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“The leadership here wants to paint a picture of Mexico as a stable country, but the reality is completely different,” said Hugo Silva, a student at the National Polytechnic School. “There’s the narcotrafficking and the violence, but you have to look at the situation at its roots. We all have a responsibility for this, but the primary responsibility for the situation belongs to the government.”
International protests preceded the actions in Mexico, which saw three caravans of relatives, classmates and supporters of the missing students, from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, arrive in Mexico City Thursday evening. From three points in the capital, the protesters — wearing black — marched to Zócalo Square, the symbolic heart of Mexico.
“I hope that the government gets the message that its citizens are completely fed up with a government that cannot seem to provide even basic security for its citizens and is incapable of honoring basic human rights,” said Emma Obrador, a member of the rights group Association of Women Embracing Mexico.
The protests were mostly peaceful, despite scattered clashes between masked demonstrators and security forces near the international airport and the National Palace, Peña Nieto’s symbolic residence. At least 15 people were arrested in clashes at Zócalo Square.
Protesters in Zócalo burned an effigy of Peña Nieto, criticizing him for his handling of the case of the missing students. The president didn’t meet with relatives of the students until one month after their disappearance Sept. 26, and he has spent time traveling internationally while protests have raged in Mexico.
Rallies took place in cities across Mexico; the largest outside the capital saw about 10,000 people march in Monterrey, according to local media. In Guerrero, the home state of the missing students, just a few hundred protesters gathered in Chilpancingo because most protesters traveled to Mexico City for the larger protest.
Teachers and students protested in solidarity with the missing normalistas, as students who attend the country’s teacher colleges — which usually train the rural poor — are called. Some students in Chihuahua took over highway tollbooths in protest and allowed cars to pass for free.
Two months ago, the normalistas were raising funds in Iguala to travel to Mexico City for a national march commemorating the massacre of over 300 students by government forces in 1968. But local police opened fire on them — killing six people, including three bystanders. In the aftermath, it was discovered that 43 of the students were missing.
A series of confessions by police officers and drug gang members arrested in the following weeks revealed, according to Mexican officials, that the Iguala mayor and his wife ordered the crackdown because they were worried the protest would interrupt an event they had planned that day. According to a more recent confession from a local gang member, police handed over the students to the gang and ordered their executions.
Despite finding a series of mass graves in the search for the missing students, their bodies have not been found, and supporters continue to demand their safe return — often chanting at protests, “They were taken alive. We want them returned alive.”
Protesters have increasingly called for Peña Nieto to step down, implicating the federal government in the crime against the students. They argue he directly or indirectly allowed the atmosphere of corruption and impunity that allowed for the disappearances.
Since Mexico’s war on drugs began in 2006, over 20,000 people have been disappeared. Before that, the country saw decades of a dirty war, in which tens of thousands who opposed government policies were killed or disappeared. Critics of Peña Nieto’s government argue the same corruption and collusion between drug cartels and government and security forces exists today.
On Thursday, Peña Nieto promoted Alejandro Saavedra Hernández, who was the commander of the 35th Military Zone, in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, to general, Mexican media reported. Hernández’ battalion has been accused by classmates of the missing students of preventing them from going to help their friends on Sept. 26.
Students said members of the Hernández’s battalion detained them after they sought help when police fired on their classmates. They accused the soldiers of being unwilling to intervene and said the battalion could have prevented the second attack, in which the students were allegedly taken by the gang and possibly murdered.
“What we really need protection from is not the narcos. We need protection from the government,” said Manuel García, 46, during Thursday night’s mass protest in Mexico City. “If we talk about security, we need to talk about the narco state and the narco government.”