Mexicans converge on capital for mass protest over missing students

Tens of thousands marched in Mexico City in an peaceful show of anger with the government's response to disappearances

Tens of thousands marched in the capital Thursday demanding that authorities find 43 missing Ayotzinapa college students, seeking to pressure the government on a day usually reserved for the celebration of Mexico's 1910-17 Revolution.

Officials had canceled the traditional Nov. 20 Revolution Day parade, and marchers carrying "mourning" flags with Mexico's red and green national colors substituted by black suggested the country was in no mood for celebration.

"The entire country is outraged," said housewife Nora Jaime. "It is not just them," she added, referring to the 43 young men who haven't been seen since Sept. 26. "There are thousands of disappeared, thousands of clandestine graves, thousands of mothers who don't know where their children are."

The march in Mexico City was overwhelmingly peaceful, in contrast to recent protests that have ended with the burning of government buildings in Guerrero state, where the students disappeared.

After most of the protesters left the square, a small group of masked youths began battling police with rocks and sticks. Police responded with fire extinguishers to put out fires set by the youths and to force them off of the square.

Earlier in the day, about 200 youthful protesters, some with their faces covered by masks or bandannas, clashed with police as they tried to block a main expressway to the international airport. In the evening in the downtown Zócalo Square at the  march, whenever masked protesters tried to join Thursday's march, demonstrators shouted them down with chants of "No violence!" and "Off with the masks!"

The protesters converged on the city's main square, where families of the missing students stood on a platform in front of the National Palace holding poster-sized portraits of their relatives. Amid chants for President Enrique Peña Nieto to step down, family members repeated that they do not believe the government's account that the youths were killed by a drug gang.

"We're not tired," said one man speaking from the platform. "On the contrary, we are mad with this Mexican government and its entire structure, because it has not done anything but deceive the families."

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Security forces were deployed across Mexico City ahead of the evening’s protests, including soldiers in plainclothes. With the exception of one main thoroughfare that leads to the square, many streets and subway stations were barricaded, according to local reports.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of schools across Mexico participated in a national strike, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) — where a police officer opened fire on students this week, injuring two. Activists also reportedly attempted to shut down the Benito Juarez International Airport, which led to clashes with security forces.

Solidarity protests were also staged internationally, with thousands participating across Europe and in at least 43 U.S. cities.  

Protesters in New York City marched from the Mexican consulate to the United Nations headquarters demanding justice for the disappeared students.

"They are calling for the president to resign, for the safe return of the students and to end government corruption," Fernando Montes De Oca, a journalist at the march of about 500, told Al Jazeera. He added that protesters planned to shut down Fifth Avenue on their way to the U.N. 

The movement calling for justice for the missing students has galvanized Mexicans from all walks of life who are upset with the status quo. Peña Nieto had promised to make Mexico safer and pinned hopes on economic progress through a privatization scheme. But for many Mexicans, the reforms have not delivered benefits and the rampant violence perpetrated by drug cartels, as well as corrupt security forces, has not abated.

Three caravans of relatives, classmates and supporters had been traveling through Mexico raising awareness about the disappearance of the students, who are assumed to have been massacred at the behest of crooked officials. In the process, they have been shedding light on government corruption and state repression.

“We are on the way to Mexico City after being in the north of the country for the last week holding meetings with different organizations and mothers of people ‘disappeared’ over the last decade,” Debora Poo Soto, a photojournalist traveling with one of the caravans, told Al Jazeera before the Mexico City march.

The case drawing international attention began on Sept. 26, when students from Ayotzinapa’s Normal school, which trains future teachers, were protesting government-imposed education reforms in Iguala, Guerrero state.

The students, known as “normalistas,” argued such changes would make education unaffordable for many and destroy Mexico’s “Normal” schools — founded after the country’s socialist revolution, the anniversary of which coincides with Thursday’s national strike and protests — which offer free room, board and education to the rural poor and indigenous.

Local police opened fire on the students, killing six and three bystanders. In the aftermath of the attack, 43 students were missing. Following public outcry about their whereabouts, dozens of police officers and local cartel members were arrested. Subsequent confessions suggest Iguala’s mayor and his wife had ordered the attack, fearing the students’ protest would interrupt an event planned for that day.

According to the confessions, local Iguala police handed the 43 students over to a local cartel, which said it executed the young men. Their bodies have not been found, despite the discovery of a series of mass graves throughout Guerrero during the search for the students.

Since then, protesters have taken to the streets throughout Mexico, demanding reform and calling for Peña Nieto and his government to resign. Some of the protests have turned violent, with participants clashing with police.

Peña Nieto said this week that violence would not be tolerated in the protests, and promised that force would be met with force. His warning follows actions in which demonstrators torched a series of government buildings across Guerrero state and the doors of the National Palace — Peña Nieto’s symbolic residence in the capital.

The president — who did not meet with relatives of the disappeared for one month and was traveling internationally as protesters called for justice — accused unspecified groups of seeking to destabilize his government.

"We have seen violent movements which hide behind the grief [over the missing students] to stage protests, the aim of which at times is unclear,” Peña Nieto said Tuesday. “They seem to obey interests to generate instability, to foment social unrest.”

The government has also sought to cast blame for the missing students on cartels — a charge organizers for #YoSoy123, a social movement against Peña Nieto’s PRI party, characterized as a PRI attempt to absolve itself of responsibility. The organizers contend that the government is complicit in the cartels’ crimes because of the culture of impunity officials have produced.

Following a meeting earlier this week with the caravans traveling through Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an armed anti-government group based in the country’s south, issued a statement declaring their support for protesters.

“You are not alone! Your pain is our pain! Your rage is our dignified rage! And we support any actions requiring the safe return of the 43 normalistas disappeared in a criminal act by a bad government,” it read.

The group also called for worldwide action for Ayotzinapa.

With wire services

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