December 1 protest against President Peña Nieto in Mexico City
December 1 protest against President Peña Nieto in Mexico City

What the recent Mexican protests should mean to the outside

by Aileen Teague.

Although marchas (protests), in their frequency and character, are commonplace in Mexico’s day-to-day political culture, those occurring in Mexican cities over the past few months are more than the everyday marcha. With no justice, or even answers, for the families of 43 missing student teachers who disappeared on September 26 in Iguala, Mexico, the Mexican people are angry. They’ve taken to the streets as could be expected, but the increasing fervor of the demonstrations is truly an exception to the norm. These are the raw materials of a movement.

As a U.S. citizen living in Mexico City, I observe carefully from a distance. It is illegal for foreigners to be involved in protests here. According to the Latin Post, a few foreigners protesting the missing students have been jailed after confrontations with local police. I do not want to give the wrong impression. I usually receive a text message of where the protests will be so I can adjust my route. It can be difficult to walk away, though, when one senses she is seeing something that could be part of a catalyst for real change.

Up against a government in cahoots with powerful drug cartels, the protesters march ahead; at times they have smashed car and building windows and waved bats and thrown firebombs (although these protesters do not make up the main effort of the demonstrations).

What Mexican protesters are doing via the marchas, in a sense, is using whatever resources they have (which, frankly, are not many) to negotiate how large a role the cartels will have in future Mexican politics and society. The end result will have implications outside of Mexico, especially to the north where drug demand remains as insatiable as ever.

Other stories of the victimized, disappeared, and murdered have emerged following the students’ disappearance. In October local police officials maintained ignorance at remains discovered in a number of grave sites in the vicinity of Iguala. Argentine forensic specialists arrived on scene in mid-November to help produce an independent report of the remains found for family members of the victims. Most of the remains analyzed did not belong to the missing students, as reported by CCTV America.

Whose graves are they then?

These are the kinds of questions that have invigorated the marchas over the past weeks. They remind us that a perceived decrease in drug-related violence does not necessarily correspond to an increase in safety or effectiveness in internal security measures. It reflects, more likely, the exercise of more insidious (at times, deadly) control measures used over the media and populace. It shows that a system of parallel government, where both the government and the cartels have a seat at the table, is alive and well in Mexico. And perhaps it illustrates how that system shapes and controls the drug trade and the international community’s perception of it.

In response to the initial rounds of protests, leaders of municipal and state governments have been dismissed. The Federal Police found Iguala’s mayor, who had fled the city after the incident, hiding in the Iztapalapa neighborhood of Mexico City in early November. Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, after a period of silence and a trip to China and Australia to discuss economic opportunities, proposed reforms to clean up the police in early December. Not long after, Mexico City’s chief of police suddenly resigned his post.

Yet Mexicans continue to make pilgrimages of sorts to major cities like the capital. They congregate in masses. Some are old. Some are young. There are some protesters who look like they have traveled a long way, schoolchildren, college students, families, etc. You don’t have to be at the epicenter of the protest to hear the cries that grow louder and more unified by the week: “¡Fuera Peña!” (Get out Peña Nieto) and “¡Justicia!” (Justice).

One thing has become strikingly clear: this is a movement not just against the abduction of the students or the drug cartels alleged to have more power than the government. It is a larger discussion about the role of organized crime in Mexican life.

Additional structure and well defined goals and leadership will determine whether or not this budding movement can cause lasting change in the coming weeks and months—as will the international community’s willingness to force the Mexican government to provide answers.
A number of U.S. cities have organized demonstrations, some asking the U.S. government to cut off the millions of dollars in aid sent to Mexico each year.  According to Al-Jazeera, much of this aid goes toward internal security measures and weapons.

Washington’s long silence in response was confusing. Did it convey a desire to give Mexico autonomy in dealing with its restive population or outright ambivalence? The U.S.’s interests in Mexican drug issues run deep, not solely because of U.S. drug demand or the 2,000-mile long border the countries share.

In mid-December President Barack Obama indicated that the U.S. had offered to assist in tracking down the 43 disappeared, a response that was perhaps too little too late. What U.S. officials could and should do is limit aid to the Mexican government, and reexamine the intricate links between drug policing institutions on each side of the border. The wrongful death of one person in Missouri has captivated U.S. national interest. An inability to bring resolution to the deaths of 43-plus Mexicans and cartel infiltration of the Mexican government has captured markedly less interest. The latter is a shattering example of injustice in Mexico and could have even larger consequences in the U.S. over the longer term.

As I walked home one day in December, there was a huge protest outside of my apartment building. A few days later, there was another one. The protests are becoming unavoidable. Hopefully it will not be much longer before this issue truly becomes unavoidable for both the Mexican government and the international community.

It doesn’t take someone being at ground zero to notice that the protests over the past weeks and months are more than the everyday marcha.  As thousands of Mexicans coalesce around what is an astounding crime—a crime that has much larger implications for Mexican politics and society and the next stage in the so-called “drug war”—we wait to see if answers will be obtained and if Mexican and international power players will step up to the plate.

Ms. Teague is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Vanderbilt University and formerly a U.S. Marine Corps Officer. She is currently a Researcher with the Fulbright Program in Mexico City.

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