Three caravans, led by family members of 43 missing students, began winding their way toward Mexico City last week from Guerrero, Chiapas and Chihuahua. On Thursday they will converge in the capital, where they will join student groups, teachers and rights advocates in a megamarch for justice, culminating at the city’s Zócalo Square — the symbolic heart of Mexico and so often the stage for expressions of popular discontent.
But the caravans’ finish line could also mark a starting point for a new challenge to Mexico’s prevailing social order, of which the 43 students are but the latest victims. And both the venue and the date of Thursday’s rally connect with a deep-rooted revolutionary tradition in Mexico. On the same day, 104 years ago, Francisco Madero, an heir to a powerful family in the state of Coahuila, issued the Plan of San Luis de Potosí denouncing the regime of dictator Porfirio Díaz — and ushering in the Mexican Revolution.
In many ways, today’s uprising mirrors — and is inspired by — that revolt. Although Madero’s insurgency quickly petered out, leaving him to seek refuge in Texas, his rallying cry resonated with the frustrations of peasant workers and indigenous communities throughout Mexico, and it was their determination to fight for their rights that fueled the revolution for years. It is the descendants of those foot soldiers of the revolution who are the parents and classmates of the missing students and are leading what could be the largest uprising in Mexico in decades. Thursday’s protest is no longer simply a cry for justice for the 43 missing students. A swath of Mexican society is demanding the ouster of President Enrique Peña Nieto over his administration’s incompetent investigation into the student disappearances and its efforts to portray the crime as an isolated incident.
More than a hundred years ago, peasants in northern Mexico rose up under the leadership of Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In the south, the legendary Emiliano Zapata led a revolt of indigenous people to reclaim ancestral lands. It’s in Zapata’s erstwhile domain that the Ayotzinapa Normal School, which the missing students attended, was built in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution as part of a teachers’ college system inspired by a radical social vision dedicated to promoting knowledge and social mobility among its mostly poor and indigenous student body.
Today’s revolutionaries are well aware of how deeply the history of the Mexican Revolution still resonates. In 1994, Subcomandante Marcos laid claim to that symbolism when, not far from Ayotzinapa, he launched a rebel movement on New Year’s Day as leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Marcos declared war on the Mexican government on the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement among Mexico, the United States and Canada went into effect. NAFTA, claimed Marcos, would spell death for Mexico’s indigenous people.
The outrage over the missing students and the authorities’ failure to solve the disappearances has spurred thousands across Mexico to demand social justice and government accountability. The Ayotzinapa case, they argue, is not an isolated incident of local government working with drug gangs to repress students and the poor. Instead, the episode reflects a deeply entrenched phenomenon of violence deployed to silence opposition, with a complicit federal government.
Local governments and criminal gangs, critics argue, rule with impunity only because of protection from the federal government. As evidence, they point to Peña Nieto’s botched probe into the student disappearances. It took his administration 10 days to launch an investigation into the case. José Luis Abarca, the former mayor of Iguala pegged by federal authorities as the mastermind of the disappearances, waited days before going into hiding. And Peña Nieto has been widely criticized for not visiting Iguala in the nearly two months since they were taken.
With Peña Nieto’s approval rating in a free fall, his survival may depend on his interpretation of Mexican history. The 1917 constitution that emerged from the Mexican Revolution recognized the demands of Villa’s and Zapata’s followers by instituting radical reforms. The return of lands usurped from indigenous communities, the end of low wages for peasants on haciendas and the right to organize trade unions were all inscribed into the charter.
So far, though, Peña Nieto has focused his mandate on another revolution of sorts. Instead of addressing widespread state corruption and the violence it perpetuates, the president has touted a series of economic reforms, including a historic law that will open up Mexico’s energy sector and lure billions of dollars in foreign investment in order to boost slumping economic growth. Starting next year, oil and gas fields will be put up for grabs for foreign oil companies, ending a 75-year-old monopoly by Pemex, the national oil company.
Although Peña Nieto has been praised abroad for his economic reforms, national sentiment is decidedly against the measures. Six in 10 Mexicans disapprove of the country’s economy and the president’s performance on it. And nearly 60 percent of Mexicans oppose the energy law and the privatization of Mexico’s natural resources, a source of national pride.
And here lies another echo of history. In the early 1900s, technocrats aligned themselves with Díaz and pushed for a centralized political system to replace deeply rooted regionalism. Their influence on Díaz and the steady flow of foreign investment into Mexico since the turn of the century helped bolster a common belief that technocrats were ready to sell Mexico to foreign interests — a fear that helped kick-start the Mexican Revolution.