time as a lubricant that humanized power. This cynical view allowed it to avoid being seen as truly a cancer. The problem is it has metastasized and strikes all sectors.”
So Mr. Peña Nieto returned home from China politically wounded and facing an angry citizenry demanding a bold response to corruption and impunity, as well as new warnings from financial analysts that the lawlessness could discourage the kind of investment he has been seeking.
“We are asking, What do we expect from the most senior officials in government?” said Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a leader of Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (Mexicans United Against Crime), an anti-crime civic group that has organized marches in the past but is not doing so now. “We are beyond that,” he said. “We don’t want them to say, ‘O.K., the people are not happy,’ and then go on with their usual business. We want them to move into actual activity with specific results.”
While the political parties have joined together to speed through a host of changes to revamp the economy and educational system, addressing domestic security issues has been more difficult.
The events in Iguala have discredited the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, known as the PRD, which is usually quick to condemn the corruption in Mr. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party. Both the mayor of Iguala and the disgraced former governor of the state are PRD members.
On the right, the National Action Party has its own burden in dealing with the role of its standard-bearer, Mr. Calderón, in the drug war, as well as its share of corruption among current and former officials.
“The political parties are paralyzed,” said Ernesto López Portillo, director of Insyde, a security think tank in Mexico City, who has long advocated better training and accountability for local and state police forces. “Social frustration has grown, and this is expressed peacefully for the most part, but political power has not transformed.”
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